Battleland

On Austin Tice, And the Tug of War

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AUSTIN TICE / AFP / Getty Images

Austin Tice took this photograph of Syrian rebels honing their marksmanship in August, shortly before he was captured.

About a month ago, a friend posted an article — a Facebook post, rather — that Austin Tice wrote before he went missing. Austin is a freelance journalist, fellow Marine, and fellow Georgetown student apparently captured by someone in Syria in August.

In all honesty, the post ended up reading like some sort of Hemingway-esque manifesto. Tice writes:

So that’s why I came here to Syria, and it’s why I like being here now, right now, right in the middle of a brutal and still uncertain civil war. Every person in this country fighting for their freedom wakes up every day and goes to sleep every night with the knowledge that death could visit them at any moment.

I don’t know Tice’s motives for leaving one war-torn country and running into another one, but he did and I think that’s something worth talking about.

The Syrian conflict is a mystery to most of us—myself included; various factions composed of God-knows-who are fighting for God-knows-what, but they’re fighting and they’re fighting for something.

Tangible or intangible, right or wrong, war has a certain gravitational pull that few people understand and few people like to talk about.

Guy Chapman, a veteran of the Western Front of the World War I, wrote about war that, “Once you have lain in her arms, you can admit no other mistress. You may loathe, you may execrate, but you cannot deny her…No wine gives fiercer intoxication, no drug more vivid exaltation.”

To me, a veteran of Afghanistan, these lines speak the truth. Every day that passes, I find myself longing for the visceral reality that is combat. I can safely say it is only in those fleeting moments of a firefight that I’ve felt truly alive.

In a society where the transition from warzone to civilization takes a matter of days, the rapid change tends to leave a rift between two selves. One self is who you were during the war, while the other is who you were before it. Readjusting to the world after deployment is the reunification of these two selves. After merging them together, you are left with the person you have become after experiencing the realties of conflict.

For some people, this rift is never truly closed—the second self tugs at the back of the brain, begging to return to a place where the adrenaline delivered by combat can be reintroduced. For me, this desire for combat is ignited by numerous influences—namely images.

Today, my guilty pleasures are the photographs coming from Syria—the hesitant faces, the Kalashnikovs in hand, and the almost palpable presence of life-versus-death in each frame.

The term has been used often, but “war porn” is something I find myself looking at almost daily. I find that if I stare at the screen long enough, I can almost hear the tap-tap-tap of machine gun fire off in the distance and maybe, just maybe, I’m able to taste the fear that made the grass such a brilliant green and the wind such an all-encompassing sensation of being alive.

I think the reason I find myself so heavily invested in Austin’s story is that I envy him. Somewhere deep in the recesses of my mind, the second self longs for the adventure Tice has thrust upon himself. While I know I don’t speak for all veterans, I can say with confidence that many of us long for one more chance to go back into the breach.

Thomas Gibbons-Neff is a former Marine now studying at Georgetown University.

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