Post-Traumatic Stress on Mars
Scifi novelist Greg Bear understands the psychology of combat
Greg Bear’s new scifi novel War Dogs has spaceships, Sky Marines, aliens, monsters, mystery and action. It’s fast-paced, fun, exciting, smart. But that’s not why it’s the best war novel I’ve read so far this year.
No, War Dogs is a masterpiece of military fiction because Bear understands fear, guilt and the awfulness of surviving. Near the end of the book — first in a promising series — the narrator, his pal Joe and a dozen fellow Skyrines are on Mars, “the Red,” fleeing an attacking “Antag” alien force, scrambling to reach the relative safety of an underground complex they call “the Drifter.”
The enemy attacks with an airship scattering poison darts on the cowering troopers, who fight each other for the meager shelter of a rocky outcropping.
There’s only room for half of the Skyrines.
Our hero recalls the attack later, back on Earth, where he’s suffering from a condition as old as combat, as old as humanity. Today we call it post-traumatic stress.
“I thought I’d leap over to the good stuff, the easy stuff, all technical and shit, but that’s not how it’s going to be,” the hero says. “I just have to tough it out.”
I cannot escape the burn from what happened in that embracing arm of sand-blasted lava, that little harbor of shelter outside the Drifter’s western gate, filled with Joe’s buddies. That may be the most horrible thing I’ve ever seen — Skyrines trying to pull each other out of cover to avoid the rippling curtains of plunging, swooping, seeking germ needles.
Fear is a drug you need to survive. Without fear, you die quicker; that’s part of basic, that’s what the old guys instill in us when we’re fledglings waiting and eager to fly; fear is your friend, but only in controlled doses, never in such flooding waves that you panic. Panic kills quicker than bullets. Panic turns you into doomed animals.
We panicked, all of us, in the embrace of that drowning giant’s thick lava arm: those under cover, those out in the open, didn’t matter. We would have killed each other rather than face the goddamned needles, and now that stokes my rage, the rage that eats me inside, that makes me less than a human being forever after, not just because I’ve seen my fellow Skyrines die horribly, but because I was forced to want them to die instead of me. I felt that little exultation that no needle was going to hit me, that I’d live to fuck again, maybe fuck their girlfriends, sympathy call, howdy, reporting to duty, sorry, ma’am, he’s not coming back, but I’m here …
Fuck it! Fuck it all. I have so much rage at myself, at the Antags, at everything that made me grew up to be a Skyrine, a fighter across the stars, a heroic asshole coward who gave up being a sappy, naive kid to fight in so many battles, only to panic on the Red, and then, like God is wagging His stony white finger at me, shit, that needle on my arm, just waiting to plunge in, you did not escape, you piss-scared little fuckwad, it’s still here, and it’s going to get you and eat you and you’ll bloat up and burst, but only after you go crazy and somebody has to shoot you to keep you from hurting everyone. …
Expletive expletive expletive. No words bad enough to convey that rage. No such language for what I am, what I feel. Just conjure up a deep, noisy silence, red with flashes of … why red? Not rage! Just deep, holy, animal disappointment, like what every gazelle must feel that falls to a lion, like every dinosaur that heard its sinews snapping and bones crunching under the razor teeth of T. rex. First you panic, then you die, one way or another.
I am no better than dead meat, broken, rotting, carrion, but I’m still here, still ambulatory. I just can’t really tell the tale, not completely.
I did not die.