Veterans Day. I just heard on the radio that England celebrates Armistice Day today. So did Americans apparently, until Eisenhower signed legislation changing the name of the holiday to Veterans Day in 1954, in order to honor veterans of World War II and the Korean War in addition to WWI veterans. One hundred years ago, November 11, 1910, the Great War was four years away. Fifty years ago today, November 11, 1960, Americans had fought in three major wars, and they were about to launch into another.In the years since then, we’ve had Desert Storm, and now the Iraq War and the war in Afghanistan. Sometimes I forget that we are at war, and that scares me.
Of course I remember the protests in 2003, when I was still in college, and Operation Iraqi Freedom and the statue of Saddam Hussein being dragged down. And all that talk about Weapons of Mass Destruction, which never did materialize. I followed the surge in 2007, and the resulting slight improvement in the situation. I’ve listened to excellent radio stories about the Iraq war, most recently on This American Life, and I hear the news reports of suicide bombs and other continuing violence. But I feel very removed from the conflict, insulated by my comfortable life. I’ve suffered no deprivation due to these wars, and I only distantly know one soldier stationed in Afghanistan.
My most intimate experience of war was in the stories that both grandfathers would tell about their experiences in World War II. Both men are gone now, but those stories remain vivid portraits of war for me. Each grandfather had a very different way of approaching the subject—my mother’s father did not talk often about it, and he usually only spoke of it when we asked him. His older brother was killed in the fourth year of the war by sniper fire in Italy, and if that didn’t quell a tendency to romanticize war, then his temperament certainly did. He was a steady, even keeled man with a brilliant mind and an unflinchingly logical, unsentimental approach to all that he did and thought about. At the end of the war, he was among the first Allied troops to enter Germany. Traveling in tanks, my grandfather and his fellow soldiers saw the destruction that the war had caused to both the victors and the defeated, and he gave food to desperate German boys in exchange for their guns.
My father’s father, on the other hand, loved to talk about his life during the war. A pilot, he was stationed in the South Pacific. He was copilot for General Geiger, and he had lots of wonderful stories about living in the tropics, admiring beautiful local women, writing his first book on a typewriter set atop a crate on the airfield (and losing the whole damn thing when they had to evacuate and the propellers blew the pages across the island). For him, the war was an incredible adventure. He was never wounded, fortunately, but he got a terrible case of malaria by the end of the war that nearly finished him off. For the rest of his life, he looked back on the war years as a spectacular adventure, though he also acknowledged the death and destruction, the sadness of war.
What both grandfathers had in common was the way that they minimized their own involvement, and downplayed the significance of their tremendous contribution. They endangered themselves, gave four or five years of their lives in military service, lived far from home, and yet they talked about it as though it was just something they did, one era in their long, rich lives. This may just be humility, but I think it also comes from the universality of that particular wartime experience. Most people fought in different squadrons, under different leaders, at different times in the war, but in World War II, practically everybody fought, or was involved in the massive war effort in some way. A whole generation of men fought, and nobody forgot for even a single day that the country was at war.
In Iraq today, there are about 40,000 American troops. In Afghanistan, 100,000. That’s the population of a smallish American city. Iraq and Afghanistan veterans fight abroad, and then come home and fight the VA for benefits, fight to receive healthcare and counseling for PTSD. They are looked down upon by many Americans and ignored by even more. This veterans day, I honor the two veterans closest to me, my grandfathers. And I honor that small city of Americans fighting today in Afghanistan and in Iraq today. May they return alive and well, and soon.