The War Mindset

In sixth grade, I wrote a poem for a school assignment mourning the violence of the Iraq War, simply entitled “War.” My teacher gave me a low score, one of the few grades I remember from elementary school. He said, “it doesn’t speak to your life.” From his perspective, what could a child in America have understood about war?

To many, war exists only in striking images — explosions, dismembered children in hospitals, bombed-out towns. And in numbers — a running count of the thousands killed and displaced flicking across the bottom of the television screen or bolded in the headlines of the morning paper. There’s a raw physicality and gore that is captivating and instantaneous, but it remains contained and far away.

What you may not know is that war is also a state of mind. It’s not as gruesome or as bloody as the physical reality. It’s an omnipresent feeling that you can sense like a mood in a room. It’s an overwhelming subtleness. It’s an emotional repertoire. It’s the tinted lens through which some of us view the world. War still lives in my dad, whose country of Eritrea, in the Horn of Africa, was locked in a thirty-year struggle for independence from its older sibling nation of Ethiopia. Five of my aunts and uncles fought in that war.  Another fled. One of my uncles was swallowed by it years before I was born. While I’ll never understand the firsthand experience of war, I am a first-generation child of war; and I know something about what I call the war mindset.

Growing up, my dad liked to ask a question to tell a humorless joke. “What is the difference between us and a homeless person? One paycheck.” From him, I learned a single interruption could decimate our middle-class American dreams, the bootstraps that we pulled ourselves up by, the ones we hang onto for our lives. Everything in life is precarious is the first lesson of the war mindset. A thin membrane separates the quotidian from calamity, and even as a child, I had a lurking awareness this could be ruptured. I feared the car accident on a parent’s commute, the riptide sweeping my sister away, and the ordinary tragedy of a friend moving away. The loss was always of others — it’s less painful to be the one lost than to lose. That’s the second lesson of the war mindset.

My dad was born of two farmers, who later became metal workers, in Eritrea’s charmed colonial capital, Asmara. With its modernist architecture, sputtering VW bugs, and proclaimed cosmopolitanism, Asmara has long been a symbol of the Eritrean nation. A guardian angel offered my dad a one-year graduate scholarship to study in Chicago in the 1970s. While he was abroad, the fissure between Eritrea and Ethiopia began to widen — the start of the rupture that led to Eritrea’s bloody breakaway. What was supposed to be a yearlong trip had left him stranded across an ocean. He couldn’t return to his country of birth then, and in a real way he never has. War makes him an outsider to the mottled remains of a country no longer recognizable as home. The road you choose to walk down may have no way back. That’s the third lesson of the war mindset.

The force of the violence that fractured the Horn of Africa, propelled my dad to a PhD in the US and to a professorship. Decades later, he travelled to Washington DC, commonly claimed by the Eritrean diaspora as their capital city. In one-room restaurants tucked away off the main streets, at the entrances of parking garages, and behind the wheels of taxis—you can find all the keepers of the Eritrean nation. One day, my dad reencountered an old classmate from his old Ethiopian university as his taxi driver. They didn’t acknowledge their lost connection — the Taxi Driver and the Professor. I imagine how they must have locked eyes for a second in the rearview mirror, a silent mourning for their divergent paths. War creates randomness, sometimes opportunity. There is no equality of fates. That’s another tenet of the war mindset.

A second university acquaintance of my dad’s fared much worse. During the 70’s, there were socialist student movements and protests across universities in Ethiopia. One semester, all the students dropped out and went on strike. My dad, then in his 20’s, followed suit. His friend, a devoted scholar, stayed enrolled. A slender, spectacled, young man, is how I imagine the scholar, with an awkward, bookish nature. Well, a sufficient number of students dropped out, forcing classes to be eventually suspended. By that time, this bookish friend had become a pariah—regarded by the other students as a traitor to the cause. The next time there was a strike, my dad’s friend was the first to drop out. The protest didn’t gather momentum, and classes continued as usual. Out of school and unemployed in wartime, he was called to the front. He died there.

“How can I believe life is fair,” my dad has lamented, “when all of the brightest people I grew up with ended up below ground?”

The view that life is indifferent to how hard you work, to your potential,  and to your desires is the lynchpin of the war mindset. There is no logic. The whole world could be turned upside down and make as much sense and be as fair, if not more fair, than it is right now.

The collective tragedy Eritrea wears as a badge of honor touched my family, too. My dad’s older brother was imprisoned. His younger brother was killed in battle. His youngest brother joined the front as a child, at age 16. He was shot in the head, and he survived. The bullet remains lodged in his skull. Employed in the government now, with a wife and six children, he defiantly crowned our crumbling family property, Villa Asmara, in the run-down capital. Doctors have examined his injury many times and concluded that as risky as it is now, it could be fatal to extract. Sometimes it’s better to let the pain and wound of the bullet buried in your flesh stay there, that’s another lesson I learned from the war mindset.

I don’t want to make it sound like the war mindset is a depressing one. It’s not all fatalism. Since life is random and uncontrollable, all achievements feel like gifts. Success is blissfully unearned. War children, like me, never received allowances—we were not taught the values of predictability and planning. Instead, my dad released a flutter of bills from over our second-floor balcony, a parody of the Eritrean dictator’s famed stunts.

The things in life I feel proud of — my prestigious education, published articles, professional promotions — are like the evening primroses in my neighbor’s garden, blooming privately in the darkness. I am grateful for the good. That feels rare in the land of meritocracy I’ve grown up in, where our life outcomes are thought of as a reflection of our efforts. When some of my friends and colleagues confront failure, their voices belie deprivation of something earned more than a loss of something almost gained. The war mindset is the antithesis of entitlement. It’s hard to feel ownership of all the offerings my privileged life has given me. I see the mirror image of myself in my family, trapped today in the repressive regime in Eritrea. By what standards do we measure achievement when I have everything, and they have only aspirations facing a closed border and a closed world?

These are things I’ve learned, intuited, and inherited. War is both intense and bounded at the same time. It creeps into the places you would never expect it, into decades, into children, and into the homes of middle-class people in wealthy countries. Unlike physical damage, the war mindset is passed on, its trauma written into our genetic code. The war mindset leaves wounds that never fully heal. They fester, with conflict that oozes from one next generation to the next. 

Thinking back to my elementary school teacher, I can understand how a poem about war with lines like “bombs and devastation slaying pure hearts” may not have conformed to his idea of writing produced by a child. That’s why I silently accepted his remark. What I know now is that war is part of who I am.

Waverly Woldemichael (she/her) is an aspiring writer of Eritrean-American heritage based in California. She is a student of Migration and Diasporas, and she often writes on migration and cross-cultural topics based on her lived experiences and that of her family members. She’s currently working on a longer fiction project related to migrant crossings in the Mediterranean.

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