This is Armistice Day around the world and Veteran’s Day here in the USA where I live.
We venerate our veterans (in lip service anyway…I’m not sure we treat them with the compassion and understanding and practical support they need and deserve…but I won’t wax irritated about that here) here in the USA. We talk about courage and sacrifice. And it seems as though we constantly have men and women deployed and fighting (that’s because we do).
I think that courage and sacrifice should be honored. I’m not arguing that. But Armistice Day was originally a day to commemorate the END of a war; a day to celebrate and honor and hope for peace. So today, I’m going to try to do that.
And Veteran’s Day in the USA I think should be celebrated by not only remembering the dead who served in the armed forces, and thanking those still living who served, but by listening to the words of actual veterans when we think about war and military service and their time served and experiences and especially when we call out veterans as a reason for public policy. Listen to the veterans, not to those who claim to speak for them.
I highly recommend reading Tim O’Brien’s book The Things They Carried.
That book changed me.
Not that I’ve ever been a pro-war person myself, but after reading that book, for the first time, I understood that most of the people who serve in the United States military are ALSO not pro-war people. Many of our veterans were drafted into service and didn’t want to go to war quite literally. And even now, without conscripted military service, many of those who choose to serve do so as a means to get opportunities that would be otherwise unavailable to them in our country. They are people of color. They are from poor families. And the military doesn’t discriminate (anymore…except I guess we are back to discriminating against trans people…so anymore, for the moment, at least) the way other potential employers and housing options do. The military offers financial assistance for future education and housing and insurance that aren’t available to those who haven’t served.
The first time I read Mr. O’Brien’s book, I left my bookmarked copy sitting on an end table in our living room, and some out of town family had come over to our house (this was when The Boy was a baby). A visiting cousin (an adult man) picked up the book out of curiosity and turned to the bookmarked page and read a few paragraphs and then solemnly looked up to me and said, ‘What are you reading?’ I told him it was a veteran’s accounts of his time serving in Vietnam, and I agreed with the thoughts he didn’t verbalize. ‘It’s a very powerful book.’
So in an effort to honor veterans’ own experiences instead of pushing out some grateful lip service (I am grateful to my country’s veterans for serving without a doubt…but my words pale in comparison to one of their own), here are a few selected quotes from Tim O’Brien’s incredibly moving book.
“They carried the soldier’s greatest fear, which was the fear of blushing. Men killed, and died, because they were embarrassed not to. It was what had brought them to the war in the first place, nothing positive, no dreams of glory or honor, just to avoid the blush of dishonor. They died so as not to die of embarrassment.”
“A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue. As a first rule of thumb, therefore, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil…And in the end, of course, a true war story is never about war. It’s about sunlight. It’s about the special way that dawn spreads out on a river when you know you must cross the river and march into the mountains and do things you are afraid to do. It’s about love and memory. It’s about sorrow. It’s about sisters who never write back and people who never listen.”
“It was my view then, and still is, that you don’t make war without knowing why. Knowledge of course, is always imperfect, but it seemed to me that when a nation goes to war it must have reasonable confidence in the justice and imperative of its cause. You can’t fix your mistakes. Once people are dead, you can’t make them undead.”
“Together we understood what terror was: you’re not human anymore. You’re a shadow. You slip out of your own skin, like molting, shedding your own history and your own future, leaving behind everything you ever were or wanted to believed in. You know you’re about to die. And it’s not a movie and you aren’t a hero and all you can do is whimper and wait. ”
“I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth.”
“It was very sad, he thought. The things men carried inside. The things men did or felt they had to do. ”
“I survived, but it’s not a happy ending.”
“They carried all they could bear, and then some, including a silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried.”
Thank a veteran today, for sure. But more importantly, LISTEN to them. In their own words.