The Veteran’s Paradox

Dick Winters became a production supervisor at a plastics adhesive factory after the war. He eventually bought a farm and started a business selling animal feed in Pennsylvania.

The books and movies about his life didn’t make him rich and famous. They didn’t start until 50 years after the war was over. He wrote his memoir at 86, no doubt with some arm twisting from a few publishers and agents. 

I watched him lead Easy Company in the HBO mini-series Band of Brothers on a portable DVD player in a cot in a rickety tent in a dark corner of East Africa. I was a young lieutenant on deployment with the burden of small unit command for the first time. That show was better than any leadership course I ever had at Annapolis.

It wasn’t close.

Guys like Bob Leckie and Eugene Sledge wrote books. Sledge sat on his for 40 years before he published, With the Old Breed: At Peleliue and Okinawa.

Jim Webb and John McCain turned their experiences into lives in politics. Like them or not, agree with them or not, there’s a strength that comes with their words. And a character we’ve come to trust.

Kennedy and Eisenhower became presidents. Both saw enough of war to know the importance of avoiding it. Kennedy was injured, had men die under his charge and lost a brother in combat.

Eisenhower led the largest military invasion in the history mankind. All that was on the line was everything. A future of a continent. The future of a society.

The future of a species.

Beyond the names you know, there are millions of others walking among us. The American character is shaped by the existence of those who fight our wars. Nearly every living generation today has its own version of the same story.

Some portion of our people go away from where we live to fight a war somewhere else. And then they return and melt back into the landscape.

War is done somewhere else. And the experience is left to be carried by those who saw it. Told in books and movies and on bar stools and in rare vulnerable moments between stoic fathers and eager sons.

That’s American war.

Today the brand of the American Veteran is good. We’re thanked, honored and even revered.  That’s a good thing. But it wasn’t always that way.

Because we don’t always fight our wars for good reason.

The further I get away from the wars I served in and the longer history has to play out in their wake, the more I come to the honest reckoning that I served in mostly ineffective, voluntary, wasteful wars.

And I can’t get away from another hard truth.

I loved doing it.

It’s a paradox I’ll spend a lifetime trying to solve. And I won’t solve it.

I don’t like war. Or killing. Or destroying lives and families and endless property. But I was a voluntary part of it.

I loved the men I served with. And I loved the life of a serviceman at war. And I love the lifetime of experience it packed into a tight burst of time in my life.

What  character I have, rests squarely upon it.

Deep in the collective psyche of America is a great tension between the harmful habit of our wars and the strength and brotherhood that those wars instilled in those that fought them.

It’s not a problem to solve. It’s simply there. And worth recognizing.

Today is about the people though. Veterans Day is a celebration of people, not war. There’s no conflict in my heart when it comes to that.

Today is a celebration of appreciation for those that carried the uneven load of service.

For that only a few words are appropriate.

Thank you for your service works just fine.

The rest is for another day.


6 thoughts on “The Veteran’s Paradox

  1. I was in college when the Vietnam War was still raging. My family, friends and church opposed it, but were appalled at how veterans (including those who were visibly wounded) were treated by the US upon their return. In part, at least, I’d like to think that the recent “good brand” for veterans is a correction of the indignities suffered by the soldiers who served in Southeast Asia.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Sean,
    My son will graduate from West Point in May 2018 as a second lieutenant. Next week is “branch night” when all senior cadets rip open their envelopes to see if they’ve been assigned to the Army branch they bid for. I know that he hopes for infantry; that he also intends to go through Ranger school; and that the list of his friends, doing the same, is long.

    We are a family, with no real military legacy, save the compulsory service of our elders in non-war times. This is an unimaginable landscape for me, as a mother…especially after witnessing 16 years of our country’s mismanagement of the wars and situations we send our military into. And yet…I see the leaders my son and his classmates have become, and will continue to become. My respect for the training he has received thus far is unbounded. Clearly West Point, and I’m sure all military academies, do not simply prepare young men and women to go to war…but also to return and take their place, as leaders of character, in our society.

    After a lifetime of living as one of the 99% of U.S. citizens not in the armed services, our family will soon have “skin in the game.” I will still get to sleep in my own bed and visit with my neighbors under safe skies. But I am well aware of those who are willing to step between me and the chaos of the world, to make that so.

    More than ever, I will thank veterans for their service. And as citizen, I will do what is expected of me: engage Congress about the tangled web of policies and inaction that cause us to send men and women into armed conflict. Congressional leadership, and their decision making, should be at least as high quality as the young leaders we send to war.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Reblogged this on Melting-Pot Dharma and commented:
    I’ve been admiring the thinking and writing in Sean Patrick Hughes’s blog, Chartwell West, for some time. I”m reblogging this, a day late for U.S. Veterans Day, for its spiritual insight for those who follow any religion or practice, — MHP

    Liked by 1 person

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