Random Thoughts from a Restless Mind

Dr. Darrell White's Personal Blog

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Posts Tagged ‘vietnam’

In A War, But Not At War

There are real wars afoot. Not silly PR wars or Rap Battles or video games, but real, live shooting and killing wars. Admit it, you’ve barely noticed.

As I prepare to launch into a new topic for my next round of “serious” reading (I am slowly working my way through the very heavy science in “Waterlogged”) I stumbled upon a curious historical overlay. My daily newspaper sat on a coffee table under which sat a picture of a paper from the 1940’s. We have been at war in the United States, no matter how you care to characterize that war, for much longer than the entirety of WWII. Yet the tenor of our homeland experience could not be more different.

The books I’ve got cued up are “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” by Ben Fountain, and “Redeployment” by Phil Klay, the first discovered in that newspaper above, the other from an interview of the author on the radio while driving to work (note: Evernote is brilliant for remembering that kind of stuff). Thus far I’ve successfully avoided reading a full review of either, having discovered in the first 2 sentences of a NYT review that there’d be more editorializing on the reviewer’s part than reviewing. Your mileage may vary, of course, especially if you agree with the reviewer.

What’s drawn me to these two particular books, indeed what has drawn me to this topic, is the conversational emphasis in both. Each is written from the points of view and in the voices of soldiers and Marines talking about being in a war. Driving to work this week I was struck by the complete absence of these voices in my life. Looking at the front page of a newspaper ca. 2014 beside the image from 1946 it’s clear that my experience is not unique. We have had men and women in a war for some 12 years now, but we are hardly a nation AT war, at least in comparison with our nation ca. 1946.

We barely talk about war, about Iraq, Afghanistan, or Al Qaida at all, while America in the 40’s talked about little else. If my experience is typical there is very, very little conversation that occurs between those who have served and those who have not, even though the length of our present wars has likely generated a similar number of war veterans walking among us then and now. Were the conversations of war only on the front page back then? Was there so little discourse about what it means to have been in a war when the veterans returned in the 40’s, too?

The United States has experienced exactly 3 incidences in which our country has been attacked since the Civil War. All of our wars and conflicts since then have been prosecuted on the soil of other lands. This is no less true now than it was in 1945, no less true following 9/11 than it was after Pearl Harbor. The towering strength of the U.S. economic engine insulates us today from the daily sharing of the war effort as completely as our new information technology makes the wars almost completely available for viewing. Interesting dichotomy, huh? War footage on demand, up to the minute, up close and personal, no war bonds or fuel rationing required.

It’s different now, you say. It’s not the same now as it was then, you add. Is that really true, though? All wars are unjust and all wars are just; which it is depends only on which team you’re on at what time. Did those who hated the wars of yesteryear hate them any less than now? Is the aftermath of being in war any greater or lesser now than then? Never having served, never having been in war, I have no standing to say, but from afar it doesn’t seem any less terrifying to have been detonated by a mortar in a WWI trench or bazooka in a WWII tank or an IED in a Humvee in Fallujah.

And there’s my point. I don’t know. There is no conversation, no opportunity to know. I don’t know why that is. I don’t think we need to re-introduce war bonds or ration nylons (imagine the carnage at Victoria’s Secret) to know we are at war. What I do think is that we will continue to have a disconnect between young people in a war and their country not at war until we engage in those conversations. War always seems to find us, for whatever reason, even when we are mostly minding our own business. We should know more about what it means to be at war.

When you come home from the War I’ll be ready to listen and to learn whenever you are ready to talk.


Memorial Day Musings…

It’s the stories. The stories matter. Whether they died in the heat of battle or in the cold of infirmity, the warriors all have stories. The stories are all important.

It’s remarkable how difficult it is to get at those stories, though. The ones that were the most formative, the ones that turned that one soldier or that one sailor into who s/he became, they tend to be slow in coming, if they come at all. Yet those are the ones that matter most.

