This story was written in another time and place for another purpose. But since September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, I thought I would share this story with a wider audience. If you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.
Veterans Crisis Line: 1-800-273-8255 and press 1
It has been said that for thousands of years, human beings have used the seven elements of the “Hero’s Journey” to tell the stories of existence via mythology, literature, and now, movies. The hero, or heroine, might embark on a Voyage & Return; maybe they go on a Quest, or seek to Overcome a Monster. There might be elements of Comedy & Tragedy while going from Rags to Riches, and often, at the end of the story, there is Rebirth.
But it has also been said that without conflict, there is no story. And so, through the history of the world, a great many of those seven basic stories have been of war:
War compels attention because war, is literally, life during death.
What, then, would be a true account of war? Many of us who have been to war and returned consider it no “Hero’s Journey.” The truths of war are subtle, and found in unexpected places. If the truths of war are subtle, then, so too, must be the truths of life after war; and found in unexpected places.
Many stories of war concern people that want nothing more than to be left alone to put the past behind them. Almost twenty years before his Western film, “Unforgiven,” won him Oscar gold, and almost forty years before “American Sniper,” Clint Eastwood gave us Josey Wales; a taciturn anti-hero who said little and showed much about how difficult it can be to leave war behind.
The Outlaw Josey Wales begins with Josey Wales as a farmer in Missouri, a region contested by both the North and the Southern states in the early days of the Civil War. Josey Wales is suspected by the Union of being a Confederate partisan; his family is killed, his home is burned, and as a result, Josey Wales decides to fight on the Confederate side during the Civil War.
Back when this movie was released, it was not difficult to see the grim stare of Josey Wales in the haunted expressions of returned Vietnam veterans. During their tours of duty many of those men had seen women and children killed and villages burned; and while it may not have been their own wives or children that died, the hollow eyes of those men told how they had not come away from war unscathed.
In the movie, Josey Wales served on the Confederate side with a man named Fletcher. In the last few days of the war, Fletcher had tried to negotiate a peaceful surrender of their unit, but Josey Wales was not quite ready to forgive just yet. The same Union officer that had killed Josey Wales’ family then killed all the members of the unit except for Fletcher and Josey Wales, and forced Fletcher to lead Union bounty hunters after Josey Wales.
The movie continues with Josey Wales heading west while trying to leave the war behind. On his journey, he meets other people like himself that for one reason or another had been displaced. They form an association of those with nothing left to lose, and they head west together to find another, maybe not even better, tomorrow.
But war never tires; and war had not forgotten Josey Wales.
In the last few scenes of the movie, Josey Wales and Fletcher are in a saloon in Texas. Fletcher sees that blood is dripping onto one of Josey Wales’ boots after he was wounded in a gunfight with bounty hunters. The townspeople in the saloon refer to Josey Wales as “Mr. Wilson” to protect Josey Wales’ identity from some bounty hunters; but Fletcher knows who he really is.
The townspeople fall silent when they realize the two men know each other; these are mortal enemies who were once comrades, brothers, even, bound by the bonds of war, blood and immeasurable loss. I watched and listened as two war-weary men spoke these very few short sentences to each other:
Fletcher: “I’m looking for Josey Wales; I think I’ll go down to Mexico to try to find him.”
(Josey Wales speaks): “And then?”
Fletcher: “He’s got the first move. I owe him that. I think I’ll try to tell him the war is over. What do you say, Mr. Wilson?”
(Josey Wales:) “I reckon so. I guess we all died a little in that damn war.”
Fletcher blinked, and without so much as another word being spoken, his expression conveyed pain and loss, sorrow and guilt.
I knew those expressions well; for years, I had seen them in the mirror.
It was though different parts of my soul said those lines, and it was as though the older, hardened me that had made it home from the Gulf War locked away the younger part of me that had been bothered by the war. It was as though the war was something that younger part of my self had done; the older me had left the Army even more determined to survive whatever came after. Like the character of Josey Wales, in the time after war, I had drifted, although in a more modern fashion. I had ended up driving trucks on the road for almost twenty years and about two million miles.
After the war, the older me didn’t care that thinking about all the death and destruction caused the younger me to hurt on the inside.
The older me told the younger me that in war, there are winners and there are losers; and to just suck it up and deal with his doubts or pain.
The older me didn’t care that the younger me wondered if anyone even understood how he felt; if anyone else wondered if life was even worth living anymore in a world where so many human beings had tried so hard to kill each other.
And, as so many of Clint Eastwood’s Western characters do, after he had said his piece, Josey Wales rode away, wounded both in body and in mind: And, just like in real war, the audience only knew part of what had happened, and little to none of what may come. I stared past the screen as the credits rolled, and thought about how just like it had done to Josey Wales, war had resisted my efforts to keep it in my past.
War never tired as it followed me through the trackless nightmare wastelands of what passed for life in my world. War had not forgotten me; and was always ready to call me out into another dusty street for another showdown.
But time passes, and my war fighting youth was long behind me. I was older, slower, and …weary. Just how much, I had learned in my own home one day when I ended up in a room with a gun, a phone, and a choice.
I do not remember all of the minutes that ticked away the hours I spent in that room; and I don’t remember all the reasons why I put down the gun, picked up the phone and called the V.A. Crisis Line.
I do remember telling the therapist who answered the phone that the effects of the war were more than I could handle on my own. The admission that I thought might destroy me, instead lifted a burden from me, as I began to allow myself to believe that others shared this particular struggle for life.
Through the efforts of many caring and concerned people that I met after that phone call, I found a renewed sense of purpose; and I like to think I’ve gained at least a little of the hard-won wisdom that was portrayed by characters like Josey Wales, and yes, even Fletcher.
And now, I share my story of the life after war with others. I try to find the light in life not just for myself; but for my war fighter brothers and sisters that might still be lost in the wasteland. And every time I see some small flicker of hope in their eyes, that there can be life after war, I think of someone I lost a long time ago in all the miles and the years.
I want to find that younger me, and tell him that even though it has been over for a long time, we still carry parts of our war with us.
I want to tell him I wish I wouldn’t have ignored him when he tried to explain how the war had hurt him on the inside. I hope he can forgive me for all the times I told to just suck it up and deal with his doubts and pain.
I want to apologize to that younger me for all the times over the years I looked in the mirror, and watched the light in his eyes slowly dim.
And most of all, after I ended up in a room with a gun, a phone, and a choice, I want to tell that younger me how sorry I am I didn’t listen when he tried to tell me that he wasn’t sure he wanted to live anymore in a world where so many human beings have tried so hard to kill each other.
So even if it takes me twenty more years and two million more miles, I’ll find him. I’ll keep looking until it’s just the two of us; that younger me, and the old man that I have become. When I do find him, he’s got the first move. I owe him that.
And I hope he’ll believe me when I tell him that now, I understand:
I guess we all died a little in our own damn wars.
This story is copyright Traveling Soldier Media, LLC.
“The Outlaw Josey Wales” copyright Warner Brothers Entertainment.