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Of Copper and Strawberries

War is not beautiful.

The reality of true hopelessness, of true fear, of the way a man turns when he’s faced with his own mortality has almost no redeeming qualities. The way God only appears within His soldiers at the moment they die, the tan sandy color of dust and utter demolition, the white flakes that fall from chapped, shredded skin does not interest the eye. There is no love lost between the pure red crimson scarlet color of Revlon lipstick that spills onto the concrete and the gleaming black shaft that brings it about.

But for all the horror of war, you can’t help but admire the terrible majesty of combat. You stare out at a cool, judgmental moon as it rises over the tracer rounds unwinding like brilliant red ribbons. You admire the liquid movements of troops on the move, the opera of sounds and visions and dreams, the glow of sniper rifles and night vision goggles in the dark. Not the darkness of sleep, which has dreams illuminating it, but the darkness nobody sees but fears. You crouch in ambush and observe the orange yellow glow of a fiery grenade, the brilliant sound of machine gun fire and illumination rounds under that same impassive, drugged sky, the pale white and brown and black faces of your comrades as a stirring takes hold within you. It’s not pretty, exactly. It’s astonishing. You hate it, yes, but your eyes do not. Like lightning, like cancer that studs the intestines with pearls, like a killer hurricane, war has the aesthetic purity of absolute moral indifference.

It captivates you. Some say it hypnotizes you. When faced with the unmitigated brutality of what it means to die alive, the politics behind it all don’t matter so much anymore. All things you hate yourself for disappear behind that uniform and eager bright-eyed smile. You don’t need friends or acceptance. You have nothing to prove but the fact that your blood runs as red as anyone else’s. You may have responsibilities, but they seem inconsequential, little nuisances when you have that Colt 9mm SMG in your hands. For the first time in your life, you feel powerful.

Like any drug, war is addicting. Your heart becomes a slave to that gorgeous, graceful way time seems to slow when the adrenaline kicks in. Your eyes search for fluid symmetries that mimic the slithering of compliancy that creeps into your bones when you become aware that your final act is only at the sunset of your soul. Your ears strain in pure silence for the smallest sounds to remind you that the nightmarish daydream never ends. Your nose seeks out the smell of burnt rubber and smoke and machine gun rounds and recoils at the scent of flowers and patience and soft caresses. Your skin longs for the rough sandpapery grit that rubs it into submission, and secretly protests at satin sheets and silken pajamas. Your lips ache for the pressure and pain of your teeth sinking into them, and your tongue longs for the coppery sweet tang of blood and salty harsh slash of sweat and naked desperation.

Later on, even once you become removed consciously, when you understand why the war was fought (if there’s even a why), your subconscious cannot detach itself. The terrible majesty of combat lurks behind seemingly innocent things – a helicopter whirs behind an afternoon fan, a desert wasteland decrepit of victory grows within your mother’s petunias, a sniper skulks by the 24/7 pharmacy on Main Street, the impassive drugged sky shrouds itself in cyan blue. Logically, you know the war is a million miles away and a million years removed, but your subconscious likes to remind you of the little things. They say you’re never more alive than when you’re almost dead. If that’s true – and your experiences seem to confirm it – you’ve been so alive you’ve tasted death on your tongue. It tasted like copper and strawberries and it was more delectable than any food, more addicting than any drug, more powerful than any dream you’ve snuffed out.

By contrast, the mundane safety of civilian life no longer appeals to you. The closest you come to an adrenaline rush is jaywalking in front of a truck driver who didn’t graduate from high school. When your sister cries, it is not tears of the living weeping for the dead, but rather a tantrum of common proportions. When your brother becomes enraged, his rage does not stem from the animal within and it does not drive him to blood lust.

You, on the other hand, feel invincible because you’ve been invincible. Your skin crafts itself from diamonds and steel, your blood pumps through your veins like iron, your heart is made of pure stone.

People can’t understand this. They prefer to believe you just have a God complex. But it’s nearly the opposite. You’re so aware of your own mortality that it ceases to matter. You know you can die, so you invite death. To prove that you are above fear, you embrace the reaper with open arms. You become less and more than humanity.

Copper and strawberries haunt your nightmares. Golden shimmery metal fuses with sharp red flashes every time you close your eyes, and it is always as beautiful as the first time.

War invites you to realize one last thing. It offers you a lot of stone-cold truths and a lot of pretty, dolled-up lies. But if you look underneath all the spice and fear and fluff, you find the truest truth.

You’re never more dead than when you’re almost alive. 

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