The Solitude of Combat Veterans – Alan Farrell

Ladies and Gentlemens:

Kurt Vonnegut — Corporal Vonnegut — famously told an assembly like this one that his wife had begged him to “bring light into their tunnels” that night. “Can’t do that,” said Vonnegut, since, according to him, the audience would at once sense his duplicity, his mendacity, his insincerity… and have yet another reason for despair. I’ll not likely have much light to bring into any tunnels this night, either.

The remarks I’m about to make to you I’ve made before… in essence at least. I dare to make them again because other veterans seem to approve. I speak mostly to veterans. I don’t have much to say to them, the others, civilians, real people. These remarks, I offer you for the reaction I got from one of them, though, a prison shrink. I speak in prisons a lot. Because some of our buddies wind up in there. Because their service was a Golden Moment in a life gone sour. Because… because no one else will.

 In the event, I’ve just got done saying what I’m about to say to you, when the prison psychologist sidles up to me to announce quietly: “You’ve got it.” The “it,” of course, is Post Stress Traumatic Traumatic Post Stress Disorder Stress… Post. Can never seem to get the malady nor the abbreviation straight. He’s worried about me… that I’m wandering around loose… that I’m talking to his cons. So worried, but so sincere, that I let him make me an appointment at the V.A. for “diagnosis.” Sincerity is a rare pearl.

So I sulk in the stuffy anteroom of the V.A. shrink’s office for the requisite two hours (maybe you have), finally get admitted. He’s a nice guy. Asks me about my war, scans my 201 File, and, after what I take to be clinical scrutiny, announces without preamble: “You’ve got it.” He can snag me, he says, 30 percent disability. Reimbursement, he says, from Uncle Sam, now till the end of my days. Oh, and by the way, he says, there’s a cure. I’m not so sure that I want a cure for 30 percent every month. This inspires him to explain. He takes out a piece of paper and a Magic Marker TM. Now: Anybody who takes out a frickin’ Magic Marker TM to explain something to you thinks you’re a bonehead and by that very gesture says so to God and everybody.

Anyhow. He draws two big circles on a sheet of paper, then twelve small circles. Apples and grapes, you might say. In fact, he does say. The “grapes,” he asserts, stand for the range of emotional response open to a healthy civilian, a normal person: titillation, for instance, then amusement, then pleasure, then joy, then delight and so on across the spectrum through mild distress on through angst — whatever that is — to black depression. The apples? That’s what you got, traumatized veteran: Ecstasy and Despair. But we can fix that for you. We can make you normal.

So here’s my question: Why on earth would anybody want to be normal?

And here’s what triggered that curious episode:

The words of the prophet Jeremiah:

My bowels. My bowels. I am pained at my very heart; my heart maketh a noise in me… [T]hou hast heard, O my soul, the sound of the trumpet, the alarm of war. Destruction upon destruction is cried; for the whole land is spoilt and my curtains… How long shall I see the standard and hear the sound of the trumpet?

I dunno about Jeremiah’s bowels… or his curtains, but I’ve seen the standard and heard the sound of the trumpet. Again. Civilians mooing about that “Thin Red Line of ‘eroes” between them and the Darkness. Again. ‘Course it’s not red any more. Used to be olive drab. Then treetop camouflage. Then woodland. Then chocolate chip. Now pixelated, random computer-generated. Multi-cam next, is it? Progress. The kids are in the soup. Again. Me? I can’t see the front sights of me piece any more. And if I can still lug my rucksack five miles, I need these days to be defibrillated when I get there. Nope. I got something like six Honorable Discharges from Pharaoh’s Army. Your Mom’s gonna be wearing Kevlar before I do. Nope. This one’s on the kids, I’m afraid, the next generation.

I can’t help them. Not those who make the sacrifice in the desert nor those in the cesspool cities of a land that if two troopers from the One Oh One or two Lance Corporals could find on a map a few years ago, I’ll be surprised. Nobody can help… except by trying to build a society Back Here that deserves such a sacrifice.

We gonna win the war? I dunno. They tell me I lost mine. I know I didn’t start it. Soldiers don’t start wars. Civilians do. And civilians say when they’re over. I’m just satisfied right now that these kids, for better or worse, did their duty as God gave them the light to see it. But I want them back. And I worry not about the fight, but about the after: after the war, after the victory, after… God forbid… the defeat, if it come to that. It’s after that things get tricky. After that a soldier needs the real grit and wit. And after that a soldier needs to believe. Anybody can believe before. During? A soldier has company in the fight, in Kandahar or Kabul, Basra or Baghdad. It’s enough to believe in the others during. But after… and I can tell you this having come home from a war: After …a soldier is alone. A batch of them, maybe… but still alone.

