My dad was a paratrooper in World War II, who spent most of the last months of the war languishing in a German POW camp. (I told part of his story in The Greatest Story Never Told.) I remember him being disturbed at the way soldiers returning from Vietnam were treated. I don’t remember his opinions on whether that war was “justified” or not. I just know he thought it shameful that people would disrespect those people, who had already gone through so much hell, and that he was determined I not have to go.
Several recent conflicts have been compared to Vietnam, mostly in terms of quagmire. I tend to agree that our political leaders have involved us in the kind of foreign entanglements George Washington warned us against, a warning we have pretty much ignored. But I am glad that, as a country, we have seemed to recognize the difference between protesting a given war and marginalizing those who simply serve the nation.
You don’t have to agree with the politicians to support the troops.
The timing of the most recent wars authorized by Congress (the Iraq War and Afghanistan (also known as Operation Enduring Freedom)) is such that a number of veterans from those conflicts are now showing up in my classes. I had one particular class that had eight veterans (no, they didn’t know each other beforehand), and almost every class has at least a couple of veterans. These are almost always enlisted personnel, since officers tend to have already completed their college education.
I cannot personally relate to their experiences, and I don’t pretend to. But I know the effects of war I observed in my dad, whom a Veterans Administration counselor said had the worst case of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder she had ever seen. And I see reflections of those same things in my students. Some are very quiet, some hide behind bluster, some have greater or lesser effects depending on their experiences.
None emerge unscathed. Even if from a distance, even if only through the experiences of friends and colleagues, all have seen the underside of human nature and what people are willing to do to each other in advancing an ideology or defending an imaginary line on the earth.
Tomorrow is especially dedicated to those whose lives have been lost. I am named after a man I never knew, whose legacy still touches me life. He was my mother’s cousin, who died a young man fighting the war in Europe. I’ve only ever seen him in photographs, with a big smile surrounded by family and friends. His absence remains palpable, though both my parents have gone to their graves, and everyone who knew him has gone as well. The unrealized potential saddens me more than anything.
There will be another day called Veterans Day in November that honors all veterans, living or dead. Memorial Day is dedicated to those who died while serving. They deserve special recognition. But I’m also aware that all who served left a part of themselves (and sometimes almost all of themselves) on the battlefield.
Yes, let’s all enjoy the long weekend. Let’s also remember those who cannot.