‘War makes mortal enemies of people who’ve never met’

By Brian Van Reet

A novelist and former soldier explains how the mix of boredom and fear turns soldiers into storytellers

If “hurry up and wait” is the army’s unofficial motto, “storyteller” has to be one of the soldier’s many unofficial occupations. War, as they say, comes in long stretches of tedium punctuated by moments of intense terror; so, with plenty of time to kill and anxious boredom to ease, soldiers do what tense and idle people throughout the ages have always done. They talk. They tell each other stories. War stories, sure, but soldiers will shoot the breeze about anything, from the winner of a hypothetical fight between a crocodile and a gorilla, to the nuances of geopolitics, to loved ones back home. Given how war foreshortens mortality, the fear of death – and its corollary, the want of sex – are common topics of conversation even when the focus is ostensibly elsewhere. In any case, the subjunctive mood dominates. What if, what if, what if?

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