Years ago, maybe… when I was still in the Army, my A Team got the mission to support an Air Force escape and evasion exercise. Throw a bunch of downed pilots into the wilderness, let local guerrillas (us) feed them into a clandestine escape net and spirit them out by train just like in The Great Escape to… Baltimore, of all places. So we set up an elaborate underground network: farmhouses, caves, barns, pickup trucks, loads of hay where a guy can hide, fifty-five gallon drums to smuggle the evadees through checkpoints in. We’ve even cozened the Norfolk and Western Railroad out of a boxcar. Sooooo… come midnight, with our escapees safely stowed in that car, we wait for a special train to make a detour, back onto the siding, hook it up, and freight the pilots off to Maree-land. Pretty realistic, seems to us.

Now, for safety’s sake the Railroad requires a Line Administrator on site to supervise any special stop. Sure enough, just before midnight two suit-and-ties show up toting a red lantern. Civilians. We sniff at them disdainfully. One of them wigwags to the train. With a clank she couples the boxcar and chugs out into the night. The other guy — frumpy Babbit from the front office — shuffles off down the track and out onto a trestle bridge over the gorge. He stands there with his hands behind his back, peering up at the cloud-strewn summertime sky, a thousand bucks worth of Burberry overcoat riffling in the night breeze. I edge over respectfully behind him. Wait. He notices me after a while, looks back. “You know,” he says, “Was on a night like this 40 years ago that I jumped into Normandy.”

Who’da thought?

Who’da thought? Then I thought… back to right after my return from Vietnam. I’m working nights at a convenience store just down the road from this very spot. Lousy job. Whores, bums, burnouts, lowlifes. That’s your clientele after midnight in a convenience store. One particular guy I remember drifts in every morning about 0400. Night work. Janitor, maybe. Not much to distinguish him from the rest of the early morning crowd of shadows shuffling around the place. Fingers and teeth yellowed from cigarette smoke. A weathered, leathered face that just dissolves into the colorless crowd of nobodies.

Never says a word. Buys his margarine and macaroni and Miller’s. Plunks down his cash. Hooks a grubby hand around his bag and threads his way out of the place and down the street. Lost in another world. Like the rest of the derelicts. One night, he’s fumbling for his keys, drops them on the floor, sets his wallet on the counter — brown leather, I still remember — and the wallet flops open. Pinned to the inside of it, worn shiny and smooth, with its gold star gleaming out of the center: combat jump badge from that great World War II… Normandy maybe, just like the suit-and-tie.

Who’da thought?

Two guys scarred Out There. Not sure just where or how even. You can lose your life without dying. But the guy who made it to the top and the guy shambling along the bottom are what James Joyce calls in another context “secret messengers.” Citizens among the rest, who look like the rest, talk like the rest, act like the rest… but who know prodigious secrets, wherever they wash up and whatever use they make of them. Who know somber despair but inexplicable laughter, the ache of duty but distrust of inaction. Who know risk and exaltation… and that awful drop though empty air we call failure… and solitude! They know solitude.

Because solitude is what waits for the one who shall have borne the battle. Out There in it together… back here alone. Alone to make way in a scrappy, greedy, civilian world “filching lucre and gulping warm beer,” as Conrad had it. Alone to learn the skills a self-absorbed, hustling, modern society values. Alone to unlearn the deadly skills of the former — and bloody — business. Alone to find a companion — maybe — and alone — maybe — even with that companion over a lifetime… for who can make someone else who hasn’t seen it understand horror, blackness, filth? Incommunicado. Voiceless. Alone. My Railroad president wandered off by himself to face his memories; my Store 24 regular was clearly a man alone with his.

For my two guys, it was the after the battle that they endured, and far longer than the moment of terror in the battle. Did my Railroad exec learn in the dark of war to elbow other men aside, to view all other men as the enemy, to “fight” his way up the corporate ladder just as he fought his way out of the bocages of Normandy? Did he find he could never get close to a wife or children again and turn his energy, perhaps his anger toward some other and solitary goal? Did the Store/24 guy never get out of his parachute harness and shiver in an endless night patrolled by demons he couldn’t get shut of? Did he haul out that tattered wallet and shove his jump badge under the nose of those he’d done wrong to, disappointed, embarrassed? Did he find fewer and fewer citizens Back Here who even knew what it was? Did he keep it because he knew what it was? From what I’ve seen — from a distance, of course — of success, I’d say it’s not necessarily sweeter than failure — which I have seen close up.

Well, that’s what I said that woke up the prison shrink.

