I Know this Man
On a recent flight I decided to watch the movie “Logan” again. For any of you unfamiliar with the film, it’s the final installment of the Wolverine character arc (at least with Hugh Jackman as the lead) from the various X-Men movies that have come out over the last two decades. Set in the year 2029, the eponymous hero is now sick and dying, essentially being poisoned by the metal grafted onto his bones.
After a lifetime with the ability to rapidly heal, his body simply can’t do it anymore. He’s isolated himself from society, living in the middle of nowhere outside of El Paso and working as a limo driver. He looks awful – a shell of his former formidable self. He drinks excessively and seems committed to exacerbating his condition and accelerating his own demise through self-destructive behavior. He even carries around a single adamantium bullet for an obvious purpose.
Despite all of this, he engages in one final “mission” with extreme reluctance by helping a young mutant girl (who we find out was genetically engineered using his DNA) to escape the clutches of an evil corporation intent on designing killer mutants to be used as weapons. He agrees to take her to a place called “Eden” in North Dakota, even though he insists it’s not real, but purely a fabrication of comic books only loosely based on the actual exploits of the X-Men.
As I watched this film, I thought about our recent withdrawal from Afghanistan after 20 years of war. As a retired Navy SEAL, I couldn’t help but feel like this character is reflective of me and many other veterans out there. From a timing standpoint, his journey almost directly coincides with that of service members fighting recent conflicts. The first X-men movie came out in 2000, a little over a year before 9/11. “Logan” is the final chapter where his journey as a member of that elite force finally ends.
His personality is also so similar to people like me. A reluctant “hero.” A man who despite being an “animal,” can’t help ultimately doing the right thing. We like him because despite his supernatural abilities, his actions and temperament are those of a normal person. He drinks alcohol and smokes cigars. He’s prone to angry outbursts. Often times, he doesn’t like himself.
I know this man. I can see so much of my former self in the younger version of him. I can equally sympathize with the older Logan as well. I don’t recover the way I used to. My body hurts. I have difficulty concentrating at times. I’m tired and dizzy a lot. On most days, I prefer to be alone in my house.
Here I am, some semblance of Logan. At the end of a decades-long war that I played a very small part in, I don’t know what to think of myself. Did I do the right thing? Am I a good guy? Sometimes I feel like the answer to those questions is “no.” Consequently I’ve had times where I welcomed my own death and contemplated ending my own life. Either because I felt like it’s what I deserve, or because it would be a way to make all the pain, both mental and physical, finally go away. After all, I used to be a superhero of sorts. Now I’m not sure what I am.
Just like Logan, I also get frustrated with the comic book treatment of me and my fellow warriors at times. The media-driven “pure good” versus “pure evil” simplistic narrative of the world. The tendency for people to call me a hero based upon who they think I am or what they think I did. I appreciate it, but it also makes me cringe.
Wrestling with these types of thoughts is a struggle I don’t think is unique to me, or even to veterans in general. But ultimately, they aren’t the right questions to ask. We did what the nation asked of us to the best of our ability. Regardless of outcome, we forged our effort with honor. For those we lost, that should be enough. But for those still here, the larger issue becomes – what do we do now?
As for Logan, in the final scenes of the movie he’s able to save the day one last time before succumbing to his wounds and dying in the service of others. There’s actually something appealing about that. But it’s an option no longer available to me. And the reality is I don’t have a death wish, I just want to have purpose. To be worthy of still being alive.
I don’t know if Afghanistan was “worth it” (whatever that means). But what I eventually realized is that I can make my tiny part in that conflict valuable through my actions now. With that in mind, this is the message I would pass on to my fellow veterans…
You may not be as strong or as fast or as endurant as you once were. Your memory might not be what it used to be. But you don’t have to lock your identity to your past. You can inspire others by whatever you do today. You can teach people what you’ve learned. You can pass on the wisdom that only comes from experience. You can do your best to ensure children become productive members of society. You can be the epitome of qualities that don’t degrade with age like honor, humility, and generosity. And you can be an exemplary parent, spouse, or friend. In short, you can be the best version of what you are, not some version of what you were. Logan never evolved in this way. I dare you to do better.
You can also realize that the thoughts that pop into your head are no different than any other form of media. If most of the nonsense on television and the internet these days makes you roll your eyes, then take the same approach to your own mind. “Logan” is just a story. It’s not true. Whatever you are telling yourself most of the time isn’t either. It’s a narrative. A series. Don’t subscribe to it.
For everyone else, I think most veterans like me appreciate you thanking us for our service. But we would prefer that you focus on what we can still do, instead of what we did. We didn’t join the military for medals or recognition. We did it to serve and defend. To be an intrinsic part of something greater than ourselves. And most of us still want that. Some of the most ethical and hard-working people you will ever find now simply ask to be put to good use at home instead of overseas, at a time when what we can offer is sorely needed here.
At the end of “Logan,” I broke down and cried. The first time I saw the trailer for the movie I did the same thing. The juxtaposition of imagery and music was so powerful. The various scenes from the film are overdubbed with the Johnny Cash cover of the song “Hurt” by Nine Inch Nails. Those lyrics are perfectly aligned with the way many of us veterans feel these days, and have felt for as long as humanity has been fighting wars:
I wear this crown of thorns
Upon my liar’s chair
Full of broken thoughts
I cannot repair
Beneath the stains of time
The feelings disappear
You are someone else
I am still right here
I think we can repair broken thoughts. Or we can choose to ignore them which is just as good. It may even be the same thing. To that point, “Hurt” ends with a message of resentment that we might repair by thinking about it differently:
If could start again
A million miles away
I would keep myself
I would find a way
For many of us, the United States can often feel like it’s a million miles away from Afghanistan, both figuratively and literally. Things may not have turned out the way we wanted over there. But there aren’t any more guns in the valley. Now we are here. Maybe we should all view it as a place to start again. To realize that we can rapidly heal our own invisible wounds if we so desire. To keep ourselves. To find a way.