It’s Veterans Day, 2018 when we remember the real people, men and women, who had to put their lives on hold to defend our nation, our values, and our way of life. There was pride in this and love of America that gave our soldiers and our citizens a sense of community and common purpose. While wars were killing men and tearing them away from everything they loved about being alive, they were also forging bonds between soldiers that seemed unbreakable. Until the Vietnam War the nation bonded also to offer a united front of love and gratitude to our fighting forces. Even in the Vietnam War someone could protest the complicated and questionable reasons for the war and still love family members who went so far away to fight in a war that was tearing Americans apart at home.
My Dad did not go to war. He had an eighth grade education. He had very flat feet. An army “runs on its feet”. He also was the sole support of his parents and of his brand-new wife, my mother. And he was employed in a war industry. My sister and I were born while most men were still in Europe or fighting in the Pacific. My father’s personality was never complicated by having to live so close to death as many others had done. But his life was complicated by the guilt he felt about the rather mundane roots of his good fortune and he was always sidelined by not belonging to the fraternal orders created by and for veterans. Vets did not talk much to their wives and children about the war, but they did seek the comfort of the company of other soldiers.
We lived in a city when I was born, and we learned the story of why my parents, already older than most couples in those days, did not have children for almost three years after they married. They married in 1941 and my sister was born in 1944. My father worked nights. My mother worked days. The busses they were on passed each other in the morning and they would wave and get on with their next piece of business, either sleeping or working. They were very poor as they both gave money to their parents. Once they began having babies they did not stop. Two of us were the same age for 5 days with not even a whole year between our births. Soon we had seven people living in a two-bedroom city apartment. By then everyone was home from the war. Housing boomed, but my Dad was not a vet.
Finally, Dad found a house for us in a small town that was almost rural but destined to become a suburb. We had fresh air and frog ponds and empty lots to roam. We had bikes and skates and although we never had enough bedrooms, we did not feel cramped in these early years. The babies kept coming though. When I was around eight I began to see the effect war had had on those who fought it.
Next door to us, a tiny house sat so far back from the road that it was right next to our back yard. In this house lived Mrs. Crabtree. Mrs. Crabtree scared us children to death and I’m sure that our boisterous play outside her windows annoyed her no end. Occasionally she would experience some kind of psychotic break; she would open her front door and stand in the doorway in her slip and tell off the neighborhood. She would rant and rave, and we came to believe that she was a sort of witch, a person to fear and tiptoe around, except that a “clowder” of children have a hard time remembering to keep it down for long. Later, as a teen, I learned that Mary Crabtree was a soldier in WWII (actually a nurse) and that she had a metal plate in her head covering the hole in her skull from when she had been hit with mortar. She drank to deaden memory and pain. My dad was kind to her and we felt guilty that we had been so clueless.
Across the road was another house of strife, a mom and dad who drank and fought their way through the days of their silent children’s lives until one child fought back and exhibited signs of rebellion, which never died out and caused her to choose things that were harmful, and led to her early demise. The father in this family was a vet. We all met these parents many times and we did not find them unfriendly. The mom and other moms came to visit around our dining room table because my mom was tied down by children. But the men never came to visit my father, although they did not shun him. Dad just did not fit in. My Dad did not drink. This across-the-road dad was a drinker. When the fighting at home reached a crescendo that was intolerable, he left for the VFW and the comradery of fellow soldiers.
So two examples of what war can do to those who fight it, lived their lives before my eyes, and finally, after the Vietnam War we as a nation began to talk about treating the problems of physical and mental adjustments that men (and women) had to deal with after wars. Those vets I knew fought in a war that we were proud to fight in, a war against a monster who could not be allowed to spread his hate any further than he already had done. The problems vets faced became even greater when soldiers had to come home to a country that did not support the war in which they had just fought.
Just this past week a vet used his skills with a gun to kill young people enjoying themselves dancing in a country bar in Thousand Oaks, California. We are not good at helping vets who are mentally twisted by the things they are asked to do in a war.
And yet we go to war time after time. There are always seemingly valid reasons to subdue a leader or a nation that thinks taking on the world will allow this leader or nation to dominate a larger chunk of the world. People will continue to go off to war unless we begin an era of all robot wars, or all drone wars. (It is quite different to be the nation that sends a drone than it is to be the nation that receives a drone however, and as drones become more common our own nation may become a target for drones.) Even in the case of robotic war or drone wars, soldiers will still be necessary I am guessing. In fact, soldiers who send drones to kill distant bad guys sometimes also kill innocents, and we are finding that this has mental repercussions despite the fact that the soldier is not in physical jeopardy.
Well this is a weekend to remember all of this. It is a time to remember how wars make it possible for family members who are at some distance from a war to live in relative safety. It is a time to remember what soldiers sacrifice to fight for us in wars. It is a time of gratitude. It should also be a time to teach ourselves better ways to help warriors heal when they return home from wars. Short of wiping memory it may be impossible to be totally unaffected by fighting other humans in a killing war. Perhaps all we can hope for is to ameliorate the problems of those who seem to be affected the most by being sent into situations that require you to kill or be killed.
Veterans Day is also a perfect time to remember to do all in our power to keep our world at peace.
Photo Credit: From a Google Image Search, CNY Vets Parada and Expo