And I say again to you that silence is the reward we reserve for you and your buddies, for my Cadets. Silence is the sound of Honor, which speaks no word and lays no tread. And Nothing is the glory of the one who’s done Right. And Alone is the society of those who do it the Hard Way, alone even when they have comrades like themselves in the fight. I’ve gotta hope as a teacher that my Cadets, as a citizen that you and your buddies will have the inner resources, the stuff of inner life, the values in short, to abide the brute loneliness of after, to find the courage to continue the march, to do Right, to live with what they’ve done, you’ve done in our name, to endure that dark hour of frustration, humiliation, failure maybe… or victory, for one or the other is surely waiting Back Here. Unless you opt for those grapes…

My two guys started at the same place and wound up at the far ends of the spectrum. As we measure their distance from that starting point, they seem to return to it: the one guy in the darkness drawn back to a Golden Moment in his life from a lofty vantage point; t’other guy lugging through God knows what gauntlet of shame and frustration that symbol of his Golden Moment. Today we celebrate your Golden Moment. While a whole generation went ganging after its own indulgence, vanity, appetite, you clung to a foolish commitment, to foolish old traditions; as soldiers, sailors, pilots, Marines you honored pointless ritual, suffered the endless, sluggish monotony of duty, raised that flag not just once, or again, or — as has become fashionable now — in time of peril, but every single morning. You stuck it out. You may have had — as we like to say — the camaraderie of brothers or sisters to buck each other up or the dubious support (as we like to say… and say more than do, by the way) of the folks back home, us… but in the end you persevered alone. Just as alone you made that long walk from Out There with a duffle bag fulla pixelated, random computer-generated dirty laundry — along with your bruised dreams, your ecstasy and your despair — Back Here at tour’s end.

And you will be alone, for all the good intentions and solicitude of them, the other, the civilians. Alone. But…together. Your generation, whom us dumbo civilians couldn’t keep out of war, will bear the burden of soldier’s return… alone. And a fresh duty: to complete the lives of your buddies who didn’t make it back, to confect for them a living monument to their memory. Your comfort, such as it is, will come from the knowledge that others of that tiny fraction of the population that fought for us are alone but grappling with the same dilemmas — often small and immediate, often undignified or humiliating, now and then immense and overwhelming — by your persistence courting the risk, by your obstinacy clinging to that Hard Way. Some of you will be stronger than others, but even the strong ones will have their darker moments. Where we can join each other if not relieve each other, we secret messengers, is right here in places like this and on occasions like this — one lousy day of the year, your day, my day, our day, — in the company of each other and of the flag we served. Not much cheer in that kerugma. But there’s the by-God glory.

“I know…” says the prophet Isaiah:

... I know that thou art obstinate, and thy neck is an iron sinew, and thy brow brass…I have shewed thee new things, even hidden things. Behold, I have refined thee, but not with silver; I have [refined] thee…in the furnace of affliction…

Well, all right, then. Why on earth would anybody want to be normal? Thanks for Listening and Lord love the lot of youse.

Note: Alan Ferrell is a long-time friend of Colonel Lang, a fellow Green Beret and Viet Nam veteran. I reprint this in honor of both gentlemen.

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7 Responses to The Solitude of Combat Veterans – Alan Farrell

  1. Fourth and Long says:

    Proshchai Alyoshka (Farewell Alyoshka):
    A beautiful song performed by Gavrik & Mavik (and a wonderful young lady whose name I discreetly decline to learn). And posted to YouTube quite recently. The guy in shades reminds me of Ringo Star (Richard Starkey), drummer for the Beatles (Fab Four). Because of my exceeding refinement and mastery of etiquette, naturally neither the original Russian text nor its English translation is typed out here. For that you must go to the above address in a browser and go to the bottom of the Cyrillic text block and click on the Translate to English button which results in an interlinear presentation alternately in each language. You can even choose “Roman characters” if it is more convenient to follow along that way.

    I excuse myself from charges of “Off Topic” by pointing out that the two gentleman G and M, in their part which answers the introductory verse sung by the lovely and very talented young lady, refer immediately to the masterpiece of Russian literature “Master and Margerita” by M Bulgakov, who by the way was a licensed physician. (

    So it is “Alyoshka” to whom it is said “Farewell.” Is that a reference to the most peace loving, devout and by far most endearing of the four Karamazov brothers – Alyosha – who was studying for the priesthood? To jog memory Alyosha, Dmitri, Ivan and Svidrigailov were the sons of the lecherous father Fyodor Pavlivich (who associated with racketeers) of the great final novel by Dostoevsky. Unknown. (Alert: Rorschach territory). Or another reference to the highest of the high, whose name is in some cults unpronounceable, in some prefaced with El, and in others with the first two letters of Alyosha’s name, which are the same letters beginning the name of “the gracious, the merciful.”

