Sebastian Junger has written a lot about combat. I have overcome my natural revulsion toward the war reporter who longs to go native (unlike everyone else in the situation, they can return to a safe and comfortable home whenever they want—and that is a profound distinction) enough to admit that he gets a lot of things right. The most important thing he gets right is that as horrible as combat is, there are things that soldiers miss about their experiences. Junger writes that:
One of the unacknowledged things that is really complicated for [veterans] is that they get home out of this hell hole and they find that, actually, home is less comfortable than where they’d come from. These guys get back to civilian society and suddenly the relations they have with those around them, those relations are not solid. They are open to ambiguity and interpretation. And they kind of long for the dangerous security of the bond that happens in a small outpost that’s under attack almost every day.
“The dangerous security” is an interesting turn of phrase. And an accurate one. War is something so simple that it becomes profound. The clichés about it are all true, but they are not the whole truth. To say that war is long stretches of boredom punctuated by brief moments of abject terror is generally true. There is a recognizable truth in it. But it is a kind of weightless truth. A stage set that resembles a building but is not anything anyone could ever actually live in. It is truth in only two dimensions.
War is the most boring thing you can possibly experience. But it makes you into a connoisseur of boredom. You begin to see the intricate patterns of your own mind at work inside of the boredom itself. Nervous staccato rhythms of thought droop into languid melodies. Your reveries eventually feel less desperate. You are no longer lost inside of vast segments of time, but somehow have yourself become part of the flux. You have adapted to it. The boredom is still boredom, only it’s come to feel interesting and natural. I spent 16 months in Iraq during my first deployment and I only remember a handful of moments. The rest were spent wandering inside of my own head, becoming more and more intimate with the shape of my fears, desires and dreams. Walter Benjamin called this type of boredom “The dream bird that hatches the egg of experience.”
Compared to the shocking fascination of boredom, the violence of war felt banal, even scripted. Maybe it’s different for some. The adrenaline high of avoiding and inflicting danger can be an addictive narcotic. But to see a bullet hit someone is to see a person transformed into a body. The thing-ification of a human being and the closing of possibility.
Rattled the empty chariots through the files of battle,
Longing for their noble drivers. But they on the ground
Lay, dearer to the vultures than to their wives
That phrase from The Iliad, “dearer to the vultures,” has always for me been the bedrock reality of war. Whether or not it is politically necessary or morally defensible has nothing to do with this basic truth: force turns people into objects. And death turns us into the ultimate object. A corpse. A twisted mess of exposed nerves and splintered bone. Simone Weil wrote about this eloquently in The Iliad, or The Poem of Force. She describes the human spirit being “swept away” or “modified” by the violence of war, “deformed by the weight of it.” She writes that, “[t]o define force—it is that x that turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing . . . Somebody was here, and the next minute there is nobody here at all.” That part of war, the competition to depopulate the world, does not hold much interest for me. It did not in the moment, and it does not now in retrospect. But there is a lot more that happens while living with a small group of people for long stretches of time in a foreign and dangerous place than is spoken of in The Iliad. The experience of war cannot be reduced to the experience of force.
My first deployment was 16 months long and my second was 12 months. You dream of home when you are gone for so long, but the home you dream of and how you dream of it become disfigured by time. Remembering and forgetting are bound up together and happen both at once. There was a 24-hour diner that I went to while in high school and college where I would escape late suburban nights and order pots of coffee and French fries covered in a plastic neon cheese that would stick to the roof of your mouth. I would sit at a table and read Kerouac for the same reasons that any young person reads Kerouac. I had discovered him mentioned in the liner notes of a Doors album, and for a long time during high school I was the only person I knew who knew of him. So I was ignorant of the cliché of reading Kerouac at night in a diner while drinking coffee. The experience was fresh to me, and I studied his books like naval captains pour over oceanographic maps. The diner itself was not an escape but felt like a holding pen. Or the airlock of a spaceship. It was evidence that somewhere else was possible.
At the beginning of my first deployment I missed the familiarity of the diner. The look of a particular waitress who, wearing her doily-aproned work uniform, appeared much older than she actually was. The cheese on the roof of my mouth. Recognizing the faces of friends through the large glass-walled windows moments before they swung through the double-door entryway. The copper bullet shape of the coffee carafes. Over time, though, the diner had been completely emptied of specificity in my mind, replaced by inchoate desire. By the end of the deployment, I was just sentimental about my dreams of the diner.
