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There is a war inside the war that only combat veterans know. They’re not being mysterious when they talk and seem to leave you out. They’d prefer it weren’t that way, but it is.
They go to a place where the nervous system fans out beyond the body like a tree. A tree that is always awake, that responds to every modulation of the atmosphere.
They can tell you about snake brain. And they’ll tell you it never leaves you. They will tell you there is no morality there, only staying alive, only the pack wisdom of wolves. Higher brain functions shut down and the coil at the deep center of the brain comes alive and dispenses its wisdom.
It is not a nice wisdom. It is hard and mean. It lives in the “is” that precedes “should.”
Does this shock you? You who have invested them with your own snake so they’ll live out for you what you deny in yourself? Somebody carries that for you. And they carry it the rest of their lives.
Think about that next time you feel that old patriotic tingle.
Doug Anderson was an infantry corpsman with the first marine division in Vietnam, February 67 through the Tet Offensive of 68. His memoir, Keep Your Head Down, was published by W.W. Norton in 2009.