What It Takes

What It Takes

The Return

By Callie Oettinger | Published: March 27, 2015

By veterans, for everyone.

Ernest Hemingway opened his introduction to the anthology Men At War (which he also edited) with:

This book will not tell you how to die. Some cheer-leaders of war can always get out a pamphlet telling the best way to go through that small but necessary business at the end. PM may have published it already in a special Sunday issue with pictures. They might even have it bound up as a companion piece to the issue I read in November 1941 entitled “How We Can Lick Japan in Sixty Days.”

No. This book will not tell you how to die. This book will tell you, though, how all men from the earliest times we know have fought and died. So when you have read it you will know that there are no worse things to be gone through than men have been through before.

When you read the account of Saint Louis the IX’s Crusade you will see that no expeditionary force can ever have to go through anything as bad as those men endured. We have only to fight as well as the men who stayed and fought at Shiloh. It is not necessary that we should fight better. There can be no such thing as better.

It was an anthology, he later wrote, that was for his sons:

This introduction is written by a man, who, having three sons to whom he is responsible in some ways for having brought them into this unspeakably balled-up world, does not feel in any way detached or impersonal about the entire present mess we live in. Therefore, be pleased to regard this introduction as absolutely personal rather than impersonal writing.

This book has been edited in order that those three boys, as they grow to an age where they can appreciate it and use it and will need it, can have the book that will contain truth about war as near as we can come by it, which was lacking to me when I needed it most. It will not replace experience. But it can prepare for and supplement experience. It can serve as a corrective after experience.

I re-read sections of Men At War, knowing my personal battles will never be Shiloh, but that as was his intention for his sons, I can find truth in the anthology — a perspective not my own.

In his book The Return, Dave Danelo tells a story of sitting on a delayed plane in 2005, having just finished a series of interviews with an Iraq war veteran whose friend died alongside him:

As our ground waiting time approached an hour, the man sitting to my left fumed and cursed. He needed a reroute; his schedule was destroyed; something awful (or so he thought) would befall him if immediate action didn’t happen. Unless I found a way off the plane, I was stuck with this guy. Finally, I cut him off in mid-rant. “You know,” I said, “things could be worse.”

It is not always appropriate for veterans to remind civilians they’ve been to war. Sometimes it can be obnoxious, arrogant, or rude. But in this case, I was calm. For me, that’s usually a good indicator to decide whether I should discuss my military identity.

I told my fulminating friend I thought it was a pretty good day when I wasn’t getting mortared and shot at. Besides the risk of our plane crashing, nothing bad would happen to us. We would get where we wanted to go. Everything would work out…. We talked on and off for another two hours. I don’t remember his name.

What I remember was that I gave him perspective. I reminded him of one of the many things my time in the Corps had taught me: do not worry too much about the things you can’t control.

Dave wrote The Return (which is also Black Irish Books’ new title) for veterans, just as Hemingway edited Men At War. However, where Hem wrote of “how all men from the earliest times we know have fought and died” Dave writes of how men have fought and returned. A book written by a veteran, for other veterans, which — also like Hem’s other writings — is just as valuable to civilians.

In The Return, Dave reminds us that real war and “metaphor war” are not the same. But his perspective from the real still very much informs the metaphor.

Just as The War of Art was written by a writer for writers — and then found followers within the military, business, and other sectors — my hope is that The Return, which was written by a veteran for other veterans, will finds itself home within a crossover audience of readers, with a following that grows every year.

Where Resistance is addressed in The War of Art, you will find Exile in The Return. And just as in the first, the second applies to all, via the perspective of someone who fought before us.

What follows are a few excerpts from The Return. I wrote to Steve and Shawn, that I felt a deep connection to the book as I read it. I hope you feel the same.

Though Dave intended it for veterans, word-for-word artists, relatives, friends – and even my own experiences – came to mind. Just as I thank Steve for identifying Resistance, I’m thankful to Dave for verbalizing Exile. With understanding comes healing.

* * *

What Is Exile?

Have you ever achieved a difficult goal? Lost a hundred pounds in a year? Placed first in the shooting competition? Birthed children? Sent them to college? Finished a dissertation? Won the championship? Nailed the big proposal? Closed on the dream house? Finally heard her say yes?

