Last night on the TV news, the signoff story was about Veterans Day. “Tell us about how a veteran affected your life” said the anchor. How to begin? When I was growing up, all the men I knew were veterans. On long Thanksgiving afternoons my father and uncles would sit in the living room smoking cigars and telling stories of their army days. My brother was allowed to sit and listen to them while my sister and cousins and I helped our mothers and aunts in the kitchen. War was a closed male circle that we knew little about.
I’ll never forget one story my father told about his war—World War I. When he was in the Army on the Western Front, he and his company marched across a desolate battlefield. Wearing gas masks in case of attack, they stumbled across the fields and into a wooded area. When it became so dark that moving forward was dangerous, they were ordered to lie down and get a few hours sleep. My father was lucky to find a spot on the ground that was not too rocky and he slept soundly. When morning came the men woke up and saw that the soft spots they had found and where they had rested their heads were the bodies of dead German decomposing in the mud. The horror of that morning discovery never left him. Even though he returned home safely, married and raised a family, and led a successful life, the scene was still in his head. Even when he was close to death at the age of 93 he could recall those grim hours on the battlefield seventy years earlier.
All veterans have been marked by their experiences. Some of them are scarred so badly they can never be the same; others seem to return to everyday life without deep trauma, but all of them remember. All of America’s wars—all of the world’s wars—have left indelible scars on those who fought in them. William Dean Howells, the American novelist, describes the impact of the Civil War on President James Garfield. “At the sight of these dead men whom other men had killed, something went out of him, the habit of a lifetime, that never came back again: The sense of the sacredness of life and the impossibility of destroying it,”
The Civil War, the two World Wars, and the Korean War were almost universally felt by Americans. Every family had people serving, every community lost friends and neighbors. The wars since then have directly affected far fewer people, but those who served come back with the same kind of memories and scars. We see Vietnam veterans among the homeless on our city streets, and Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in our colleges and workplaces. Some of them carry physical wounds that will affect their lives and the lives of their families for decades to come. Others carry only memories that are not visible to the rest of us, but which will live with them all of their lives.
And yet we continue to have more wars and more veterans. Why can’t we remember how terrible it is? Why do we forget so much of the pain and suffering? I recently read Julie Otsuka’s book When the Emperor Was Divine which gives a vivid account of the unnecessary pain we Americans inflicted on people of Japanese ancestry who lived among us. Many veterans of the Japanese internment camps are still alive and still carrying memories of the pain of their exclusion from the country they had chosen.
The drones we are sending now to bomb people in the Middle East are creating more memories and more suffering. Children in Pakistan today who lose family members to American drones will carry that pain through most of the 21st century. More wars—more veterans. When will it ever stop? When will the world learn that we already have enough veterans to honor? Let’s honor the veterans we have and work to prevent more wars that will continue the cycle of suffering and remembrance forever.