There is an old saying about combat: “If you’ve been there you understand, if you haven’t I can never tell you about it.”
One can look at the history of a battle, but never really know what the combatants felt. One can attempt to bring logic to something that is of itself not logical; to bring order to a construct of chaos ; to bring light to what is rightly called, “the Fog of War.” This is usually done after the fact. To the men in combat the events are not clear and what is happening defines them for the rest of their lives.
In combat there is only the moment to focus on– the past, the future have no sway. The World War I British poet Sigfried Sassoon has described it this way: “Soldiers are citizens of death’s gray land, Drawing no dividend from time’s to-morrows.”
My interest in combat goes back to a much earlier time when I learned that two of my uncles had fought in the Battle of the Bulge, one of the grimmest episodes of the Second World War. They never talked about it– men who have been in combat seldom do. Like the men of the Civil War, the veterans of WWII and Vietnam experienced events that they could never share with outsiders. It was often impossible for them to explain these events and sometimes to deal with them once they returned home.
Many of the veterans whom we honor came home but couldn’t readily escape their experiences. The past, not their tomorrows, held them in its sway. They could not look to the future for solace. We now call this post traumatic stress disorder (PSTD), in earlier times was referred to as shell shock.
While it would be easy to think that this applies to only those who picked up a gun or flew a combat mission, any person who joins the military places himself in harm’s way. If you are a truck driver, every time you take to the road in Iraq, you enter a combat zone where there may be improvised explosive devices. Rockets that are routinely launched at bases, put everyone from a cook in the mess hall to the chaplain in danger. Terrorists kidnap service members, and the results are the same as if they were on the front line. To wear an American uniform in many parts of the world, is akin to putting a bull’s eye on one’s back.
So it is more than appropriate that we honor our veterans this month. They are the few who have been there and served, so that the many would not have to.