The Return: A Field Manual for Life After Combat
NOTE: We are extremely excited to announce that Steven Pressfield’s Black Irish Books will be giving away 200 free copies of The Return! All you have to do is head here, load the paperback copy, enter your mailing info and use code RETURNUP in the discount box at checkout! If you’re interested in a case of 40 copies, please contact [email protected]. The SP folks want to get this in the hands of the people who need it the most. Enjoy the read! -Jack Mandaville
By RU Twisted
“Because everyone’s war experience is unique, so is their return home.” –General James Mattis
You know what is incredibly boring to read? Field manuals. Whoever it is in the military writing those things probably got sent to “Airplane Safety Manual Writing School” and got kicked out for being “too dry” so they joined the armed forces.
Which is exactly why I was skeptical of a new book entitled The Return: a Field Manual for Life After Combat by David Danelo and edited by none other than Steven Pressfield. Put that as the subtitle of your work and it’s sure to inspire a giant yawn, followed by E-4s promptly disappearing.
But I am not too proud to admit that I was wrong in my prejudice. The Return is sorely needed and far exceeded my expectations.
Danelo, a Naval Academy graduate and former Marine Corps infantry officer, has undertaken a daunting task with this book, to be sure. But he handles it exactly the way it should be handled—blunt and straightforward, but with the understanding that there are no quick-fixes.
One of the more valuable lessons my father ever taught me was the simple concept that “there is no pixie dust.” There are no short-cuts to most of the problems we face; there are no easy solutions to the biggest issues in the world. Life is a process that requires us to put our nose to the grindstone and work hard at it.
The Return looks at life after combat exactly like that—there is no magical fix. It’s not about putting a motto on a bumper sticker to feel good about yourself. It’s about doing the work to get better, but in ways that actually make sense.
The primary method for conveying this concept comes in a way that combat veterans are all too familiar with—brutal honesty. Danelo doesn’t pull any punches because he knows that doing so would directly subvert his entire purpose.
For example, on the first page of chapter one he gets right to the heart of the matter:
“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.”
It’s hard for a psychologist to address reality in this manner because, to an outsider, it simply doesn’t make sense. But to the warrior it is immediately accessible. Few want to admit that exile—the feeling of being alone after returning to regular life—is a real thing, much less tackling how to deal with it.
“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.”
But deal with it this book certainly does. It’s not just 100+ pages of identifying a problem.
A subject that has come up recently on The Den is another that many seem reluctant to discuss—the veteran who refuses to return from exile. Yes, they came home, but through various means—be it the job they choose or the stories they tell—they are still “in exile” in the sense that they won’t let it go.
“Returning veterans traumatize their family with anger and aggression because they are unwilling to calm down…And they are forever engaged in heroic fantasies because they hate the thought of becoming nasty, worthless, disgusting, boring civilians again.”
Kudos to Danelo for ripping the Band-Aid off of this one. It needs to be repeated and understood.
The first 1/3 of the book is devoted to this subject of exile—the uniqueness of it to every warrior, its lethality, the idea that it can’t be medicated—and it does so in true Marine Corps fashion. Donelo hits each one of those topics with all the subtlety of a General Mattis briefing.
Section two deals with dualities—namely those that war brings about.
“Because war requires disorder, it is incredibly difficult to describe with clarity to those who haven’t been there. In part, confusion propagates exponentially because no warrior’s experience is the same, even when sharing identical circumstances. This chaos impacts anyone who endures it for life. Sometimes warriors can accept this paradox more easily than civilians.”
Understanding these paradoxes and the duality that ensues is crucial to understanding how to move beyond exile. When society doesn’t understand this duality, it’s difficult to reintegrate. But when the warrior can’t even vocalize it to themselves, it becomes nearly impossible.
Danelo is more than willing to tread into murky waters in this regard. There are some things that can’t be explained. The fact that The Return contains chapters entitled “War is beautiful,” “War is Cruelty,” “War is Noble,” and “War is Criminal” all in the same book show that the author is fully willing to admit the strange paradoxes created by conflict. And although none of these topics are expounded on in huge detail (the book is only 144 pages), the fact that their juxtaposition is clearly displayed deserves praise.
The third and final part of the book is about “mastery.” This is by far and away the most complicated subset of the subject of reintegration. How does the warrior move beyond just identifying the problem? How do they master their fear of exile? How do they master their fear of returning from exile?
If there is one failing of the book it is a quality that makes me also want to recommend it—the fact that none of these subjects are given much in-depth treatment. You aren’t going to read 40 pages on how your time, money, and energy should be spent as you try to return. You’ll read a page and a half.
But that is also what makes the book special. General Patton once said, “don’t tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their results.” Danelo’s book doesn’t intend to give you all the answers. Its purpose is to point you in the right direction with a direct-fire, hit-it-and-move-forward approach that is sorely lacking in this particular subject—which is one of great importance.
