It is often said that rage is hot and red. The first time Ares smiled upon me, rage was cold and black. I was eleven and I had just won my first fight. I had been tormented by a local bully and my mother was tired of hearing about me being chased home. Since my mother was a firm believer in the idea that violence was always an option, she arranged for the bully to confront me alone in my front yard. I watched in terror as the bully agreed to meet after school for the fight. The day of the fight arrived and the bully came to my front yard as my mother watched from a distance. He threw the first punch and my world went black. The next thing I remember is my mother trying to pull me off of him as I straddled his chest and pummeled his face, yelling in berserk rage. I have no memory of how I found myself in that position. As my rage receded and my opponent scrambled to get away and leave my yard, my mother told me she was proud of me and I smiled.
My love of the military started at an early age. When family members would ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up, the only answer was “A soldier.” I had hundreds of toy soldiers and I planned elaborate campaigns that would make Athena proud. Ares would enter the play when the plastic slaughter began and I made realistic sound effects for the weapons and sounds of human agony for the dying soldiers under my hands. A favorite scene that I would reenact was The Battle of The Little Bighorn (Custer’s Last Stand). Strangely, I always pretended that I was with the cavalry and not the tribal warriors, even though I knew how this battle was going to end. Needless to say, when I saw “The 300 Spartans”, I wanted to be there at Thermopylae dying with King Leonidas.
I devoured war movies. Depictions of men in conflict enthralled me. It didn’t matter when the wars took place. I came home from the library with books on military history. I designed and drew uniforms.
And then something happened. My home became a place of real violence. Rage and pain, fueled by alcohol and drugs, became the norm as my family devolved into characters from an episode of “Cops”. I escaped with books or by hiding in the swamp near my backyard. Edith Hamilton’s “Mythology”, Ovid’s “Metamorphoses”, and a large dose of Tolkien kept me sane by showing me other worlds. After reading Hamilton’s book, I fell in love with the gods of Greece, except for Ares. I wanted nothing to do with a god that thrived in battle and violence. I loved Athena most of all. I needed her calm strength and feminine power that was so missing from my mother. Her depiction in an old Classics Illustrated comic probably fueled that desire as well. I still have a thing for women in armor. Ares was not so easily sidelined. During those moments of abandonment, while my mother was out getting her next fix, the blinding rage would overcome me, only letting me return to myself after I had punched or stabbed holes in the walls. When I wasn’t escaping in a book, I was hardening my body with weights. One of my mother’s partners, a kind woman that I still think of as a mother(it was she who introduced me to the old gods and astrology as well), once told me that she watched me walking down the street with fists clenched and a cloud of anger over me. Ares was a constant companion even though I didn’t want him to be. Anger and rage howled for release.
When I turned seventeen, I jumped at the chance to escape my home and become what I had always wanted to be: a soldier. After taking the ASVAB (Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery), I was told that my score was high enough that I “could be anything”. I could choose any MOS (Military Occupational Specialty). There was only one choice for me. I would be an Infantryman (11Bravo). I would be sent to Fort Benning, Georgia that summer.
Getting my head shaved felt like becoming an initiate into a holy order. I thrived during Basic Training. It was one of the best times of my life. I smiled as I saw my body being molded into that of a warrior. I laughed as we yelled “Blood makes the grass grow green!” during bayonet drills. I laughed as we tried to shake off the effects of tear gas, tears and snot flowing down our faces. Ares laughed with me. I became proficient in the tools of death. Most of my fantasies had involved swords, but assault rifles and hand grenades would do. I looked forward to the day when I could be tested against our foes, the Soviets and their “Evil Empire”.
Basic Training was completed, followed by AIT (Advanced Individual Training) the following summer. I had decided to pursue a degree after high school, so I had joined a Reserve Unit. It felt like most of that time was spent in a fighting position (foxhole) waiting for a war that would never come. I spent nights freezing in the woods of Massachusetts. I spent hours among the blueberry bushes of New Brunswick, Canada. I walked the moss-covered landscape of Keflavik, Iceland (It was during a tour of Iceland between exercises that I first learned that people still worshipped the gods that I had only known from mythology. This was 1989). But there were moments that showed me glimpses of Ares’ domain. I howled with joy as my M60 lit up the dark forest like a strobe light with tongues of flame. I felt exhilaration as I led my squad in assaults against the OPFOR. I felt the rush of mortality when bullets raced overhead during a live-fire exercise gone wrong (The order to “shift fire” never reached the machine gunners due to a dead radio battery. Luckily, there were no casualties).
While we trained for war, our dreaded foe, the Soviet Union, disintegrated. What was our purpose now? Our enemy was gone. What would happen to us?
Iraq invaded Kuwait and Desert Storm happened. My battalion, a cold-weather unit trained to defend an airbase in Iceland, was being prepped for a war in the desert. The last I had heard, Iraq was an ally against Iran, but that had changed overnight. We kept on waiting to be called up. The ground assault began on February 24, 1991, the day before my 21st birthday and I remember thinking “I’m going to miss my chance to go bar hopping. There’s no alcohol in Saudi Arabia.” Those thoughts vanished, as one by one and in small groups, people in my dorm came to say “I’m sorry” or “Goodbye”. I felt like I was attending my own funeral. As it turned out, the ground assault was so successful and executed so quickly, that the war was over before my unit was activated. There would be no war for me.
I had changed during my time in college and so had the world. The Soviet Union was gone and now it seemed that we were going to function as police in the Islamic world. It was a policy that I couldn’t take part in because I didn’t believe it was a good policy. When my enlistment was up, I decided not to reenlist. The other sergeants tried to get me to stay. My lieutenant believed in me so much that he wanted me not only to reenlist but to go to Officer Candidate School as well. I felt like my time as a soldier had reached its end, so I left the service. Not long after, I learned that my former battalion was soon disbanded during the budget cuts of the mid-nineties.
Like Ares and Aphrodite, I too found a woman that was able to calm the cold rage with her love and warmth. When I became blind with fury after watching the bodies of American servicemen dragged through the streets of Mogadishu on TV, only she was able to bring me back from the blackness. After the horror of watching the Twin Towers fall had given way to the black rage, only her tears and those of my son kept me from reenlisting. I would not take part in the violence, blood, and pain this time either.
Since I couldn’t go to war, I immersed myself in documentaries and footage from Iraq and Afghanistan. So much so, that I couldn’t sleep from the adrenalin rush of watching troops engage the enemy or from visions of horror: A marine walking by a headless body still cradling a dead child, the face of a suicide bomber lying on the pavement like a discarded mask, bodies torn apart by rifle fire or burned by IEDs. This was where Ares was at home. This bombardment of violence against my senses was changing me to the point that it was impacting my health and my ability to be a husband and a father. I was going to lose my family unless I sought help and freed myself from the leash Ares was holding. My family was worth fighting for.
Now that I’ve reached middle age and the desire to fight and die in battle no longer occupies my thoughts, I find that the rage has faded to the point where it moves slowly, like icy fog, in the far reaches of my mind. I’ve rediscovered the gods and now know that they are real. I’ve even started a relationship with one and worship him. But still, in some quiet moments, I look at my old uniform hanging unused in the closet, and I feel Ares behind me, smiling.