    Is “She is with Seryoga now
    Она с Серёгой теперь” a reference to a Sergei such as the Ru minister of defense Sergei Shoigu or Sergei Brin, co-founder of Google who is Russian? Notice that in “With your Earring
    Со своим Серёжкой” – earring, Seryozhkoi, sounds like Sergei, just as Sergei is similar to Sargent.

    To more cheerful things:
    Kai Metov – Vspomni Menya – Remember Me:
    If there is a point to any of the above it is that there is a whole living breathing loving society unmentioned and also overlooked in discussions such as the ones had here. Forgot: to actual Russians, for all I know, and I don’t, a reference to an Alyoshka may automatically evoke all the above and tons of things I really can’t imagine. Sort of like our many shorthands: “Sure thing Marshall Dillon,” “Bonnie & Clyde”, “That’s not Eliot, as in Eliot Ness, or TS Eliot who wrote .. ?” Now to try to figure out this interesting text which mentions Kurt Vonnegut who wrote Slaughterhouse Five and Sirens of Titan (my favorite). Why does TS Eliot spell toilest and toilets? We don’t know.

  2. Fourth and Long says:

    I read Brigadier General Ferrell’s essay. This is from one of the two volumes of one of my uncle’s war memoirs. He was in Abe Lincoln’s old outfit and fought through the Bulge and onto the Elbe, I think, but would need to check. He was captured and served out the duration of the war sabotaging German construction projects which they thought were just the thing for a six foot four Sicilian American boy originally from Brooklyn to supervise. (He was related to me by law, not ..). From his collection of stories from men of his unit – Proud to be a Railsplitter. I’m taking the liberty to paste it into the dialogue box because this seems to fall under the topic of memory, trauma, war and longish text that might better be linked to. Your call. Matters not to me if you post it. I also want to reply to correspondent ked whose reply to Babeltuap in the previous thread was so powerful, but I have another translated telegram post for that later which is here: (untranslated).


    George W. Lock Company E 335th Infantry

    Now for my service years to start with, not that it matters one way or the other. I joined service in December, 1940 as a regular army serial no. 17021197. That was the 17th Q.M. truck outfit, 2nd Cavalry Division, Fort Riley, Kansas. It was mule pack outfit but when I joined along with 32 others, we became a truck outfit with semi-trailers hauling 8 horses and 8 men and equipment. I made corporal in the third month and was in Tennesse maneuvers, North Carolina maneuvers, and then Arkansas-Louisiana maneuvers, the last one horses against tanks out of Ft. Knox with Lt. Col. George S. Patton.

    We went back to Ft. Riley, Kansas. Then the war started and the 2nd Cavalry was ordered to ride border patrol in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona border along the river against Mexico from December 1941 until June 1942. Back in Camp Funston, Kansas we lost our horses and were given armored equipment. We were in the California desert down from Death Valley to Mexico. Some of us were sent to the African Desert and the rest of us to England.

    I crossed the Channel on June 6th on C.G. LST #17. On July 17 we lost our equipment and became the 3596th Q.M. Trick Company, the start of the Red Ball Express. Again with semi-trailers, we were given three times the number of men. Some could drive and some couldn’t. This took me through the Normandy Campaign and the Northern France Campaign. From September through November I was in the Rhineland Campaign. In November, 1944 I joined the 84th Division, 335th Regiment, E Company. I became a Staff Sergeant after our first engagement.

    I went on to the Elbe River. Being a high point person, I was sent to the 63rd Division, 225th Regiment Company G where I was acting 1st Sergeant. I was home in October 1945.

    Infantry life was quite different than I was used to but it made no difference. I wanted to get home. I had a strong feeling for the Captain there and could see that he was one swell fellow. All I heard him called was Captain Dick. That was good enough for me. On one trip up on the front line, while helping the British, General Montgomery got himself in trouble when the Germans counter attacked there in Holland in the Arnheim bridge area. He called for help. We were that help and were pulled off the Siegfried Line in Germany. We accounted for 112 German pill boxes and bunkers that we had taken up to that time.

    The outfit that relieved us, just fresh from the states, was the 106th Division Golden Lions. While we were in Holland General Von Rumsted counter attacked the 106th area taking that group prisoners plus losing two regiments to him.

    While we were back in Holland doing our best, our Captain Dick was taken prisoner. We got a new Captain, Thompson, and finished that area and were sent to the Roer River for that drive and then on to the Elbe River and were told to wait for the Russians who were headed our way.

