Still

On Veteran’s Day we thank our veterans for their sacrifices, their patriotism, and their heroism.   We also thank them for not making too much of a fuss.  In What It Is Like to Go to War, Karl Marlantes writes, “If you talk about what you are proud of, you’re bragging.  If you talk about what was painful or sad, you’re whining.  If you talk about brutality, you’re brutal.  Society simply wants us to shut up about all of this.”  Talking just seems to be self-indulgent, to make everyone uncomfortable.

Still….

In June 2009, the gunner in my truck was killed when we were caught in an ambush while on patrol in Khowst province.  The gunner died suddenly; much as Melville writes of a similarly unexpected death in Moby-Dick, the death was a  “speechlessly quick chaotic bundling of a man into eternity.” In his last minute alive, the gunner had fired over 70 rounds from his .50 caliber machine gun.  Now we had to remove his body from the hatch and somebody else had to man the weapon.  We fought on while the dead gunner lay among us in the close confines of the truck interior.  When the battle was over and we arrived back at base, we removed the dead gunner from our truck and prepared him for evacuation by helicopter.

Later that day, a number of senior officers, counselors, and chaplains visited our camp.  All were well-meaning and their activity testified to the fact that the death of an American is treated, as it should be, as a big deal.  Some offered advice on how to cope.  One in particular said something I remember:  “You will not want to talk to everybody about what happened today, but you will need to talk to someone.”

Late that night, I returned to my hooch.  Hours from sleep, I turned on my laptop.  Waiting were the contemporary indicators of love, friendship, and support:  Hotmail (5).  Facebook’s friendly orange and red squares with white names and numbers, like miniature Texas or Alabama football jerseys.  People far away geographically but right there digitally and emotionally.

What was I going to say to them?  What were they going to say to me?

The nostrum, “Be kind, for everyone you know is fighting a big battle,” seems appropriate.  Karl Marlantes describes the internal scream more bluntly:  “So ask the now twenty-year-old combat veteran at the gas station how he felt about killing someone.  His probably angry answer, if he’s honest: ‘Not a fucking thing.’  Ask him when he’s sixty, and if he’s not too drunk to answer, it might come out very differently….”

After World War II, the greatest generation created an archipelego of American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars outposts.  That was smart.  There, for over fifty years, ex-fighting men commiserated and drank out of public eye.  Most of us probably didn’t even realize what was going on.  Vietnam vets didn’t find this support system as comforting, and many took to the streets and hard drugs for community and solace.

Now, the Longest War is winding down.  On what terms will we allow the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan to rejoin our lives?  On what terms will they decide to live among us?

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