Wednesday, November 11, 2009

On Those Who Gave Their Lives

On Veteran's day, it is appropriate to think about those who gave their lives. There are those who died, lives of hope and promise terribly amputated from young people who hopefully understood the cause. But those who perished are not the only ones who gave their lives. Those who returned, too, have given their lives, lives they must continue to live.

I have mentioned my grandfather before, a member of the 82nd Airborne during World War II who jumped behind German lines before D-Day. He lived a full life, but in his last days, with his family around him, he was returned to Europe, returned to the torture that never left his soul. Sherman wrote truthfully that "War is hell," but we must remember that hell is not a tourist destination. The devil does not rent souls. You never leave hell and it never leaves you.

In Marshall's words, those in battle come "from a civilization in which aggression, connected with the taking of life, is prohibited and unacceptable...The fear of aggression has been expressed to him so strongly and absorbed by him so deeply and pervadingly — practically with his mother’s milk — that it is part of the normal man’s emotional make-up. This is his great handicap when he enters combat. It stays his trigger finger even though he is hardly conscious that it is a restraint upon him." People are not the natural killers needed in times of war and so they must be remade, broken of their normal humanity, and reconstructed.

Then we sent these young people to witness horrors, live in constant fear, survive in an unnatural state of hyper-readiness, and experience loss at a personal level that is unimaginable for the rest of us. Surely, we are not so naive to think that this process and exposure comes with no cost after the fact.

Veterans come back to us with parades that end and even those who have been fortunate enough to have their bodies completely intact are left more likely to divorce, more susceptible to drug and alcohol addiction, mental illness, suicide, less likely to be able to thrive in an occupation. It doesn't end for them.

When you see a veteran, remember that the sacrifice he made is one he is still making. War changes those who witness it in a way that unalterable. Veterans continue to give their lives, even after they have have retired from service, even as they continue to live them.