It’s May again, which means another Memorial Day. Officially, we celebrate it on the last Monday in May. That will be tomorrow. As has been my annual tradition, here are a few comments of my own.
And, as with previous wars, this nation remembers the sacrifices. Multiple parades, symbolic wreaths, national and local memorial services, volumes of political windbaggery, and millions of personal gravesite visits all converge to echo a national “thank you.”
It’s a magnificent thing for us to do. It provides tremendous consolation for those who have felt the losses on a deeply personal level. And, for all of us, it provides a needed sense that their deaths have not been in vain.
But, dying in service to this nation is only a part of the story. Sacrifice has many faces and it’s rarely even-handed.
My late father, a WWII combat veteran, expended great effort making sure that I understood that dying is not the worst thing that can happen to people; it’s merely the last—and under certain conditions, perhaps the best.
Multitudes have died in service to this nation, but many times that number made it back alive. Thankfully, the bulk of these, with minor psychological adjustments, have been able to resume productive lives.
Others are not so fortunate. And with each subsequent war, this number seems to grow ever larger. The trend began in earnest with Vietnam and seems to have reached epidemic proportions with Iraq and Afghanistan.
I was six months from the dawn of my life when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, ushering the United States into World War II. By the time I was born, my father and nine of my uncles were already fighting in various war zones throughout the world.
While I was too young to understand any of it, time eventually taught me that I was a very lucky child. My “daddy” came home alive. But, some of my childhood friends’ daddies didn’t. Neither did four of my nine uncles.
My grandparents were grief-stricken beyond consolation. I remember my mother crying for months on end over the loss of her brothers. While my father didn’t cry—at least he never let me see him do it—he was sad. I could tell… small children can ALWAYS tell, you know!
Two of my surviving uncles lived out the rest of their lives constantly battling bouts of depression. They were decent people with loving families, but the nightmares of combat horrors never went away.
Their only periods of real happiness were the interruptions they encountered in their perpetual journeys between the peaks of uncontrollable exhilaration and the deep valleys of indescribable manic depression.
It wasn’t anyone’s fault. Our species tends to define all there is to know about things in terms of contemporary wisdom. As the future inevitably points out, though, we didn’t know enough to fill a thimble.
Then came Korea. More daddies, uncles, brothers, along with a few sisters and aunts didn’t come back alive. Korea had its own share of psychologically wounded.
We tried to help them, too. But, even though the future had upgraded contemporary wisdom, the “thimble” theory was just as applicable as it was for WWII.
Then came my time of horror: Vietnam. Making matters worse, it was the war that wasn’t; Congress never declared one. Regardless, those who died are still dead. And, the number of psychologically wounded increased by a factor of two.
I still—over forty years later—have nightmares about those awful times, bolting upright in my sleep; sweating profusely, unable to catch my breath. I can actually feel the stickiness of fresh blood on my fatigues as I hold a mortally wounded buddy. I can actually smell the stench of death.
But I’m lucky. I awake and realize that I’m safe. There’s no blood. The buddy I’m clenching in my arms is only my pillow. But, the tears flowing down the sides of my face are real. STILL! After forty years.
My flashbacks were never debilitating. They’ve subsided over the years to almost nothing. I regularly visit others, however, who are not so fortunate. While their physical wounds healed long ago, their psychological wounds will never heal
But, as with previous wars, this nation remembers the sacrifices. Multiple parades, symbolic wreaths, national and local memorial services, volumes of political windbaggery, and millions of personal graveside visits all converge to echo a national “thank you.”
Now, we’re in the midst Iraq and Afghanistan. And there is something very different about these wars.
It isn’t the fact that they’ve turned out NOT to be the cakewalks we thought they’d be. Nor is it the number of dead daddies, uncles, brothers, sisters, aunts, moms, and others.
It’s the fact that physical wounds are exponentially more catastrophic and the number of psychologically wounded is significantly higher on a relative basis.
During Vietnam, we had no shortage of troops. This is no longer true. Our Armed Force is all-volunteer now. This means a very small percentage of our nation’s population must fight our wars.
With respect to Iraq and Afghanistan, the same people have continuously rotated in fourteen-month combat tours. For a growing number of troops, there have been, sometimes, four and five rotations.
It’s beginning to take a hellacious toll in depression and post-traumatic stress. Divorce rates are off the scale. Alcohol and drug abuse is rising at alarming rates. Family financial damage has reached tragic proportions.
A recent RAND study estimates that as many as twenty percent of our troops return from these war zones suffering with serious levels of these disorders.
And, it shows that, while we’re great at remembering and honoring our war dead, WE’RE not too adept at understanding this sort of stuff.
Our politicians are even worse. Their talk has been cheap, giving help money with one hand and taking it back with the other.
I have not heard any of the intrepid windbags on the cable news network channels, or those on talk radio, probing a critical point that I’ve been wondering about for about two years.
If Afghanistan and Iraq are as vital to our security interests as many people say, why have the lines to “join up” diminished to barely a trickle?
Immediately following 9/11, recruiters had to beat people wanting to “join up” and “kick terrorists’ asses” back with sticks. You don’t read much about this surge of volunteers any longer.
Mind you, I NOT saying these places are NOT vital to our security interests. I mean, the politicians are still talking up a storm about their strategic import. But still, I wonder where all those volunteers have gone. Maybe they’ve missed a memo or something.
Joe Walther is a freelance writer and publisher of The True Facts. You may comment on his column by clicking here.