While many veterans will firmly declare that war is hell and their involvement in it was little better, they will usually be quick to remark that this was also the best time in their lives. We were far from home and men died. We missed our families, but we were surrounded by brothers. We hated what we did, but we did it anyway and remain proud of our service. We had purpose, and calling; and each mission, though we acknowledged it or not, was an exercise in patriotism, self sacrifice, and an abandonment of our dreams for the sake of something greater. Life, simplified at times and complicated at others, made sense in its own way. We remember it and miss it and hate it and thank God we’re not there still, but pray we again feel similar grandness in our purpose. We were alive there, hovering on the brink of potential death.
It is difficult to articulate how a bond fostered so totally in tragedy can be so powerful, so lasting, and so memorable. Even now, years later, I’m still not sure I understand it. It does a disservice to simply say, “them were the good old days,”when in all fairness they often were not. They were awful. But they were also great. Perhaps this distinction is important to make: the action was awful, as was the distance and the loneliness and the gnawing fear that we may never see home again. BUT, there, surrounded by men we simultaneously loved and loathed, we made hell home and thrived there. We hated the action, but we loved the company.
It was recently pointed out to me that it is unhealthy to dwell in tragedy indefinitely. It is fairly easy for a veteran to exist in a place of victimhood, woundedness and grief. After all, grief was certainly a large component of our young lives. We saw things no men should see, endured tragedies no man can stomach easily, and we always carry that with us. But veterans don’t dwell there perpetually. They have hope; they have love, they have dreams, and they certainly have each other.
The fact is this: that grief and tragedy must necessarily receive a nod of acknowledgment. Bonds fostered in the best of times are truly good memories. Everyone recalls with pleasure and a distant smile the memory of great day and a great adventure. But such things can be remembered alone and to a fault. Unshared memories are inherently selfish. Those birthed in tragedy are more than memories, however. They are ghastly experiences, and they are wounds. They require companions for healing. They are the basis for the brotherhood.
Men who train together will be close – that is when they’re not squabbling with each other. Men who fight together are brothers, and will always cease their own arguments for unwavering devotion to a single cause: destruction of the enemy. The man who sweats with me is my friend, but the man who bleeds with me; he is my brother. It is an unbreakable bond – and makes for the strangest of bedfellows.
That brotherhood, now forged in the survival of evil, has more levels than can be reasonably explained. It is a strange character that can see the humor in a firefight or the peace in standing guard in a tower at sunset, miserable in the heat, bitten by insects, dehydrated and lonely. Family and home are far, but brothers are close – and they’re there when you need them. That nod towards tragedy is the recognition of the horror that cemented an otherwise disjointed platoon of misfits into the brotherhood. It is the foundation of things. Forgetting the tragedy means forgetting the source of the brotherhood.
But is it not right to perpetuate it, to generate misery for that which is already passed and done, to grieve for those already gone. We still note their absence, and feel it ever stronger on Veterans’ Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, at the very hour on the anniversary of each individual death. We remember vividly. Only some of this is appropriate to convey to others. We are their memory, their living memorial. And it is our duty to live life to the fullest in their stead.
Why, then, do we even repeat the horror? Why do we remind many who do not wish to see how ugly things were? Because while they will never understand in full, we must still tell them about it. We saw the underbelly of life and survived it. We saw what we want no others to see. We saw it for them. At best, telling our stories will only bring the listener a little closer to truth: that humankind can be, at times, purely evil. We are not blind to it, and while we desire that no others see it, we find it imperative that its existence be acknowledged. We did not fight to purchase the citizenry’s ignorance of evil; we fought so they would only view it from afar and in total safety. Man does not appreciate peace until he understands the brutality of war. We are purposed to tell the stories of such things.
Should they choose not to cover their ears or turn away, they will then hear truth. They will hear of horror and the brotherhood that took root in its midst. They will grieve with us for those we lost. They will share our anger and a righteous indignation over the oppression of the innocent. They will laugh at our antics and see firsthand a union that death only strengthens. They will smile with us, rage with us, reflect on great and tragic battles with us, and they will understand, at least in part. This is a gift where the recipient must know the cost. They will appreciate what they will never be called to shoulder. And they will be with us and hear us and know us. They will BE us, except they did not bleed with us. Nevertheless, we offer them a seat at our table and full membership in our brotherhood. It was all for them, anyway.
Life isn’t sweet, for there is much tragedy. But it is savory. We have stories that prove it, and a brotherhood to preserve it.
Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
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