MY DAUGHTERS are learning about soldiers in school. The most I have been able to get out of them is that they are brave and that they risk their lives. My own ambivalence toward war-related holidays — Memorial Day, Veterans Day — comes not from a lack of empathy for America’s soldiers, but a deeper, more personal conflict.
There are interlocking pieces of this jigsaw puzzle. One of them is certainly Vietnam. I remember hearing from somebody, as a child, “Never trust the government with your life.” I also remember watching a documentary called Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam. It was released in October 1987. There was one man, I remember, an amputee with a Purple Heart, who said, “I didn’t trade my leg for a medal.” Those were the Full Metal Jacket days. I was eight years old.
But here is the thing: a great many veterans have told me, as an adult, in private, that, “It was all a bunch of bullshit.” At a concert, I met a veteran from Afghanistan who told me of how they held up in some ruin with Taliban fighters all around him. He had scars on his legs from the bullets. And what did he say? “It was all a bunch of bullshit.” Another friend was in Vietnam, and when I asked him how he felt about it, he served me up the same exact line, “It was all a bunch of bullshit.” “Okay, then,” is all I could tell both men. “I’m still glad you got back in one piece.”
Which leads me back to the date, November 11, originally Armistice Day, the day the Great War, World War I, ended. Has any war been more discredited by its veterans than that war? From Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms to Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front to Cummings’ The Enormous Room to Hašek’s The Good Soldier Švejk, the Great War is portrayed as mindless carnage waged by states with absurd politics. And when they wheeled Harry Patch, one the last survivors of that war, out to Passchendaele in 2007, he had this to say — “War is the calculated and condoned slaughter of human beings.”
No one ever force-fed me these messages, but my ears were open enough to hear them. But my family was also different. My predecessors had a cosmic predilection to not find themselves in harm’s way. There was one war story that was handed down. The relative who hid in the cellar with the shotgun when the Virginia Home Guard came around to force him into the Confederate Army. This man was my grandmother’s grandmother’s father. The reason for this act of cowardice was because he didn’t own any slaves. He saw the Southern cause as the effort of the elite, slave-owning class to use poor, non-slave owning farmers like him to protect their interests and their status. And the lesson in that story to me, is that sometimes it takes courage to not be a soldier.
How I will explain this all to my girls, I will never know.