The warriors among us tend toward silence. It’s not so much a secret thing (although there is a small group who simply mustn’t tell their stories) I don’t think, as it is a continuation of the protector role our airmen, sailors, soldiers and marines assume. They don’t so much keep the stories secret as they shield us from the effects of the stories, so powerful were those effects on them when they happened. Yet again, to understand those who remain, and to try to know those who have departed, the stories matter.

I drive by a cemetery filled with the graves of those who fought, some who died while fighting, and I try to conjure their stories. It’s pure folly. Dead men tell no tales, eh? Humanity learns of conflict and war from the stories told about both, and humans learn about each other the same way. Asking to hear the stories is an act of respect. Listening to the stories can be an act of love. Telling the stories is a little of both.

The stories of the men and women who have fought our wars are important.

A friend from my youth, a coach not too very much older than I once broke down and cried over his story. A very junior officer, his story of leadership and loss comes to me every year on Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day. I know him so much better, understand who his is so much better because I heard his story. So, too, is my knowledge of the men and women younger than I who have served and fought and graced me with their stories.

Life is long unless you are unlucky, but even the lucky run out of time. We have no Civil War survivors, no one from WWI to tell their stories. Those few from WWII still here are reticent, and time grows short. Even Korea fades ever quickly to time’s passage. My Dad is marooned by his illness somewhere between 1947 and 1974; much of his “time” seems to be spent in Korea at the moment. The smallest of consolations for us, his progeny, is that we may learn his story.

This Memorial Day let us all remember not only those who served and those who died in that service, but let us all remember their stories as well. Let us ponder the lessons those stories teach about not only humanity but also about the warrior, the person we remember. Let us encourage those who still walk among us, especially those whose journeys have been long and must be soon ending, to tell us their stories while they still can. Let us listen to those who know the stories behind each headstone as we gather in their honor. We have much to learn from the stories, about war and conflict, about the people who fight, about ourselves.

The stories matter.



Veteran’s Day And Coach Cat

When I was a high school senior my football coach became my friend after the season had ended. Only 10 or 12 years my senior, Cat was still single and for the next 4 or 5 years we spent quite a bit of my at home time together. There are quite a few articles in the Veteran’s Day papers this morning, some of them about the difficulties encountered by our servicemen and women when they return from deployment; that’s gotten me to thinking about Coach Cat.

My friend Chris, Coach Cat, and I were having a couple (dozen) beers one summer night when out of nowhere Cat had a rather scary “flashback” to the jungles of Viet Nam. Turns out as a young 2Lt his squad got cut off from support and he was on his own, leading his men out of the jungle. I remember him sobbing that night, choking out “I can’t believe what I had to do, what I did to get us out.” Stunned, Chris and I gently steered him to bed at a buddy’s house and then we drove home in silence.

For after all, what can you say? What can someone like me, never a minute “in country”, say to someone at a time like that? Indeed, even in a non-crisis moment, how does one respond, how does one express understanding and gratitude to one who has done what needed to be done “there”? Papers this morning are awash with stories and commentaries on a nation’s citizens not at war. Of empty, meaningless gestures and expressions of “thanks” and “appreciation” and “support”. Is this true? Are we who are here, so safe and so far behind the line, are we that shallow and insincere?

I confess that I just do not know the answer to that question. Perhaps neither I nor anyone else ever will. Here’s what I think is different now, though, from those days of my youth spent drinking with a friend who’d done his duty and returned to face both his countrymen and his demons–now I think about this generation’s Coach Cats every day, and I think about how to express my understanding, my empathy, and my gratitude every day. I hope that I am not unique. I hope that the columnists are wrong.

CrossFitters will mark the day with a Hero WOD, “Murph”. We will express our gratitude and our respect in our own, special way, just as we did with “White” earlier. We will endeavor to remember EVERY day, not just on “Hero” days, though we will do so with a little more intensity, more conscious intent, with “Murph.”

In the end today is just a Friday off work for Federal employees if you think about it. When we are a country with men and women ON the line, Veteran’s Day is every day of the year.

I gotta find Cat’s phone number.