14 May, 2006

Today's Must-read

Back from Iraq:

After three years, there are at least 550,000 veterans of the Iraq war. The Washington Post interviewed 100 of them -- many of whom were still in the service, others who weren't -- to hear about what their war was like and how the transition home has been.

Their answers were as varied as their experiences. But a constant theme through the interviews was that the American public is largely unaffected by the war, and, despite round-the-clock television and Internet exposure, doesn't understand what it's like.

Some of the unaffected are startlingly clueless, such as the girl who asked a friend if she'd gone clubbing in Iraq. Others presumptuously ask questions that grate on the nerves of a newly-returned soldier, such as, "Do you think we should be over there?"

That pronoun "we..." I know what they mean, and so does the soldier of whom the question is asked. But that's a phrase that's always lurched uncomfortably from my lips or fingers on the few occasions I've let it escape. So terribly callous to equate my peaceful existence at home with the horrors and challenges faced on the battlefield...

It makes me sad to hear a soldier say he won't share his story because a spouse or buddy "wouldn't understand." Yes, we'll never truly understand, but I think that many returning soldiers underestimate those who love them. If they are willing to share their stories, we can respond with acceptance, admiration, and love, helping the soldier to reclaim what was temporarily left behind when he went off to war... and we will understand more than we did before. I think of military wives who describe how they are torn between wanting to know and not wanting to know, but always wanting to understand... and of those who report that when their soldiers finally started to talk, they tried to shock them with their stories, only to find that the wives were actually stronger than they had expected. But I'm no expert...

Greyhawk adds his thoughts on the article, similar to what many warfighters have said to me when the subject of my being so sheltered from war comes up:
I've only been in the US once since 2002 - so I'll have to accept that ["a society that seems to forget that it is living through the country's largest combat operation in more than 30 years"] as accurate. Other than the reporter's unsupported claim of bitterness on the part of the vets, I hope it is. Americans able to go about their daily lives in peace is exactly what we are fighting for. Sounds like we've achieved victory on that front.
I am reminded again of a combat veteran friend who once told me:
You represent the best of what we fight for - your continued existence makes the sacrifices worthwhile...an example of what we fight for - the one who rocks the cradle, teaches the kids, raises the next generation to believe in something as beautiful as music.
Well, the music part is about to change, but whether I am spending a night on the town, simply doing my job, or raising the next generation, I will make the most of the opportunities I have, because I know those opportunities came with a price others have paid. So many more of us than you imagine are aware of what we owe. It doesn't matter what you think of me, but I wish so much that you could know what I really think of you...

[I don't think I expressed exactly what I wanted to here, but this is the best I can do with limited time and attention span. It's even harder because it comes from an only-semi-articulate part of my heart for which there may actually be no words at all.]

Update: Blue Crab Boulevard has some nice thoughts on this article. In particularly, I like:

No, unless you have seen the elephant, the best you can do is try your best to empathize, try your best to understand what you can


All we can do is realize they have seen the elephant for all of us, and we must stand by them. By their sacrifice and service, they have kept us from having to see the elephant ourselves.

And that's another reason why I wish more returning soldiers would share their stories: they help us better understand and recognize what has been done for the rest of us.