Intimacy was responsible for the transformation. Through hours of conversation in small places—in Bradley Fighting Vehicles or guard towers or bunk to bunk—we had articulated these things to each other. Odd confessions, secrets and memories freely wandering inside of our boredom. Not to pass the time necessarily, but to almost alchemically change the medium of time into dense intimate reverie. It was like the weight and importance of our communion in war had retroactively reshaped our memories of home. It had taken simple nostalgia and charged it with more meaning than it could handle. Maybe once or twice in civilian life such conversations were possible. Within the boredom of war, they almost became the norm.
Boys and girls in America have such a sad time together; sophistication demands that they submit to sex immediately without proper preliminary talk. Not courting talk—real straight talk about souls, for life is holy and every moment is precious (Kerouac, On the Road).
The boredom turns out to have been good, and the intimacy that we found inside of it is next to impossible in the world that we would return to. I went back to the diner and it was not the same. The coffee was just coffee. The waitress was rude. My friends had stopped coming. Eventually the property was eaten up by the expansion of a car dealership. This was more than a case of “you can’t go home again.” What Ezra Pound called the “trench-confessions” of war had given the diner meaning. The boredom of war had made these confessions possible. We have been told that a lot of the things we experienced in the war were damaging. A lot of those things might actually be necessary. Or even gifts.
In civilian life you are made to sort through all the war experiences that people tell you are responsible for your dissatisfaction. You are told that it was the war itself which wrecked you and not your return to the commodified world, shallow and brutal as it is. Maybe you will be cast as a victim, wounded forever. Maybe you will be a villain. Or crazy. Damaged. A ghost from a world bereft of coherence and value. But you probably know better. The “dangerous security” that Junger mentioned will follow you like a guilty secret pleasure. And you will long for the truths you learned there together.
As if you could kill time without injuring eternity (Henry David Thoreau, Walden).
War is mostly boredom. Maybe the quality of the boredom is different in different wars, but for an occupying force like the American Army in Iraq, it was mostly waiting.
Or, really, preparation. Clean your weapon. Service your vehicle. Square your equipment away. Tower guard. Hours and hours of tower guard. The cloudless Iraqi sky nearly as brown as the ground below. Years of your life spent staring into it, endlessly shuffling through your consciousness and dreams and lustful reveries until your own thoughts felt alien to you. Much like how handling a word too much strips away everything but the sound, tower guard gives you the bizarre resonance of your own mind.
The point of tower guard is not to dream, obviously. Just the opposite. The point is to cultivate awareness. You scan your field of fire and take in the nuances of your surroundings. The rooftops, sometimes with women hanging laundry. The cars in primary, sun-faded colors. The streets full of humans moving together like a single organism. The contrapuntal darting of children augmenting the primary movement of people in the street below. Or in the countryside. The slow movement of shadows. The distant dust of other American patrols like clouds on the horizon too weak to raise themselves into the sky. The muffled dry hum of faraway noises harmonizing into ambiance.
All together the details form a pattern with which you familiarize yourself. You were to know the pattern of things in order to notice deviations. The man standing still on the corner of the building and staring down into the street. The white pickup truck stopped at a crossroads in the distance. The flat, green, night vision rendering of a man slinking into a canal. What preserved your focus through the monotony of tower guard was the knowledge that if you missed something important, your friends would die. Stare too long into the stars and you give someone just enough time to place an IED at the crossroads. Doze off for a few moments and later that day you could be gathering pieces of your friend to send home. In this sense, boredom was really a kind of immersion in the environment. Merleau-Ponty mentions the artist Cezanne’s immersion into the landscape, beginning with detailed attention and moving toward a kind of existential crescendo of pure contemplation: “He would start by discovering the geological structure of the landscape; then, according to Mme Cezanne, he would halt and gaze, eyes dilated.‘ The landscape thinks itself in me,’ he said, ‘and I am its consciousness.’” What was true for the painter is truer in a broader sense for the soldier peering out of his guard tower, though their intentions are different. Boredom becomes an intervening subject through which we are able to commune with things—objects, memories, notions—beyond our immediate experience. The boredom was dense, but it was also the medium our hopes and fears moved through. The boredom was not empty. We filled it with meaning. We were wide awake inside of our boredom.
