In the quarter quell of the WWI draft, my grandfather voluntarily took the place of another man. The man, barely known to my Faf, had a wife and young child. Faf shipped off to the battlefields of Europe in his stead. Crazy.
Faf nearly died a few times. I know the family folklore. The 108 degree fever that definitively killed the bacteria raging in his bloodstream. His heroic capture of a German submachine gun nest. The bouts of “shell-shock” ironically precipitated by Fourth of July fireworks.
My uncle is the Keeper of the History. The flag. The Purple Heart. The handwritten maps of strategy and skirmish. At one point, Faf logged his memories on hours of cassette tape. We keep meaning to transfer them to CD.
I opened the newspaper yesterday to the story of a WWII memento – an auburn curl given as a promise ring of sorts to a departing soldier. The passage of time breeds nostalgia. As the remaining WWII vets die, we lament the loss of the “greatest generation.”
War wove through the fabric of daily life, with rationing, tire collection, repurposing of factories. Popular music generally supported the war effort (“Over There”, “You’re in the Army Now”, “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition”, “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy”).
Veterans returned to the apple pie of their country’s gratitude. Yes, it’s a gross oversimplification. Bear with me.
The Authentic History Center notes the relative paucity of songs about the Korean War as well as the subtle shift in sentiment (“Missing in Action”, “A Heartsick Soldier on Heartbreak Ridge”). Fast forward to Vietnam and you get a massive anti-war playlist. You also get the Vietnam vet meme, the scruffy perhaps homeless alcoholic who suffers with PTSD and depression.
I was a toddler when the Vietnam War ended. Yet, it’s much easier for me to name songs from the Vietnam era than any related to the Gulf War or Iraq/Iran/Afghanistan Wars. Wikipedia pours out a list of 172 anti-war songs from this time period, with recurring contributions from Sheryl Crow, Green Day, Rise Against, and System of a Down. Freedom of Speech allowed Neil Young to record “Let’s Impeach the President” in 2006 on his album, Living With War.
We’ve been living with war for a couple decades now, with very little civilian inconvenience or even interest. We continue to deploy our young women and men, shipping them out before their brains are even fully developed. Then we subject them to the torture of life-threatening unpredictability and order them to kill.
We alter the structure and function of their brains.
And our vets return to a largely apathetic nation. Sure, there are cell phone drives and an occasional parade. But there is no real comprehension of what they have endured or sacrificed. In response to alarming veteran suicide rates (approximately twenty per day), the Department of Veterans Affairs has attempted to ramp up mental health resources.
“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Benjamin Franklin.
To my Faf and anyone else who has served in our military: Thank you and I’m sorry. I’m sorry for your nightmares and your perpetual state of cognitive dissonance. I’m sorry for your missing limbs, unemployment, and memory deficits. I’m sorry that you were physically and emotionally traumatized.
Thank you for enabling me to live in a country where I can write this without fear of imprisonment. Thank you for believing in democracy.