There are no quick fixes. We need to accept that. Danelo understands it and takes a gritty, bare-knuckle approach to identifying the problem today’s warfighters face by speaking about things honestly while being unafraid to “go there” on tough subjects. Yet he accomplishes this in a relatively short space.
Due to the complexities of this subject, I wanted a chance to speak with Danelo personally about these issues. Oh and about beer, because that’s important.
RU Twisted: Where are you from, when and why did you join the Marine Corps, and what’s your favorite beer?
David Danelo: Like many Americans, I am not sure exactly where I’m from. My family moved often when I was growing up; I did time in Tallahassee, Spokane, Houston, Washington DC, and San Antonio. It was like growing up in a military family, although neither of my parents were in the military at the time. I live in Philadelphia now, where, despite the reputation, it is only actually sunny 56% of the time. But it’s still a great city.
I chose to serve for many reasons. In part, it was because I didn’t want to go to college. Instead, after graduating high school in 1994, I went to the Naval Academy, which is sort of to college as Mars is to, say, Halley’s Comet. They may both be in outer space and moving in a circle, but that’s about all they have in common. I chose the Marine Corps out of Navy in 1998 because… well… because it was the Marines.
Favorite beer? North of the border, Shiner Bock. En el sur, Tecate. In Asia, Tiger. In Europe, anything German or Czech.
RU Twisted: What was your main motivation for writing The Return, and do you feel it is different, better, or has more explosions than other books on the same topic?
DD: I’ve been comparing notes now for over ten years with other men and women who are trying to go from combat into civilian life. Conventional wisdom says veterans are all screwed up when they come home, and it is society’s job to fix them. The Return is different in one sense: I place a lot more emphasis on accepting this enduring awareness of duality between thriving in both war and peace. Yes, civilians should offer veterans gratitude, respect and health care. But no government agency can tell you what to do with your life.
I’m not sure if this message is explosive or not, but my main point is: most of us as veterans are not victims. Nobody forced us to volunteer for our service, and, absent serious Traumatic Brain Injury, it’s up to us as individuals to figure out the tools we need to grow and thrive. Communities and counselors can certainly help, but we have to find the courage to take responsibility for ourselves.
Taking personal responsibility? That’s a crazy idea that is sure to get you labeled as anti-human and probably a half-dozen other mean-sounding names. Yet that’s exactly what I found appealing about the book — it conveys the idea that the individual is ultimately responsible for successful reintegration. Why do you think that is so hard to accept for so many?
It’s hard to accept because it’s hard to do. We love to celebrate freedom as Americans, but we often forget about liberty’s consequences. And I don’t simply mean the obligation to defend it, but the duty we have — most of all, to ourselves — to do something meaningful with our lives. The philosopher Viktor Frankl famously said the Statue of Liberty on the east coast should be balanced with a Statue of Responsibility on the west. Accepting that nobody else can make our lives meaningful forces us to take a strong look in the mirror, figure out who we are, and find a way to authentically live our lives.
RU Twisted: You wrote that prescription drugs may help the combat veteran relax, but they don’t “provide meaning, vision and purpose. [They] cannot motivate you to achieve, evolve or succeed. It won’t make fear go away.” I think there’s a lot that needs to be said on this subject, so can you elaborate just a bit?
DD: First, I am not suggesting there is no place at all for prescription medication in returning from combat. I am not denying the importance for those who need treatment for chemical imbalances in the brain. Every case is different; every person is different; every warrior is different. So I mean no disrespect at all to doctors, psychiatrists, or any medical authority in these comments.
That said: there’s a serious prescription drug abuse problem in the combat veterans community. It’s very easy for this cocktail of pills that go out like candy to become a crutch for veterans to lean on. Add this to the fear of nothing to look forward to — this sense that you’ll never do anything as important for the rest of your life as military service — and the rest of the psychological spiral veterans endure seems pretty normal. Civilian life is terrifying in a different way than combat, and requires a different type of courage.
Do you believe that there is more the military could be doing to prepare combat veterans for their return home? I mean, sure, PowerPoint slide shows are amazing and make us all feel loved, but…
Asking the military to prepare combat veterans for civilian life is kind of like asking priests and nuns about sex. They might have some interesting thoughts on the subject, but ultimately they don’t reflect the right institution to go to for advice.
I don’t know what the best preparation is for each person, but since you’ve read The Return, you know I feel pretty strongly that living a meaningful life as a civilian takes just as much courage as being a successful warrior, it’s just courage re-purposed in a different form.
RU Twisted: What is the biggest factor you have found in your own reintegration?
DD: For me, it has been the belief that, as a combat vet, I have a duty to discover something cool to do with my civilian life and pursue it with excellence. It’s the last scene of Saving Private Ryan. “Earn this. Earn it.” I’m not going to cure cancer or revolutionize wind energy, but I can contribute something as a writer and researcher. That thought keeps me in a good place.