Returning from combat in a foreign land—taking off the warrior’s uniform and coming back as a civilian—is an achievement that should theoretically culminate in euphoria. It’s supposed to be a triumphant feeling—the victorious end of a long journey. What happens instead? As soon as you’re back, you wish you had never returned.

You had worked for years to get where you were. Your family and friends watched and cheered. They saw the deep meaning and purpose you felt when you finished boot camp. They held you and then cried when you walked toward the plane with your comrades, en route to war.

But now you are back again. Back with your friends; your family; your pets. Back in the village you left, with the same people talking about the same things. You fought the good fight, and you thought you would feel amazing. Instead you are bored, empty, depressed, and hopeless. You’re thinking about collecting intelligence on the enemy; dodging rocket propelled grenades and roadside bombs; hunting and killing a fierce, evil foe. They are thinking about what’s for dinner. You thought you were progressing. Instead, you are regressing.

“When I was here, I wanted to be there. When I was there, all I could think of was getting back to the jungle,” said Martin Sheen’s Captain Willard in Apocalypse Now.

That is Exile.

Exile and the Hero

“Almost a century ago, mythologist Joseph Campbell wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which argued that all stories—and lives—follow a similar mythical pattern. Whether it is The Odyssey or Pride and Prejudice or Star Wars or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Campbell believed these universal story myths, as he called them, represented the same quest for meaning, maturity and mastery. The hero or heroine, Campbell thought, was making an identical journey of departure, adventure, and return in an infinite number of forms.”

In story and in life, the hardest part of the hero’s journey is the return. It’s the place where you try to take everything you’ve learned and make it real but you feel like no one else understands. It’s also the part nobody tunes in to watch. There’s nothing exciting about Han Solo grilling on the patio or Gandalf brewing morning coffee. Exile is the trial of silence—the schizophrenia following the thrill.

Although Exile is particularly acute in returning veterans, it isn’t restricted to them. Exile is the letdown that follows any triumphant, climatic victory. It is the theoretical happily-ever-after that never arrived. It is an enduring, empty frustration that you’ve lost the one skill you knew you possessed; the one life you are trying to move on from, but which you can never go back to. And now you don’t know where you belong.

New mothers call it the baby blues. Freshly minted PhDs call it dissertation depression. Olympic athletes call it medal mourning. Buzz Aldrin, one of the only humans to walk on the moon, described Exile as “the melancholy of all things done.”

Defeating Exile Requires Mastery

The hero’s ultimate goal is thriving in two contradictory worlds. The capacity to move comfortably between conflicting philosophical systems comes from wisdom acquired through trials endured. By the story’s end—in myth and life—material and spiritual conflicts coexist, reconciled in a balanced soul. They are in the world, but not of it. Both peace and war are affirmed.

What does mastery of two worlds mean? In The Last Samurai, Ken Watanabe’s Lord Katsumoto appears as contented studying new languages or meditating in his quiet dojo as he does flinging his army into a flanking maneuver or lopping off his enemy’s head. Andy Dufresne, unjustly convicted in The Shawshank Redemption, masters criminal deception and defeats an evil prison boss, illegally smuggling himself out of jail and stealing back his life. Katsumoto used peaceful meditation to focus his warrior awareness, calmed by the thought of “a good death.” Dufresne was a clean man on the outside, but “had to go to prison to become a crook.”

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function,” said F. Scott Fitzgerald. “One should, for example, be able to see things as hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.”

This is what returning requires. This is the end state the homecoming warrior seeks; the emotional and psychological place they are trying to find. Once you have mastered both worlds, you have defeated Exile. This is also why transitioning is so hard. Mastery doesn’t happen overnight.

Accepting any two contradictions as equally meritorious will bring either genius or cognitive dissonance; spiritual tranquility or suicidal despair. Our goal, in both cases, is more of the former and less of the latter. Returning happens each day, as we master the yin and yang of opposite truths. This fills us with freedom, creates clarity and confidence, and brings awareness and meaning as we work to make our combat experiences integral to vibrant, extraordinary civilian lives.

