The train ride to Mariupol crossed many boundaries, both on the map and in my mind. War for me had always existed behind a clearly delineated line from normal life. There was a stepping off point from the world we hope for to the world as it truly is.
On my journeys to Iraq or Afghanistan there was a final way station. Sometimes in Dubai, or Kuwait, or maybe al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar. It was cut and dry in those wars. There was no ambiguity about where the war began and when you were in it. Those boundaries made it easier to close the curtain on life back home and flip the switch in your mind to be in the right mental state. I knew, going in to those other wars, when to shut down the normal parts of myself to deal with the fear and the awfulness. And I knew, on my way out, when it was OK to finally let down my guard and release the pieces of me that I had locked away.
All of those boundaries were erased in Ukraine. I didn’t know when and where the war began and ended. And did it ever?
In Iraq and Afghanistan I flew into combat on Air Force C-130s, C-17s, Chinooks and Blackhawks. In Ukraine I went to war on the top bunk in a four-person sleeper berth on an overnight train, which I shared during the 23-hour trip from Kyiv to Mariupol with a man and wife and their infant child.
Once, during the night, I saw the mother breastfeeding her child on the lower bunk. Her husband was sleeping. It was silent in the room except for the staccato notes of the passing train tracks. In the dim light of the small lamp over her bed and as the shadows and beams of light traced across the room from the night world streaming by outside the window, we made eye contact. She smiled, and I smiled back awkwardly.
I had wanted very badly to repeat the process I had taught myself in Iraq and Afghanistan. I knew how important it was in a war to shut down the vulnerable parts of your self. You do this to live shallow, delaying the introspection and thinking about what you see until after you have escaped the danger. There is no sanctuary in war where it is safe to be sensitive. Being sensitive will kill you. The war is like a toxic gas that slips through door cracks and unshut windows and permeates your skin and clothing. It sticks to everything, and you will ruin yourself if you waste your time trying to cleanse yourself of it while within its grasp. You just have to let yourself be dirty because there’s no clean in the war; that only happens at home, if ever. Usually the stain is too deep by then anyway. The big lie that gives you hope is that it’ll all be OK when you get back home, and you go on ruining yourself like you really believe it.
But it wasn’t so easy to get dirty in this war. There was too much about this one that felt like home. In the night I listened to the sounds of the train and the gentle cooing of the infant sleeping below.
How is this possible? I thought. Going to Mariupol had been a tough decision. I understood how things could quickly spiral out of control, but I chose to go. And when I stepped aboard the train, in my mind I crossed the threshold dividing peace from war, or so I thought. Hours later, here I was, sharing a sleeper berth with a young family, hurtling south, toward Mariupol and the war. Where would this war begin? When could I finally accept that I was in it? And when I found it, or it found me, would I be ready?