I’m in college now, and one of the things you do in college is write essays. Every now and then one of these essays (which are certainly not rants) have a similar thread to the ones I post here.
So I have an assignment to look at a contemporary depiction of a soldier’s return home in light of a classical work of literature. Said paper is underway.
I’m taking Ulysses as my example, or Odysseus as he’s known in The Odyssey. But the man I want is Ulysses from The Divine Comedy (or as everyone who’s not a literary snob calls it: Dante’s Inferno). See, in the Inferno Dante meets Ulysses in hell.
After the ten year long Trojan war (y’know, Helen, Achilles, the Trojan Horse and all that) and the ten year journey back (cyclops, Scylla and Charybdis, his own trip to the underworld, etc) Ulysses finally returned home to his wife and son.
Thing is, as Ulysses tells Dante, that wasn’t enough for him anymore. He couldn’t sit still. Despite how much he loved his family and kingdom he couldn’t resist that call of adventure, to return to the seas.
And so he does. He assembles his crew once more for a final push, one last hurrah. It’s an epic adventure, crossing seas uncharted and finding lands unknown. But the sea overcomes them and their ship sinks and, as Ulysses tells it, that was it.
Ulysses couldn’t go home.
My contemporary example is The Hurt Locker: Sergeant First Class William James is an EOD technician in Iraq. He’s really good at what he does. Really good.
Then, as the film draws towards its close, his tour comes to an end and he goes home. He’s home with his wife, shopping for groceries. Told to get cereal he’s suddenly overwhelmed by choice. This isn’t what he’s been trained for. He’s a weapon: a machine forged to diffuse bombs. Choosing cereal and shopping are as foreign to him as planting a C4 charge would be to his wife.
He confesses to his infant son that he doesn’t love much, and the one thing he thinks he loves is war. Bomb disposal. So he returns to the battlefield and starts his next tour.
So what’s this theme? This irrepressible call of battle? Why couldn’t life go back to normal?
It’s because they changed. The people who went off to war are not the same who returned. They have skill sets refined for warfare, some of which are not easily translated into civilian life and many of which have no equivalent. Suddenly they feel useless. Like the world they worked so hard to save has no space for them. Shooting bad guys is easy, coping with everyday life is something else entirely.
In Ender’s Game Ender saves the world from the alien invasion. But for him to return to earth would ignite a political storm. So he heads out into space to help start a colony. But even then, life as a mayor/governor is not enough for him. Ender leaves the colony for another, using relativity to stay young as the world ages around him. He cannot stay still: normal life is foreign to him.
Raiden, the player character for most of the second Metal Gear Solid game Sons of LIberty supposedly got his happy ending with his girlfriend at the end of the game. The soldier has beat the bad guy, saved the world, now he rides off into the sunset, right?
In the chronological sequel Guns of the Patriots, however, we find that it’s not the case. During the interim between games Raiden tried to settle down with his girlfriend and live a normal life. But he couldn’t. His almost-forgotten past as a child soldier haunts him and he grows distant and eventually leaves to find a war.
Because there’s always another war, another fight. These people don’t come home. Some, like Raiden and Ulysses, have been at war for so long that that is all they know. Others, like Sergeant James, get off on war: it’s their drug, it’s what they do. There’s no rest for them, because for them rest is torment.
It’s a question we see posed not just in fiction but in reality: once you’ve been through hell where do you go?
Also: buy my book In Transit! There are characters who aren’t sure about home in it too!