Daring The Dragons
History is never fully completed. It always changes as new information emerges, and new interpretations about events are proposed. History is never thus timely, as many who have things to tell sometimes wait for many years to reveal their knowledge. Sometimes, there are personal safety concerns, or fears of being found criminally liable for actions taken, and thus the real deal awaits the cracking of the seal.
In just a few days, we are going to observe Memorial Day, which honors the fallen of the various wars of our history. A few days after that will be the 60th anniversary of the Normandy invasion - D-day - the beginning of the end of Hitler's Festung Europa.
World War II vets often didn't want to talk about the horrors they had seen. Only their wives might have an idea of what happened to their men while in active combat from the nightmares which would erupt and shatter their once-peaceful slumber. These vets came from a world of justice and fairness, of laws which protected their rights and their safety, and were little prepared for the devastation, pain, and agony they would witness. Even now, many WWII vets would rather not remember, even though historians keep asking them to relate their tales before they are lost forever to the endless sleep.
Hollywood made movies, intensely scrubbed to eliminate the harsher aspects of warfare, from some veterans' remembrances - at least those brave enough to dare the dragons of the cenotaph. These movies gave hints to those who knew the truth without triggering the more ghastly images they tried to avoid at night. We heard tales of WWII vets who went to see Saving Private Ryan having to leave theaters all over the country, because Steven Spielberg's quest for reel realism brought back painful memories buried so deeply they had been forgotten, until seeing the 'reality' brought back the reality.
Our celuloid celebration of the greatest generation's victory over tyranny began the process which led to Abu Ghraib, inuring and numbing us, until even otherwise dainty 21-year-old women could perform demeaning humiliational torture with a cigarette dangling from smiling lips.
War is a favorite historical topic, full of names of great generals and dates of climactic battles. These items are favorites of 'patriotic' flag wavers who like to remind citizens of the great sacrifices their soldiers made on their behalf.
But what are these sacrifices?
Too often, few really know what they are, outside of those who died or suffered major injuries like lost limbs. Those who do try to tell what it's like for the others, those who seemed to survive war without a scratch, they don't get heard.
I recall reading a short story written about 1920 by a veteran of WWI, who tried to tell about how he couldn't fit back in to the world he had left behind to go to war. The people he used to know seemed so strange to him now, and he confused them because he 'wasn't his old self' now that he was back from showing Kaiser Bill what for. He had to leave them, confused about his behavior, before he broke down.
If anyone can identify this story for me, please let me know in the comments.
One of the first things I read that wasn't waving the flag and extolling the glories of war was Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead. In his tale, based on real events in the Pacific War, the horrors of war and what it does to those who fight made me look at war in a new light, especially as I was seeing war 'live on film' on the nightly news direct from Vietnam. I could understand Guadalcanal and the terror of being shelled by Japanese battleships at night much better. I could sense the fear of those cleaning out the caves of Peleliu and Iwo Jima.
But I never had to look my enemy in the eyes, smelling him and his fear as I killed him - or was killed by him.
Mailer's book wasn't written almost real-time. It took a few years of seeing the Hollywood version to wear down the walls restraining recollection before he got the urge to 'tell it like it was'.
Things have greatly sped up since 1945. Technology that used to take weeks to present the realities of war for a few minutes before the main feature movie began can now happen real-time. CNN can break in live at any moment with coverage of a fire fight between US troops and Iraqis and we can see people being killed - just like we were really there.
But we aren't really there. We're protected from that reality by the magic of Philo T. Farnsworth's Far-seeing Facilitator. We can SEE it and we can hear it, but we can't taste it, smell it, or touch it - or be touched by it. We're safe. No mightmares for us.
This war in Iraq isn't yet over. One ex-soldier, a Gulf War veteran, is daring the dragons, telling us what it's really like for those sent over there - if we choose to listen.
In my mother's house there hangs a photo of the two of us taken days after my return from the 1991 gulf war. In the photo, we're both smiling and my mother is crying as I remove a yellow ribbon from a tree in her front yard. The ribbon meant everything to her—my safety and my life, my past and my future, a notice to the world that she had a son at war—and nothing to me.
Ribbons, flags and parades help convince families and the citizenry that our cause is just and that the price paid by the few—death, heinous injury, a long-term psychological disorder—is worth the gain for us all.
The soldier appreciates these gestures but knows that flags and ribbons will not save his life.
When the soldier returns on leave, there are many homecomings. He is back in this physical and philosophical space, America: the republic he fought for, ideally. He returns to base, a spit-and-polish space where he must shave daily and shine his boots to glass—chores that have no meaning after combat.
And he returns home. Those who greet him at his home-coming party will have no idea what he has endured. Family and friends must remember that no matter how many hours of war coverage they've watched, how many newspaper articles they've read or how many photos of injured and dead soldiers they've turned away from in shock, their soldier has lived this war, and he has a reel of these events playing constantly in his head.
Because scenes of combat are constantly available to the soldier does not mean that he is prepared to transfer this horror to his loved ones. Instead, he'll tell stories about the time the movie star or politician appeared for a photo op, his first hot shower in 40 days or the Iraqi children he played soccer with. He won't tell about watching his squad leader get hit in the chest with an RPG, or the day the Humvee in front of his detonated a roadside bomb, killing three men from his company.
He won't mention the dead Iraqi children.
The soldier will visit friends from high school. They'll ask him what he really saw, now that his mom isn't around. He'll tell them that he was afraid of death, and they won't know how to respond because they've never had to consider dying in combat. The chasm between the men will be obvious.
After the high-school friends depart, the soldier will call one of his platoon mates who is also on leave and attempting to make sense of a changed world, a changed self.
The soldier will sleep restlessly. After a year or longer of sleeping on the desert floor or a cot, a mattress will feel dangerously comfortable. He's used to sleeping with a rifle or pistol; he'll reach for it at night and awake with a start when it isn't there. He'll walk the neighborhood at 3 in the morning. He'll welcome the smell of his mother's breakfast. She shouldn't be surprised when he devours it in two minutes and then leaves for a run. Early-morning exercise is a part of his military schedule, and the solace and fatigue it brings will help him cope with his new reality.
It's likely the soldier will return from leave early. After a week, the parties will be over and he'll have grown tired of the questions: How many Iraqis did you kill? Did your unit get Saddam? He'll call his platoon mates to find out if they, too, are bored and miss each other and if they'd like to meet back at base sooner rather than later.
This will be the soldier's most important return.
He'll be living among the soldiers he served with, people who won't ask how many Iraqis he killed because they know and don't care whether the number is zero or five. He'll be safe.
And now the government that spent years and thousands of dollars preparing the soldier for war should take responsibility for his physical and mental health. The post-war saga of physically and psychologically injured American soldiers is nearly always a bureaucratic sinkhole.
In Home to War, author Gerald Nicosia narrates the embarrassing treatment Vietnam vets received from the Veterans Administration. Agent Orange and posttraumatic-stress disorder killed and paralyzed veterans for many years before the VA began to treat them.
Currently, veterans of the first gulf war are battling to receive benefits for the multiple ailments known as gulf-war syndrome.
The soldier's family must give him time—allow him to share his experiences at his leisure, or never. But the government must act immediately on his return from battle. This responsibility is not just to the soldier, but to his family and the citizens in whose names he fought.
This is who you remember every Memorial Day - the man who lived.
The dead don't need anything from us. Not anymore.
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