    Since things were rather quiet, I asked for a three day pass to Paris. I went there to be with old buddies and friends. I had my 84th Division patches on and was asked quite a few questions about my time in the infantry. When I returned to the Elbe River, my group there was on an ox-bow living on a barge that we had pulled up to act as our CP.

    Back to Captain Dick who was taken prisoner in November 1944. He was taken to Germany and walked toward Poland. One day he had his uniform taken away from him and was given rags to wear. Then he heard that the Russians were close and they were going back to Germany. One night he escaped and went to the Russian lines. They had a hard time believing that he was an American officer wanting to get back to his group. He was told to walk to the Black Sea and then go to Italy and then go on to France and Paris. This being December 1944, Captain Dick started out doing what he was told. He finally arrrived in Paris about April 1945 and was trying his best to find someone who would help him. Someone remembered the Red Ball group and told him to find that group just outside Paris. He went there and asked for help. They told him they had an order to be delivered to the 84th on the Elbe River. One day after I returned to my group, word got out that our old Captain had returned. A day later he came to our group and asked if anyone wanted to attend church services wih him. A few of us went. I was walking just behind him and heard the word Frontenac. I broke in and asked him if Captain meant Frontenac, Kansas. He stopped and turned around and asked just what I knew about Frontenac. A answered, “Why Captain, Frontenac is next to Pittsburgh, Kansas.” He then asked me just what I knew about Pittsburgh. I said, “That is my home.”

    He threw his arms around me and said, “Why, you son of a gun. Why didn’t you say so before?” I answered, “Why, Captain, I never heard you called anything but Captain Dick. Just what is your last name?” He said, “Richard Von Schriltz.”

    We told each other about our lives there on a dirt road in Germany. We had both come form the same town. Captain Dick holds life membership #892 and I hold life membership #1475. Captian Dick died in 1995. His wife and I write to each other. I have her permission to use this story.

  3. SRW says:

    Interesting. From the left coast, Berkeley, an open letter to Jeffrey Sachs on the Russia-Ukraine war.

    • Fourth and Long says:

      Yes it is. This is a month old. MG is everything they say in the intro but succinctly, a “spook,” to boil it all down. Bright man indeed. This will be a review course for most here. There are perspectives that I think Galeotti may not be aware of which maybe canbe discussed later, but those omissions aside I haven’t found anything to disagree with yet up to minute 22. Other than entirely leaving out how unmeasurably severely was the whole huge area and it’s people’s provoked by the West.
      Mark Galeotti – Russia has Defied Predictions of Analysts and Media. What are we Still Getting Wrong.

      Cornered like a rat, Vladimir Putin is more dangerous than ever. We want his regime to be unstable, fragile, and collapsing – but 14 months of war have shown it is remarkably resilient. We wanted the Russian people to rise up against tyranny, but more than a million fled the country instead. Analysts, politicians, and the media have been wrong about so much when it comes to Russia. What are we still getting wrong.

  4. leith says:

    Professor Farrell is a national treasure. I so much liked his film reviews that Colonel Lang had posted in the past, plus of course his essays and poetry. Thanks for posting.

    Great interview Farrell did back in 2007 with one of his VMI Cadets: file:///C:/Users/Mike%20Allen/Downloads/p15821coll13_182-1.pdf

    His closing words ring true to my dumb old ears: “I’m not in favor of war. I’m inclined to think, if we’ve got to have one, everybody goes—everybody. And if women want to squawk—hey, that’s fine. They can come too. We’ll find something for them to do over there—everybody goes. That way, (a) we don’t do it unless we really believe in it and (b) no one group bears the full responsibility.”

  5. Fred says:

    He wrote a wonderful work of poetry too. The introduction is worth the price of the book. “Firs’arn Says He’s Gonna” or as I told a friend, “50cal., a love song”

    I hope he’s still enjoying life on the mountain.

  6. jim ticehurst.. says:

    Having Read SST for 20 years…I Became a Fan of Many Writers there…and
    Loving Poetry….I Was and Am…A “AAF” Alan Farrell Fan…He has a Great…
    Style…And Content…As You Can see Above…Deep…Personal Insight..and

    His Movies Reviews Were Hilarious…Witty..And He Mailed Me His Published
    Book Of Movie Reviews…..”High Cheekbones,Pouty Lips,Tight Jeans” Its Great..
    Signed…”Under To Colors” AAF Also His Book “Expended Casings” on
    Oct..27th 2011 Paratrooper Sergeant in The Great War..

    I Too..Hope He is Well…on His Mountain in Glascow…Grusse AAF..

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