On no fruits here does my hunger feast / But finds in their learned lack the self-same taste (Mallarme).
Bernard Stiegler became a philosopher while spending 5 years in a French prison for armed robbery. While trapped inside the prison walls he found a sort of pragmatic asceticism. The emptiness around him was full and his boredom was useful. He writes:
As the days passed, I was discovering that there is no interior milieu, but only, remaining here in my cell and under their mnesic shape, in a sense in a hollow, the remains, the defaults, the artifices of which the world consists and through which it finds its consistence. I no longer lived in the world, but rather in the absence of a world, which presented itself here not only as a default, but as that which is always in default, and as a necessary default [un défaut qu’il faut]—rather than as a lack [manque].
To be in tower guard is to spend time in Stiegler’s cell and to bear a sacral witness to the irreducible world. The silence is muffled by circumstance. Tower guard is a kind of war in miniature. You gather yourself together inside of a vast tediousness in order to focus your mind on a single and supremely worthy objective: Your duty to the people you live with.
War is boredom charged with moral purpose. It is that purpose which energizes the tedium and distinguishes boredom in war from the boredom of the peaceful world. After the war, the problem is not having nothing to do, but having nothing that seems worth doing. The boredom of war is simply a banal fact that lays on top of a formidable and captivating reservoir of vital commitments. The boredom of civilian life is the exact opposite. A mesmerizing husk inadequately covering an infinite regression of banality.
Who experienced this regression more acutely than David Foster Wallace? Wallace, the hulking genius who walked away from the unfinished manuscript later published as The Pale King in order to take his own life. The partially-finished book that he left us describes how boredom permeates the lives of IRS agents working in a Peoria, Illinois regional examination center. Typically Wallace, the narrative fragments into an undulation of perspectives and plots. It is nearly psychedelic and far too entertaining for a book about boredom. To weigh it down and ground it in boredom—to make the structure cohere to the content a la any postmodern author—there is much space given to the mundane facts of tax assessment. Wallace wants the reader to actually experience boredom firsthand. It is an obviously brave move for an author also trying to sell books. But one guesses that Wallace knew he had reached a point in his career where reputation preceded and insulated him. He had earned his artistic freedom.
Maybe dullness is associated with psychic pain because something that’s dull or opaque fails to provide enough stimulation to distract people from some other, deeper type of pain that is always there . . . surely something must lie behind not just Muzak in dull or tedious places anymore but now also actual TV in waiting rooms, supermarkets’ checkouts, airports’ gates, SUVs’ backseats. Walkmen, iPods, BlackBerries, cell phones that attach to your head. This terror of silence with nothing diverting to do (David Foster Wallace, The Pale King)
The terror of silence with nothing to do. Wallace knew that boredom was not just a state, but a fear. The fear of meaninglessness.
Boredom pulls us in two directions at once. On a superficial level it shepherds our attention toward a desire to do something (anything) else. On a deeper level, it distracts us from a profound confrontation with the need to direct our lives toward a core purpose. The characters in The Pale King look for meaning in the past, in stories of their own often brutal and traumatic childhoods. They look for meaning in their jobs with the IRS. Wallace writes in the book:
I learned that the world of men as it exists today is a bureaucracy. This is an obvious truth, of course, though it is also one the ignorance of which causes great suffering. But moreover, I discovered, in the only way that a man ever really learns anything important, the real skill that is required to succeed in a bureaucracy. I mean really succeed: do good, make a difference, serve. I discovered the key. This key is not efficiency, or probity, or insight, or wisdom. It is not political cunning, interpersonal skills, raw IQ, loyalty, vision, or any of the qualities that the bureaucratic world calls virtues, and tests for. The key is a certain capacity that underlies all these qualities, rather the way that an ability to breathe and pump blood underlies all thought and action. The underlying bureaucratic key is the ability to deal with boredom. To function effectively in an environment that precludes everything vital and human. To breathe, so to speak, without air. The key is the ability, whether innate or conditioned, to find the other side of the rote, the picayune, the meaningless, the repetitive, the pointlessly complex. To be, in a word, unborable. It is the key to modern life. If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish.
What he means is that the key to surviving the boredom of modern life is to ignore your appetite for meaning and purpose. You will be able to do anything. The tradeoff is that it will not matter very much.
