Days of Remembrance
Combat veterans are a famously reticent bunch. Some of them won’t tell their stories to just anyone, and some won’t tell their stories at all. And in the stories they do tell, you have to listen for clues because they have witnessed things that nobody can fully tell another person. A friend of mine who served in the 82nd Airborne Division in World War II shared just a few episodes.
The 82nd was in the thick of some very rough battles and suffered many casualties, and the men faced risks as airborne troops that other soldiers didn’t face. A good number of them died when their transport gliders crash-landed, and others were shot as their parachutes brought them drifting toward the ground. After the invasion of Normandy in 1944, the 82nd came out of the front lines for a few weeks to recuperate.
General Eisenhower addressed the division that August. Troops stood in neat rows on a runway pavement in England as he told them that he was proud of what they had done and expected to be all the more proud of what they were about to do. According to the division lore, when they heard this news, a few men dropped their metal helmets onto the cement. Then many dozens of others joined them, and the pounding swelled into a thundering message of protest for the general. But how can we translate that message, exactly? Perhaps it was something like this: we have suffered enough. A few weeks later they were gliding into combat again.
Hundreds of thousands of crimson poppies were planted, each one recalling the loss of a particular British soldier.
Sometimes art can help us understand what veterans have seen and done. Our fellow Hoosier Kurt Vonnegut’s best novel is probably Slaughterhouse Five, which is about witnessing the fire-bombing of a European city. In London right now, for the centennial of World War I, that great slaughter, they’re trying to bring the experiences of combat veterans back into the public eye. You may have seen new pictures of the historic castle near the Thames River called the Tower of London. It’s surrounded by a dry moat and an outer wall, and to help people imagine their way back toward the sacrifices of the soldiers, they’ve planted one vividly red ceramic poppy in the moat for each British soldier who died in that war. As the installation of the poppies commenced, the red stain spread day by day around the base of the castle like the spilling of blood itself. All in all, hundreds of thousands of crimson poppies were planted, each one recalling the loss of a particular British soldier.
Closer to home, we get clues from the veterans we know. There's the fellow who avoids casual conversations about Vietnam because they open old wounds. When the other person walks away from the conversation, the veteran is still back there, immersed in war. Or a South Bend friend just diagnosed with a form of cancer common among veterans who were exposed to the chemical Agent Orange. It's been forty-five years since he came home from Vietnam, and he's still paying for that war.
But Veterans Day has passed, and soon we’ll go weeks at a time without thinking about veterans. Our wars, however, go on and on, fought by just a minority of our fellow citizens. Those men and women have a pretty good idea how little we understand about their service. They see how satisfied most of us are with the arrangement where they know but we don’t have to know.
Maybe we shouldn’t thank veterans at all in November. Instead, maybe we should apologize in profound shame for nearly always being at war and for making just the same few Americans, usually young working class people and their families, endlessly carry the burden for the rest of us. And maybe we should apologize, too, for not having the active citizenship tools, the civic knowledge, attitudes, and skills, to do anything about it.