Compete With Yourself

In the 1960 western The Magnificent Seven, Yul Brenner’s lead rogue character, Chris Adams, tries to describe James Coburn’s Britt to the assembling motley crew. He’s the best with a gun and a knife they say, but he has no passion to fight, leaving the group mystified. “If he’s the best with a knife and a gun, with whom does he compete?”

“Himself.”

Competition matters in tribes and communities. Warriors strive for the highest scores in marksmanship and physical prowess. Academics seek superior grades and strong peer-reviewed commentaries. Stockbrokers and CEOs want higher profit margins. Analysts and marketers measure page views, Facebook likes and re-tweets. Everybody wants data to prove they won the day.

As a transitioning veteran, your metric cannot automatically be fitness scores, fancy titles, or financial portfolios. It can be if you want — there’s nothing wrong with that — but that’s the point: your metric can be whatever you choose. It may take time to find the thing you’re looking for, and you should expect your plan to evolve and change as you grow stronger and more confident in who you are and what you offer your community. Your defeat of Exile will give you an individual warrior’s confidence that will be all your own. Mastery is your personal prize.

Comparisons can often create either arrogance (if you believe you’re superior to others) or cowardice (if you think you don’t measure up). Obsessions with evaluations lead back to Exile, not forward to mastery. Don’t measure yourself against anyone else as you pursue your dream.

Instead of comparisons, resolve to compete with yourself and make your best better each day. With a knife or in life, mastery lies in striving for excellence without arrogance, without fear and without a need to prove anything to anyone but you.

To Be Or To Do?

In 2008, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates offered some advice during a speech to a group of senior U.S. Air Force officers. “One day you will take a fork in the road,” he said, paraphrasing Air Force Colonel John Boyd. “You can be somebody. You will have to make compromises and turn your back on your friends. But you will be a member of the club and get promoted and get good assignments.

“Or you can do something—something for your country and for yourself. If you decide to do something, you may not get promoted and you may not get good assignments and you certainly will not be a favorite of your superiors. But you won’t have to compromise yourself.

“To be somebody or to do something. In life there is often a roll call. That’s when you have to make a decision. To be or to do?”

Forget about what it means to “be somebody.” It just doesn’t matter. Instead, look for opportunities to do valuable things for your community, your country and yourself. No organization, corporation, or client will compensate you to be anything. They will, however, pay you to do something.

As a veteran, do you want to be a victim? Of course not. No man or woman who wears the uniform does so hoping others will pity them for serving. But go one step further—why worry about being anything at all? Instead, consider what you will do in the limited time you have on this earth. What of value can you offer to the world?

And in the process, you may find yourself being somebody anyway. Somebody very important.

You will be You.

Brilliance in the Basics

A constant Marine Corps combat mantra is “brilliance in the basics.” This means one must pay attention to little things as a matter of routine so the bigger issues can be smoothed out and overcome quickly. From marksmanship training to meal rotations, warriors obsess over details so they are able to easily and efficiently make decisions when the enemy threatens.

Every civilian profession demands standards as well, and focusing on the simple basics is as important to the citizen as to the warrior. Keeping your email inbox clean or staying punctual on an appointment schedule may not close the deal, secure the promotion, or land the dream job. But making excellence routine in simple tasks shapes the psychological conditions that move you toward mastery. Identifying the basics you need to be a successful civilian and establishing a pattern of doing them daily is as critical to fighting Exile as a function check of your rifle or field assessment of your gear.

The basics of writing involve words, stories, and ideas. Did I choose the correct phrase? Could I have explained that concept more easily? Did I tell the story so returning veterans and their civilian family and friends can connect intellectually, emotionally and energetically?

As a researcher, the basics are different. Am I paying attention to my surroundings? Am I aware of people’s clothing, attitude and shoes? What does their body language indicate? How are they reacting to my presence? What didn’t they tell me when I spoke to them? And why?

Professional civilian endeavors of parenting and partnering require fundamentals. Preparing meals, changing diapers, correcting children, communicating interests, maintaining health, increasing fitness, aligning schedules, and deciding vacations all involve standard routines. Become conscious of these processes and deliberately make time to maintain them.

Establish your essentials, and then be brilliant in the basics that your success requires.