Boredom is a distraction from our constant battle against nihilism. Seen this way, it is also sort of an extension of nihilism itself. A spiritual torpor the early Christian Fathers called “acedia.” The Latin acedia comes from the Greek akèdia, or “lack of care.” Franciscan Bernard Forthomme wrote that the etymological history of the word is based on the neglect of burying one’s dead—and so the somewhat diluted horror of our contemporary boredom is predicated upon the savagery of an unburied corpse left bloating in the sun. Maybe you recognize the face, but you have neglected the responsibilities that give form to your humanness and have left the body to be gnawed at by animals and the wind. This abdication of responsibility forms the foundation of boredom. This is the atrocious root of its significance.
The ancient Christian desert fathers considered acedia, or the noonday demon, an abdication of spiritual responsibilities. Carelessness in a tragically sublime register. Evagrius of Pontus, author of On The Eight Thoughts, wrote that Acedia:
Attacks the monk . . . and besieges his soul . . . First of all, he makes it appear that the sun moves slowly or not at all, and that the day seems to be fifty hours long. Then he compels the monk to look constantly toward the windows, to jump out of the cell . . . And further, he instills in him a dislike for the place and for the state of life itself, for manual labor, and also the idea that love has disappeared from the brothers and there is no one to console him . . . [the demon] leads him on to a desire for other places where he can easily find the wherewithal to meet his needs and pursue a trade that is easier and more productive.
Jean-Charles Nault reminds us in The Noonday Devil that acedia has two dimensions: one temporal, the other spatial. Time distends into a languid desert. Space contracts into a suffocating prison. The spiritual disease initially manifests as restlessness, causing the monk to want to wander around searching for anything to occupy his idle mind. The second manifestation is a focus on the body. This can be a kind of hypochondria or even, shockingly, gluttony. The third is an aversion to manual work. Unable to qualify the tedium within any context which might give it a larger significance, all work becomes rote. The next manifestation is a little more difficult for a modern mind to understand: neglecting monastic duties. Every little responsibility feels like an unbearable demand. And the final manifestation is a sort of general discouragement through which, according to Nault, “Acedia then urges the monk to abandon the holy way of the heroes, the place where he is residing . . . in other words, abandon the place of spiritual battle.”
It isn’t fair to say that monks in the desert might experience boredom on a grand scale but we do not. We have the same torpor in our own lives, sullen and at best distracted in our secular world. The only difference is that our society’s embrace of transcendent moral or spiritual goals is no longer explicit, and so we have collectively forgotten that they exist as human needs. We suffer the same maladies as the desert monks, but no longer have the means to reorient and cure ourselves. What Nault lists as the manifestations of acedia: restlessness, obsession with the body, dissatisfaction with work and abandonment of the search for deep meaning—are all traits of our contemporary world. We have created a society based on the cultivation of acedia. We gorge ourselves on triviality and call our insatiability freedom.
The philosopher Byung-Chul Han writes in The Burnout Society that:
We owe the cultural achievements of humanity—which include philosophy—to deep contemplative action. Culture presumes an environment in which deep attention is possible. Increasingly, such immersive reflection is being displaced by an entirely different form of attention: hyperattention. A rash change of focus between different tasks, sources of information, and processes characterizes this scattered mode of awareness. Since it also has a low tolerance for boredom, it does not admit the profound idleness that benefits the creative process . . . If sleep represents the high point of bodily relaxation, deep boredom is the peak of mental relaxation. A purely hectic rush produces nothing new.
Han goes on to say that the cure for boredom with walking is not running, but dancing. The cure for boredom with triviality is not a quantifiable increase in frenetic movement, but a deeper meaning in each movement itself.
I spent a lot of time on rooftops in Brooklyn after the war. People would gather there to have parties, cookouts or smoke cigarettes in the sun. Sometimes I would stand at a corner of the roof and imagine I was back on guard tower, scanning my sectors of fire. The horizon was filled with color and undulated with the movement of the city. But I was never able to penetrate beyond the frenetic emptiness of the skyline. Like a thin layer you could peel back to reveal, not a void, but an endless series of thin phenomenological husks. In the desert I had found purpose behind the boredom. In the city I found a frenetic emptiness.
Editorial Note: This is an excerpt from Did You Kill Anyone by Scott Beauchamp (Zero Books), forthcoming Jan. 31, 2020.