Life after Combat: a guest post from Eric McMillan (MAPH 2010)

Eric McMillan’s unit, capturing an arms cache in Iraq (2007)

In response to Nick Fox’s (MAPH 2011) thoughts about military service in the wake of 9/11 Eric McMillan (MAPH 2010) offers a guest reflection on life after combat. Eric was honorably discharged from the US Army having attained the rank of Captain and is working on a book about the life of a soldier. He lives with his wife in Seattle.

Walking from my apartment to campus was like planning a patrol. First, I determined a route I would take. Then I planned an alternate route, a contingency route, an emergency route. I could never get over how many kids I saw walking around listening to iPods instead of paying attention to their surroundings. Every morning, I laid out my packing list and prepared as if I were going outside the wire. As I walked, I watched people’s hands, classified them as “threat/ no threat,” peered around every alleyway before crossing them, watched windows on the second stories of the street. I did this all year in the sun and the rain and snow. It was habit. It was survival. It was what I knew. 

One afternoon, I was in a professor’s office, discussing a paper, when she asked me, “Do you ever find this,” meaning, the kinds of work that we do in academia, “to be absolutely ridiculous?”

I had been admiring the view out her window. There were other things to think about. There was a note from a friend of mine in Iraq. There were my memories: a plume of roiling black smoke covering the Baghdad sky and ash raining down on us; firefights; a pair of feet, mine, slipping on a blood soaked floor; a pair of hands, not mine, reaching for a cigarette next to the corpse of an American soldier who’d been shot in the head by a sniper. I thought about the time I carried one of my men on a stretcher out to a helicopter after a suicide bomber had killed most of his squad. He looked up at me and said, “I’m sorry.” Sorry for what, I wondered. I thought about the fact that I hadn’t breathed a word of this to anyone at school. I thought about the fact that I hadn’t even put any of it on the page. I hadn’t dared to.

I commanded one hundred and sixty-five soldiers for a year in combat, in tough door-to-door fighting. How do you begin to get someone to understand that?

“No,” I told the professor. Then I said, “Yes. Yes, I do think this is ridiculous sometimes.”

She let me in on what might be the most lasting lesson I had from my MAPH year. She told me that I had a lot of “experience.” The university, on the other hand, offered serious critical inquiry, “theory.” She told me, “The two need each other.” Where there’s friction, where experience and theory put pressure on each other, there is great work to be done.

My friends started early in putting pressure on my experience. They asked whether or not I ever felt like exploited labor, a cog in the capitalist/ imperialist American military-industrialist machine. Or I was fundamentally riven by my experience and only “asymptotically approaching” becoming an artist. Or I was a case in point for Post 9/11 trauma studies. That was when I rolled my eyes and reached for another High Life at social hour.

I didn’t fit the theories. When 9/11 happened, I had already been an officer two years, with a deployment under my belt. What’s more, I volunteered. I was committed. I didn’t just do my job because I had to—I was good at it. Sometimes, I even liked the war.

A general once told me that America’s entire armed forces comprises less than one percent of the entire population of the country. Then he started whittling the numbers down. You have to subtract the naval fleets, the air bases, the logistical footprints, the reserves and the bureaucratic architecture from the men and women on the front lines. You’re left with an infinitesimally small number, a fraction of a fraction. If that’s so, you have to ask what can these wars really mean to most Americans?

Conversely, what do most Americans really mean to the warrior class from which I came? I can tell you. We think you are weak-willed and ineffectual and lazy, more interested in pop culture and comfort than what happens to real people in the real world. The military may serve the American people, but we have grown to resent it. It’s a viewpoint entirely undemocratic and unfair—the insulated viewpoint of people living in an insular world, repeated deployments to the Middle East with less than one percent of America’s population.

I like the friends I made in MAPH. They’re good people from all walks of life and every corner of the country. I was grateful to discover them as I was readjusting to civilian life, even if it took entirely too long to do so. Most of my learning happened in my coursework, but probably the most important things I learned were from my friends. I felt uncomfortable at first when people used to thank me for my service. It felt uncomfortable because I was pretty sure that nobody knew what the hell they were thanking me for or at what cost it had come. In time, I grew to understand that I had been too standoffish. And when they put their theories aside and got to know me, that’s when they revealed that they really just wanted to know more about my experience. They wanted me to tell them what war was really like. They needed me to tell them that; they needed to understand.

And when I finally became receptive to that message, I understood my purpose. Trying to help the other ninety-nine percent of Americans understand what Iraq was like, that’s what I was trying to do in my first, awkward attempts in MAPH to become a writer. I’m still trying. I am thankful for all those people who helped put the necessary pressures on me to start my journey.


2 thoughts on “Life after Combat: a guest post from Eric McMillan (MAPH 2010)

  1. Aaron

    Thanks for sharing this Eric! Hope to see more posts soon. While I’ve never served, I do think there’s advantages to a society with mandatory service time for all. You would know better than I about how this would play out, but I imagine if most people served at some point in their lives, they’d have a lot more respect for veterans and military life in general, as well as for the decision process that goes into waging wars. If the draft was in place, maybe the Iraq and related wars would have been more heavily protested and ended earlier. Again, I’m no authority so I have no idea.

  2. Pingback: Life after Combat at the University of Chicago « Eric McMillan

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