I think I may have been about 10 years old when I heard about the broken engagement. We lived a couple doors down from a family of eight daughters, a mother, and a very patient father. All the girls were older than me, and one had planned to marry a young man who was deployed on a tour of duty to Vietnam in the early 1970s, a misguided period in our nation’s military history.
Details are sketchy because a 10-year-old knows nothing, and should know nothing, about the horrors of politics, war, and how both can destroy lives. What I remember was a discussion between my parents and older sisters, hushed generalities about how our neighbor’s fiancé had changed. He was very different after returning from Vietnam, so much so that the engagement was called off.
I asked no questions and understood little. Why had he changed? What could have happened that would drive our neighbor to call off her wedding? Did he do something to her? He was a soldier? Surely he was a brave man, right? This was my introduction to war.
Anyone who witnesses the birth of a child is in the presence of pure goodness. This is the beginning of a new life, the first breaths and cries of a human being whose destiny is unknown, but whose potential for greatness is equal to every other baby born of a mother. This is how we begin. Soft, tender, vulnerable, full of potential greatness. Anything and everything is possible for a newly born infant. Life is just beginning and unwritten adventures lay ahead.
I remember holding my daughters for the very first time. I was in awe of so much – the power of their mother and I to create these lives, the forces of nature that design perfect lips, tiny fingers and toes, lungs perfectly placed, a heart beating efficiently, a brain already at work. I was consumed with the smallest physical detail and overwhelmed by the possibilities yet to be realized for each of them. These moments were the very beginnings of epic stories. I couldn’t wait to watch them unfold.
The moment of birth is egalitarian. It is the same for those who become doctors, murderers, philosophers, plumbers, writers, landscapers, engineers, junkies, teachers, artists, business tycoons and the homeless. If blessed with a healthy mind and body, each of us has the potential to change the world…or to be consumed by it.
Soldiers are the same. Some become great military leaders, like Washington, Grant, Patton. Others earn esteemed recognition with the Medal of Honor, Silver Stars and Purple Hearts. Some make it through their experience without ever seeing action. Some transition to successful lives. Many die in valiant service to their country. And some are broken, haunted, caught in battles they’ve survived but relive through recurring nightmares, terrified in moments of post-traumatic stress. They’re missing arms and legs. They’re wrapped in scarred, frail, leathery burned skin, a daily reminder of the worst sort of near death. They sit motionless, speechless in wheelchairs, unrecognizable shells of former selves whose dedicated spouses wipe drool from their chins, and whose children look upon them with unconditional love and the bravery to embrace their wounds. Some kill themselves, unable to live with acts of war they may have witnessed or committed in the name of duty and righteousness, acts of desperation, acts of self-preservation. Some just kill the pain with drugs and alcohol.
When we see the elderly man wearing his US Navy cap, we shake his arthritic hand and thank him for his service. We feel good about ourselves when we recognize the camouflaged soldier at an airport gate. But not all veterans wear the badges of courage they so selflessly earned. Often we walk by them, disgusted at the filthy, stinking homeless person lying on a park bench, drenched in cheap whiskey and his own piss. Or we avoid the disabled person who went into war as a picture of youth and strength, but who is now in our way as we try to cross the street. And we leave the mentally disturbed for the physicians and psychologists of the VA to deal with, choosing instead to carry on our lives unaffected by the suffering of others.
This is the reality of war. This is the war we don’t see from our homes. This is the war that cannot be described by journalists, can only be touched upon by photographers and videographers, and is scarcely discussed by those who somehow survive its brutality.
“Blow ‘em up! Bomb the shit out of them! We need boots on the ground! Wipe them out!” Words that disgust me. Words tossed around by those who have not stared down the barrel of the enemy’s rifle. Shouts made by those whose son or daughter are not in some unknown part of the world lying mud covered in a ditch, wounded, bleeding, crying for help, crying for mother.
It’s Memorial Day weekend. We honor those who gave their lives for our freedom. But there are those among us that we should never forget. And there are babies who will trade in the promise of comfortable lives for the pain and suffering of war. This should be enough to understand that war is always the last resort.
As I sit here 40-plus years later, it’s obvious what had happened to that man I knew only by his association with my neighbor. He went through hell and it changed him. Maybe physically, definitely emotionally. That’s what war does. It takes the world’s youth, our future generations, indoctrinates them according to the politics of their respective countries and the military strategies of their generals, stirs into their bellies fear, rage and absolute obedience, arms them, and unleashes them on each other to catastrophic ends. Hollywood romanticizes war. Politicians use it as a bargaining chip. Those unaffected by it embrace it. I loathe it.
Happy Memorial Day.
Photo of Arlington National Cemetery © 2016 Timothy Condron. Photos of soldiers copied from NPR.org, and from photographers Platon and David Jay. Used without permission, but in the hope that I help spread their important stories.