Posted in What It Takes

11 Responses to “The Return”

  1. Mary Doyle
    March 27, 2015 at 5:45 am

    Thanks for a thoughtful post Callie, and congratulations to Black Irish for publishing this title! I trust that your instincts are right – the excerpt suggests Danelo is imparting lessons we can all benefit from. I look forward to reading it. Between the VA scandal and the statistics about the rate of suicide among our veteran population, this empowering book couldn’t come at a better time.

  2. Matt
    March 27, 2015 at 7:40 am

    This is so good and robust. Thank you for the work you do.

  3. March 27, 2015 at 7:42 am

    What a perfect post just before Passover this year, 5775 in the Hebrew calendar. The exile of the Children of Israel is an ancient, well-known story I kept thinking about while reading what you and Dave have to say about Exile. Thanks so much to you both for a great read!

  4. March 27, 2015 at 8:11 am

    Never read an excerpt from a book that made me want to buy it that quickly.

    As a leadership coach I’ve shied away from using war analogies. One because I have never served, and two, out of respect for the brave men and women who’ve fought actual wars and not metaphorical wars.

    I look forward to reading this book to get some perspective I can actually use in my work.

    Thanks so much Callie for such a powerful post.

  5. March 27, 2015 at 8:32 am

    I have been an exile my whole life. Those passages speak to me in a way I wouldn’t have believed a book for soldiers could.

    There’s nothing exciting about Han Solo grilling on the patio or Gandalf brewing morning coffee.

    Yes. That.

    Also, love the reference to one of my favorite literary quotes. I’ve used it so often in my coaching I verbified it: FSFing.

    I think I’ll go buy a copy of The Return and create some peace for myself.

  6. BING
    March 27, 2015 at 10:47 am

    Amazing powerful post, it hit me on so many different levels. In a few minutes I am going to read this entire post to my wife over breakfast and I know we will be disscusing many of the topics. I am 77yrs old and oohh the exile of all the inter battles.
    Thanks for a great post,
    Shalom,
    Bing

  7. Dick Yaeger
    March 27, 2015 at 10:48 am

    Hmm….

  8. March 28, 2015 at 9:24 am

    Dave Danelo nailed it. One swing, and that nail is flush.

    About 4 years after redeploying I heard the term “combat withdrawal”. I was in a training with another 200ish Soldiers about resilience & mental skills.

    This guys asks, “How many of you have deployed?” All but a few hands shot up.

    “How many of you could only think about home the last 90 days or so of your deployment?” Same hands went up.

    “After being home for 30 days, how many of you could only think about going back?”

    I almost burst into tears.

    “Oh yeah, that is combat withdrawal. We all face it.”

    Hey…that would have been nice to know!

    I thought that I had been a madman. Why would I want to live in a plywood box with camel spiders, scorpions, in a country that was stuck in the 7th century–fighting a war that would take at least a generation to win (my personal definition of victory was 2 generations of educating little girls) instead of my home?

    I held this mania down deep. I was frustrated with my home life, work was like the ‘grayed out option’ on a computer screen. How could I share this madness with anyone? I have everything in life? Why am I so unhappy?

    Eventually, this disconnect abates. Things that mattered before matter again. Eventually…

    I never tied this unease to other components of my life. I keenly know the unease that settles once a goal has been accomplished. I’ve felt the…’so what’s next?’ after finishing grad school, a promotion, a victory…but never did the mental gymnastics to recognize that it is a wholehearted effort at mastery that is the key. I’ve eventually just found another goal, not a lifelong creation.

    Thanks for sharing this Callie. Black Irish Books sure has an ability to find talent.

    Dave nailed it. Will purchase “The Return” today.
    bsn

  9. March 29, 2015 at 3:52 pm

    Since I left the Marine Corps I have been trying to figure out what the empty, gnawing, gaping hole in my heart and soul was there for. Now I understand. It was exile; that description is perfect. Thank you much.

  10. Sonja
    April 3, 2015 at 1:14 pm

    I really loved this too! This was beautifully written, and hit home a few times. Thanks for posting this excerpt, Callie.

  11. George in Quito
    April 5, 2015 at 7:11 pm

    I wish I’d had access to this in ’69.