“Contention” by Paul Malone

“It is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it.”

-Robert E. Lee

A stroke of luck, you find a branch of hardwood. It’s straight, still green, rigid but with a little give. Break it off at the base and carry it at your side throughout the day. Clear the bark, shave the knots, smooth the length, the spear has to soar. Sharpen one end and plunge it into the coals of your fire. Inspect it, rotate it, and plunge again.

The muscles at your shoulder and back are tense and strained. Sweat, heat, and stink radiate from your body. A thousand blade strokes a day to perfect the swing and make it as much a response as sneezing is to dust. The horse beneath you knows your heart and mind. It responds to the pressure of your thighs; to the commands of the reins and spurs. The horse has done this a thousand times and a thousand times again. It doesn’t flinch at the smell of blood and urine or the sound of the dying. It takes blows as you take blows, it lashes out with its hooves and teeth, it tramples the pulse of men who’ve seen many days in the sun. Together you practice and hone the craft.

The farm’s crop has been cleared. It is the nourishing jewels of the earth that have been plucked, the flotsam litters the dirt. A grey sky and low mist watch as the drill repeats itself again. A bag is stuffed with straw and staked to the ground at fifty yards. A command is barked and the frantic loading sequence starts. Half cock the hammer, and fumble for a charge in your ammo box. Hold the lead in your mouth and rip the charge open with your teeth. It’s only a drill but your hands shake and you lose powder that’s intended for the barrel. Drop in the lead ball, secure it, and ram it home. You quickly glance at the target imagining how you’ll aim. Powder in the pan, aim, and fire. Repeat. “Fix Bayonets!” Scream and kill the straw.

Why do we go to war? We go for many reasons. Usually it’s for self preservation or ideology. Often it is for resources, and material wealth. We go because it is in our blood. We go because we have to go, want to go, and need to go. We go to learn about ourselves and humanity. Some of us, chiefly the young, go there to plant our feet, stand firm in the dirt, stare down Abaddon and proclaim, “Only time will bend my knee.”

Today the world can restrain you. Freedom is subjective. There is no place in society for the violence, vulgarity, and the raw emotion of your primitive mind. You must adhere in your actions. You may not say what you think. You will not have a dissenting opinion for fear of the “morally upright” taking offense. You, who for eons, killed your own for food and water, who judged a child unfit to survive and offered them to the cold rocks and buzzards. You who enslaved and maimed to see your dreams and marks etched into the stone.

There is a trace, a semblance of the past in our culture. A relegation of nature has occurred, banishing a latent spirit to projections on a liquid crystal display; and to ink that dries on the paper and waits for the flame or silverfish.

Why do we go? We go for self preservation and destruction. There is a raging, blinding, shackled, ravenous desire to affirm one’s virility in self preservation. Primitive desires, and instinct, are suppressed by the comforts and niceties of our lives. We bathe in a precariously balanced infrastructure that’s reliant on “modern” and “civilized” behaviour. In war you unfetter the violent and stormy part of yourself and channel it towards an end. There, is the arena in which some men measure their heart. This is where our nature isn’t hampered.

A country will open the coffers and pour the treasure of a nation into a conflict. The training is justified. The sweat and blood spilt onto your own soil was not done so in vain. The miles of grueling marches, the burn of cordite, grit and dirt flaying skin from your body as you crawl across it with the rifle, none of this is futile. It is vindicated, you are justified in your existence. War is grand, you see the purest emotion of human beings. There you find life titrated down to its essence with no frivolity. The dice thunder and slam against the ground and you decide how heavy the numbers are. It’s when you don’t have the hot hand that it gets ugly for you and yours. Someone always loses, and horrible things are done to people; but if that were enough to deter us from the fight we would have stopped long ago. Atrocity and heavy cost quench the fires of war and violence, but never the embers.

The social conditioning mutually experienced by people serves to give us a mostly tranquil existence. Days go by and society marches on, ever testing social theories about how to change this animal’s behaviour, on how to cull out the fire. Yet, the domesticated dog still bites, the horse still gores, and the chimp troop goes to war. The dichotomy of modern war and peace is in fact a reflection of the battle of nature pitted against our will to rise above it. Neither can win, as General Lee alluded to; war is as fulfilling as it is destructive, while peace is as stifling as it is blissful.

Paul Malone grew up in Monterey County, CA with three younger sisters. He joined the Army in 2004 and served in the infantry until 2010. He is graduating from UCSB with a Biology degree and moving on to his next chapter in 2015.