Late in Hitch-22*, Christopher Hitchens introduces the story of a 23 year old American soldier who was killed by an IED in Iraq in January of 2007. This young man** had doubts about the war and was a graduate of one of our best universities and thus could have avoided any intimate connection with its dangers and on-the-ground reality. He volunteered and pursued a combat role because, as he wrote in a letter home, he could not imagine reaching the age of 50 and not having served his country. He said to his mother, “If not me, who?” In addition, he wanted to be a journalist — he wanted the authentic story of the War as he had seen and experienced it.
On a combat patrol he commanded, he volunteered to take point with his Humvee which had slightly more ‘hillybilly armor’ than the utterly exposed vehicle which was to have taken the lead, this in the years when the despicable Donald Rumsfeld condescendingly spoke of going to war with the “army you have.”#* He put himself in the most danger because he believed that is what combat leaders are supposed to do, lead from the front, lead by example. His Humvee was obliterated by a buried mine. Three of his men died with him.
This is Memorial Day, the most profound of our public holidays because it cannot be separated from sacrifice and the deaths of the young. Those three words – sacrifice, death, young — are single stars of a constellation of words that one could use properly here to describe the vast majority of the men and women who set off to Iraq and Afghanistan (it is the grunts I speak of here; no matter the rank but those who slept in the mud)#@. Other words must be added to the constellation: courage, honor, endurance.
The men and women who choose the obligation to pick up the gun for us, and their families who sustain them in this, are the genuine 1%, the best of us as a nation. The ones I know and have known have come out of the HS where I taught and from my relations – they hail from Robesonia, Kempton and Sassamansville, from East, South and North Coventry, Spring City, Warwick and the Nantmeals, East and West, and from Pottstown and Reading and Royersford. Widen that circle for your own and then comes Las Cruces, New Mexico, Wolf Point, Montana, Olympia, Washington, Compton, Coatesville, White Bird, Idaho, Jackson, Mississippi and Caribou, Maine and all the spinning compass points in all the States.
I wonder if we have earned the gift of their virtues.
Hitchens has a way of acknowledging the complexity of trying to see any political, military, economic or historical context clearly. He calls it “keeping two set of books.” He means to indicate that all manner of competing and contradictory truths can be present in one event, and to make sense of it, one must see and think clearly, without ideology or the accepted wisdom of the day obscuring the reality of what is occurring or had occurred.
Therefore, I must add this — are you as well feeling a cumulative awareness that today especially the larger nation is failing them, and that its political, economic and cultural life – so often dishonest, selfish, trivial and self-absorbed^, cannot stand alongside their valor and idealism? A chaplain, a character from one of the stories in Redeployment by Phil Klay, offers a harsh judgment: “I see mostly normal men, trying to do good, beaten down by horror, by their inability to quell their own rages, by their masculine posturing and their so called hardness, their desire to be tougher, and therefore crueler than their circumstance. And yet, I have this sense that this place is holier than back home. Gluttonous, fat, oversexed, overconsuming, materialist home, where we’re too lazy to see our own faults.”
Phil Klay served as a Marine in Iraq. He has earned the right to create a character who makes such a severe judgment. I do not yet know what I think of that paragraph. I am by nature more of an optimist, but I have also not walked in the fire where Klay has walked. I do know that we must examine our public lives and try to be worthy of the codes that govern their perilous work – Semper Fi, Always Faithful; Semper Paratus, Always Prepared; This We’ll Defend; Not Self, But Country. Instead of thanking them for their service, perhaps we should be asking them for their perspective and thus paying them the respect of taking seriously the cost they have paid and the wisdom they have gathered in hard lands and in desperate times.
*Hitchens’ memoir, written 1 year before his death.
**I will leave his name out of this essay out of a respect for the privacy of his family. Hitchens spent time with his mother, father, brother, sisters and friends after his death and thus received the moral permission necessary to name him and tell his story. This chapter is the most moving part of a very good book. A reporter from the LA Times wrote about him first. Her story is referenced here. It will break your heart.
@#And before that to Saratoga and Trenton, New Orleans, Tripoli, Chapultepec, Antietam, Gettysburg, Cold Harbor, France, North Africa, France again, Germany, the Pacific, Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, Kuwait and so many other names that would fill up this space and overflow the edges of the page.
^Case in point — the incompetence and dishonesty as shown by the VA in its treatment of current vets. The President must answer to this.