13 April, 2007

Living with the Wounded

[Update below]

I started to respond to this in comments at the Castle, but it soon turned into a post of its own. The comment that inspired this was in made in the context of improved body armor likely resulting in more amputees and other wounded warfighters who will survive with severely disfiguring injuries:

I think part of the problem we're having in America stems from the visual reminders of the cost of war. The elite (Blue Bloods), rather than owning up to the fact that someone else is paying their debt, are calling for an end to the conflict so they don't have to be so often reminded of their social responsibility and failure.

I think there's a lot of truth in that (and it's not just the "elite").

For over a year before I finally met some of the wounded face-to-face (geography had been an impediment), I had been steeped in the facts and issues of some of the most gruesome wounds our warfighters suffer. But there is a vast difference between intellectual knowledge and face-to-face knowledge. Meeting the wounded in-hospital didn't open my eyes to something new, but it walloped me on an emotional level when I looked in the eyes of the wounded and their families and was forced to consider what had happened as a result of what was done in my name and on my behalf.

It affected the way I viewed myself, and how I processed the rest of the world. Instead of being (as it had previously) an intellectual knowledge that touched my heart in sympathy and gratitude, it had a physical presence; it grabbed me and refused to be shaken. I walked out of that interaction with thousands of ghosts that have yet to fade.

Looking back, I think I had two ways I could've reacted. Firstly, I could have skittered away from the voice in my head that said "you are not worthy of such sacrifice" (right though it was) by either removing myself from the situation that had activated that voice, or ensuring that sacrifice never happened again. I even could've removed the negative feelings by pitying them, thus distancing myself by being "superior").

In that room, I was acutely aware of my inadequacy in being unable to do what those veterans had done, and how undeserving of such sacrificial loss I was... loss of futures, dreams, independence, wholeness... and then the suffering of those who loved them... I was smacked in the face with the "wrong-ness" of the world, the reminder that money and influence and politics and even prayer couldn't fix every problem... and these wounded men were the proof of that. They were the by-product of the fact that this is a sinful, broken world. And I hated myself for benefiting from actions that had resulted in their losses. I imagine there are many people out there who would rather not acknowledge such realities and thoughts...

But I had another option. I could have acknowledged all of the above, and also faced head-on the feelings it engendered. I could've recognized the nobility of their gift, found a way to live with my thoughts of inadequacy and undeserving. Perhaps I could even have harnessed them as motivation to continue to try to be as worthy of such gifts as possible. I could have cultivated the maturity to see the world as it is, not as I wish it would be. I could've decided that considering the burdens of the wounded veterans and their families, I could carry the burden of knowing they had done it for me. I could've recognized that though I didn't always relate to the values, attitudes, backgrounds and motivations of some of these amazing people, I owed them... and I could be "ok" with the fact that rebalancing the scales will be impossible, that I'd always be the recipient of something greater than I could ever reciprocate.

Obviously, I've chosen the second option. And I think those two different responses to the knowledge of the physical aftermath of war are what some are talking about when they say "America is at the mall." The "at the mall" Americans are the ones who take the first route when confronted with war--they can't cope with the horror of the damage and the more-personal horror of their connection to it. Better to go and find something fun to distract them; maybe if they don't think of it, it's not real.

But it is real, and it does take a certain amount of courage to live with it.

Apparently far too many on the homefront don't have the requisite courage. Frankly, those that take that first option above are the true chickens in this war. I'm not saying we should all be visiting the VA hospitals (though I recommend you do it if you think that may possibly be within your ability), as similarly not all of us were meant to be warfighters. But we should all have the courage to at least look war in the face from safely behind the shoulder of those who have voluntarily placed their bodies in the line of fire. They changed their future for us; the least we can do is acknowledge their present. Or is it presence? Presents?

Update: Commenter Jimmy J writes of his experiences that created similar thoughts:
I'm a Vietnam vet. Lost six close friends over there. In addition, three friends spent up to seven years in the Hanoi Hilton. Another friend was severely wounded; lost both legs above the knees. He eventually died from complications of his wounds.

...For many, many years I was troubled by deep seated feelings of guilt and unworthiness. I had survived unscathed while others had sacrificed so much. Why me? Why me?

Read how he finally found resolution here.