World War I was hideously expensive and wasteful in terms of talent. A generation of young people, of talent, of possibility–gone. The hope and potential of growing their lives and cultures mowed down, gassed, and slaughtered. And that lost of hope and potential kept the survivors from the social buoying that youth inevitably bring to the world. From its misery the clock to WW II was wound. My parents were born less than five years after this war, and lived to suffer through it’s implacable, inevitable, tsunami. The senselessness was compounded by the misery of the civilian survivors. And the tens of millions who died in The Great Influenza, a confluence of virus and circumstance putting so many young people, the virus’ prime target, in small, enclosed, and inescapable places.
Vietnam Vets in the media were portrayed as unhinged, crazed people whose demons nipped their heels from acts one through three. And given that depressed and anxious people were told to “get over it,” or “cheer up,” or “leave that in the past,” I can’t say I blame them for being crazed (which they were and are not). PTSD’s stamp on the soul is so deep that epigenetics show it transmits to future generations. Generations of Holocaust survivors. Generations of Palestinians. Generations of African-Americans. Generations of people traumatized by the very government they look to for protection from want, from fear. From living (ahem) in pursuit of life and liberty and happiness. We’ve not learned this lesson in today’s America. We’ve backslid decades in years. If we ever really had that progress.
In my military service I learned many things. One of the big ones was: be nice to the support folks. Your food, your uniform, your mail, your weapon… your life… is in their hands. Eating manot krav (the Israeli equivalent of “C” rations) in a reeking uniform, trying to fix a damn machine gun some armorer hammered together the wrong way at T-20 before a live fire night exercise sucks. So everyone helps. In the moment you need the social worker so you can cry on her shoulder, she’s the most important person keeping you combat-ready.
Writing about ex-military is writing about people. Good ones, bad ones. Good ones in dark places, bad ones in a place they can find, for lack of a better term, grace. And while the military makes distinctions between combat soldier and not, the experiences, traumas, and acts of truck drivers, cooks, and anyone who wears the uniform as a target, must be acknowledged for their level of service and sacrifice. To write the soldier today is to dig into not just their history, their POV. It’s to understand how they process their military experience that’s never a Hurt Locker, and never a Wag the Dog (although…). M*A*S*H had it best: scared, frightened, and determined people with no more control over their lives than the combat soldiers they treated. But in it together, helping one another, in service of their comrades in arms and country. When writing, keeping the characters nuanced, conflicted, and real trumps the simplistic portrayal of veterans in our media.
So today, whether you moved paperwork in a Mississippi Air Station or did five tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, I salute you. Your sacrifice in blood and treasure, or “merely” losing four years of youth being told what to do so someone, somewhere, had the clothing, toothpaste, AvGas, or ammunition to do their, more dangerous, job.