By Brian Thiem: In my current WIP (that’s Work in Progress for my non-writer friends—the book I’m currently working on), one of my main characters had looked forward to “seeing the elephant,” but once she does, the experience profoundly changes her.
The phrase “seen the elephant” has been around for centuries. It originally meant to experience the world at a significant personal cost. Years ago, people had to travel to Africa to see an elephant, an experience filled with excitement and danger.
More recently, the military coined the phrase to describe the experience of combat, and some police departments use the phrase to define an officer’s experience in a life and death battle.
There are various degrees of seeing the elephant. Some soldiers, especially those who served in Vietnam, only consider soldiers who really saw the elephant as those engaged in close-range firefights, where they could see the faces of the enemy as they traded volleys of bullets. Others qualify anyone who has faced death at the hands of an enemy and prevailed as having seen the elephant.
When I deployed for the Iraq War, I saw how my fellow soldiers experienced their first sighting of the elephant when we were still in Kuwait and the sirens sounded as Scud missiles headed our way. I saw the faces of soldiers preparing to face the elephant when riding in a C-130 amid anti-aircraft fire on a night landing in Baghdad, and when leaving the wire in a HUMVEE to travel along the road to the Green Zone, where roadside bombs, snipers, and suicide bombers killed or wounded soldiers daily.
Some young soldiers and police officers secretly desire to see the elephant. They want to test their courage and skill by facing an opponent determined to kill them. They want to know if they’ll freeze or if they have what it takes to fight and win. However, few cops or soldiers who have faced the elephant in that manner ever want to again. They often end up with more regrets than triumphs.
In my WIP, Simone had spent years in the Army and law enforcement yet had never truly faced the elephant. When she does, she is like an African hunter who had tracked a rogue bull elephant that rampaged villages and killed dozens of people. When the elephant charges her, she has a split second to summon every bit of courage and skill she possesses. Or die.
Those soldiers and police officers who have never seen the elephant might think that once they face the elephant and prevail, it will be easier the next time. But that is far from reality. Seeing the elephant changes you. Some are hardened by the experience, others suffer enormous regret at having taken a human life, some numb their emotions with alcohol or drugs, and others experience various degrees of PTSD or debilitating anxiety. And some take their own lives, as demonstrated by the higher rates of suicide among police and combat veterans.
Although my WIP is about a murder investigation and stopping bad guys from killing again, it also explores the lives of several characters, one of whom had looked forward to seeing the elephant, and how after she sees and conquers it, her life and the lives of those around her are forever changed.