Thursday, November 12, 2015

A Morning After Veteran's Day Reflection

Among my earliest memories is riding in the car as my father stopped near the Shelbyville, Illinois post office, handed some money to the old men taking a collection, and was given a red poppy.  I asked him who the old men were and why he would give them money for such a cheap and goofy looking fake flower.  His response was the first of many lessons I have taken away from Veteran's Day.

Let's call the year 1980.  Veterans from the First War were rare, but you still knew who they were and where they lived.   I did not need to be instructed to listen politely.  The stories they told of their youth were hard for a second grader to understand but I understood that I had the privilege of hearing the voice of a dying breed.

Honor their service, share their nightmares.
It would be another 18 years before Tom Brokaw popularized the term "Greatest Generation."  Veterans of the Second War were still teaching in our schools and working in our factories.  I would soon be reading about those battles in the Encyclopedia Americana kept in every Middle School classroom, but I was already hearing the names in hushed tones.

"He was in a POW camp after the Bulge but don't ask him about it."
"He was at D-Day but you'd never know it."
"His sister told me he was a marine and made some landings in the Pacific, but other than Guadalcanal no one seems to know which ones."

It was only later that I learned about PTSD.

In 1980 the Korean Vets were still yet to be remembered.  I was in High School before I learned the name of even one.  When I did learn their names, however, I learned about fingers lost to frostbite and lingering fear, not dislike but fear, of the cold.

In 1980 the Vietnam Veterans had barely returned from their war.  In the mid-80's my Middle School PE instructor barked like a drill sergeant giving orders, "Line up, men!"  "Take another lap around the track men!"  "Pick up the pace men!"  In retrospect, I kind of love the guy.  At the time, I was just confused.  "Can't I please grow some arm pit hair first?"

From him and others we'd learn what it was like to call napalm in on your own position as you were on the verge of being over-run and what it was like to be shot in the butt as you were retreating to a waiting helicopter.

When a modest Vietnam War memorial was dedicated in my hometown, Dad pulled me out of school.  I was underwhelmed by the monument itself.  I was overcome by the tears of the men who gathered in the drizzle for the service.

The horror of war, the mental scars of combat, the costs entailed in forging "the American Century," these were a visceral part of my small town youth.  That America is fading quickly.

Shelbyville, Il
We speak of the greatness of our veterans, and I will not deny it, but the one's who fashioned my character did not want to be idolized for their service.  They were mostly concerned that my generation understand the horrors of war that we should not enter it lightly.

They were proud of their children who entered military service but they were also proud that their generations' diplomatic efforts had structured a world order where many of us, myself included, could say, "My country does not need me to learn to dig a foxhole."

Presently we are entering the 15th year of continuous, low-intensity war and the costs of conflict have receded into the background.  Diplomacy, compromise, and the understanding that we living with evil while seeking to non-violently expose it, is often the preferred alternative is confused with appeasement.  The service of our veterans is exalted but the horrors of industrialized death they suffered is hushed as unpatriotic.

The Homefront has its own horrors.

The First World War was not the first global conflict and this is not the first time the West has forgotten the lessons unlimited warfare.

After the veterans of the Napoleonic Wars had died, the glories of the battles and the service of soldiers became a fetish for the young men of late Victorian and Edwardian Europe.  The near continuous skirmishes of low intensity colonial wars which ill-prepared native peoples against Europe's might both normalized and sanitized popular conceptions of what conflict entailed.

In the popular imagination war became a thing of glory, victory, and the march of civilization.  In important matter a little delusion can deal out immense suffering.

  • European delusion gave way to insanity and insanity marched to Gallipoli and over 100,000 died.
  • It marched to Passchendaele where over 600,000 drown in the mud.
  • It marched to the Somme and over a million were killed or wounded.

It marched to a thousand other battlefields and when it was all over the suffering was so great that European civilizations, which had already been nursing severe doubts, decided that God must truly be dead.

Predictions are difficult, especially when it comes to the future but homo sapiens has not substantially evolved in the three generations since my grandfather volunteered to fight in the Second War, the five generations since the First War, the seven since Antietam, or the or the nine generations since Waterloo.  History doesn't repeat itself but I am starting to hear a rhyme.

I am not a pacifist.  I understand and accept that sometimes we must send our young people into harm's way and undertake the risks of making some other poor bastard die for his country.

I also know, however, that the cure to an imperfect peace can be worse than the condition.  I respect our soldiers and our veterans but I still hold that it is the diplomat who ends or avoids a war who saves more lives than a thousand Sergeant Yorks.  I honor those who came back home, but wonder if we have forgotten about those we never knew because they did not return.

Listening to co-workers and friends, watching my Facebook feed, attending a school districts Veteran's Day commemoration, I recognize that I am in the minority.  As the father of two soon-to-be young men, I am concerned that we have begun to weigh the costs of military conflict too lightly and begun to idolize a sanitized conception of the warrior a little too highly.


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