Guns and anger: I know both well as a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan.
During the couple years after I left the army in 2010, I experienced a hair-trigger feeling of volatility that became an increasing concern—just as it was for other ex-military friends that I discussed the matter with.
One veteran referred to it as “The Rage.” Neither of us had known anything like it before, but now it could suddenly surge out of the blue, roaring like a Ferrari, often in the most mundane situations.
“Especially if there was something on the news about Iraq or Afghanistan, or some stupid film with shooting or violence, I would get extremely agitated and argumentative, generally be unable to sleep and go to sleep on my own on the sofa,” my friend told me.
When the trigger was another person, too often I found myself, like my friend, ready to throw a punch. That impulse was accompanied by an unnerving sense that I wasn’t going to be able to stop myself, or at least that I’d have to consciously engage all my mental faculties to hold it back. And I had never thrown a punch in my life: a 10-second “fight” when I was about eight years old that ended with me in a headlock pleading for mercy convinced me that hand-to-hand combat wasn’t something I was called to do.
I don’t think either of us had PTSD in the strict sense—an important point to emphasize, as many veterans have endured far worse. Maybe what we had was somewhere on the lowest end of the PTSD spectrum, but I think it had more to do with the less talked about phenomenon of moral injury, a feeling of existential disorientation that manifests as intense guilt typically about something one did or didn’t do. Both my friend and I found that the brewing anger was usually directed against ourselves.
Our frank discussions led to equally frank countermeasures suggested by my friend, who had clearly looked into resolving the problem.
His eclectic list of rage suppressers ranged from micro-dosing with MDMA (otherwise known as the drug ecstasy) once every six months just to take the edge off, to regularly reading good 19th-century literature and learning to cook tasty organic Mediterranean food.
“I would add that regular sex, in a stable relationship, undoubtedly contributes greatly to the winding down process,” he also noted, before adding “prayer and the New Testament.”
Suffice to say, I did my best to engage with his list. I was more successful in some areas than others, admittedly, but I still felt much better for it. Hence when I read about incels—young men who are “involuntarily celibate” and commiserate online with other incels over the wrongs done to them by women and the world—and white supremacists, all of whom appear particularly angry, I feel a modicum of sympathy toward their personal situations, if not their propositions.
After all, it was that second-century commonsense philosopher king Marcus Aurelius who, drawing on the Peripatetic school of philosophy, argued that “offenses of lust are graver than those of anger: because it is clearly some sort of pain and involuntary spasm which drives the angry man to abandon reason, whereas the lust-led offender has given in to pleasure and seems somehow more abandoned.”
Those incels are arguably succumbing to both offenses—some white supremacists are too, I suspect—but still, anger comes from pain, and such pain needs to be treated effectively if it is to heal. If you just tell an angry man he is a moron, that’s unlikely to resolve the problem.
A similar thing applies to the gun debate. Some of those who oppose guns appear entirely baffled as to why anyone would want a firearm or could be so adamant about defending the right to own one. They are correspondingly dismissive of “gun nuts.”
But the appeal of guns—or any military hardware—is something that all veterans understand. Since 2004, I still can’t quite shake off my adolescent-like crush on Basher-75, the C-130 Spectre gunship kitted out with an absurd arsenal that rained “fire from the sky” onto Iraqi insurgents below.
Or consider the Challenger 2 tank: it’s a good-looking machine, with clean lines, rakish angles, and the cyclops gallium lens of the thermal imager glinting like a giant sapphire in the middle of that armored turret. Aesthetically, it was far better than the Russian sucked-sweet turrets, or, I have to say, the forward-squatting American M1 Abrams.
There is an undeniable, terrible charism about the tank. Whether you drive it or command it or operate the turret, the feeling of gigantic power is exhilarating. It’s the same for all war machines, from the A-10 jet to the nuclear submarine to the automatic rifle.
You are no longer subject to mortality but a dealer in it—though you don’t actually have to do the dealing to gain assurance from the potentiality. Given this, it would be tempting to say all of this only appeals to the insecure.
But as my friend noted back when we were working through The Rage, “I don’t think there’s a human alive who is so ontologically secure that they’d be totally immune to the thrill of death being not something to be feared, but an ally that has come over to your side.”
Indeed, he goes on to surmise that “if you cannot guess or sympathize or intuit this on a personal level, then you will never understand just how psychologically seductive war machines are and be no bloody use at preventing or stopping their use.”
Indeed, that seduction, and the corollary for its prevention, extends to guns. And as with anger, any effective countering needs to be steeped in a more candid appraisal before taking proactive steps—which don’t necessarily equate to elimination.
Even Scripture has time for anger, teaching that it has its place as a natural and necessary emotion—most famously demonstrated in the New Testament when Jesus threw the money lenders out of the temple.
“It’s not a sin to be angry,” writes Ryan McAnnally-Linz, a research scholar at the Yale Center for Faith and Culture. “It’s what you do with your anger that counts.”
McAnnally-Linz says anger is an efficient motivator, spurring us to action, which can be a good thing, especially in the face of overarching injustice. It is, after all, anger that has motivated many to tackle the current state of America’s gun culture.
But as I’ve written before here at TAC, we need to remember the lesson of former secretary of defense Robert McNamara to “empathize with your enemy.” You need to be a bit more mentally supple, thinking outside the box when you consider where your adversary—for the gun controller, this is the gun enthusiast—is coming from.
I don’t miss guns and can happily do without them. For one, carrying a rifle or pistol around all the time was a damn nuisance. The rifle was forever clanging into or getting caught on things. During a tank exercise in Canada, after parking up for night, I wandered off to dig a small hole, drop my trousers, and do the necessary. Once back in the turret, I realized I wasn’t wearing my pistol holster—cue an hour of my gunner and I wandering the darkened prairie with our torches. We found it, though I avoided pistols after that whenever possible.
When it comes to whether I miss a Challenger 2 tank, well, those rakish lines were something to behold. And then there was the magic carpet sensation of the hydro-gas suspension working at speed cross-country, the stabilized 120-mm barrel—now that’s a big gun—uncannily steady. It’s easy to get distracted by and caught up in impressive machinery, just as it is with our emotions.
“Christians are called not to dwell in anger, but to move through it toward constructive action,” McAnnally-Linz says. “Christians are called to respect even those with whom we are angry. If we heed those calls, we will lift up our anger to a higher purpose—and we will remain ready and willing to lay our anger down.”
And perhaps other problems with it too.
James Jeffrey is a freelance journalist who splits his time between the Horn of Africa, the U.S., and the UK, and writes for various international media. Follow him on Twitter @jrfjeffrey.