I suppose it is the lot of soldiers and Marines to be objectified according to the politics of the day and the mood of the American people about their war. I know a veteran of World War II who hates the idea of the Greatest Generation. "War ruined my life," he told me. "I couldn't date girls after the war. I couldn't go with people. I was a loner… It took years after the war for me to realize that the Earth is beautiful, not always ugly. Because I had so many friends killed in front of me, on the side of me, and how they missed me, I have no idea."Klay points out that not only is the experience of all soldiers in a given war not the same, even the experiences of one soldier are not all the same. Life is not easily fit into a one sentence theme summary. He apparently has a book of short stories out, most of them taking place in the military, which I'd be curious to take a look at some time.
Vietnam veterans—who, like World War II veterans, were a mix of volunteers and draftees and probably expected, at least at the beginning of the war, a similar beatification—had the opposite problem. In "Recovering From the War," Patience H.C. Mason relates her husband's story: "Bob, who never fired a gun in Vietnam…who saved hundreds of lives by going in for wounded when it was too hot for the medevacs…got off the plane to buy some magazines in Hawaii. The clerk smiled at him and asked if he was coming back from Vietnam. He smiled back and nodded. 'Murderer!' she said."
Compared with that kind of reception, the earnest pity that Iraq and Afghanistan veterans often receive is awkward to complain about. It can sometimes even work to our advantage. When a friend of mine went apartment-hunting recently, he had a potential landlord cry and call him a "poor soul" because of his service. "I went along with it," he said sheepishly. He didn't want to blow his chances on the application.
The theologian Jonathan Edwards didn't consider pity an expression of "true virtue." Pity addresses the perceived suffering, not the whole individual. "Men may pity others under exquisite torment," Edwards wrote, "when yet they would have been grieved if they had seen their prosperity."
Pity sidesteps complexity in favor of narratives that we're comfortable with, reducing the nuances of a person's experience to a sound bite. Thus the response of a New York partygoer who—after a friend explained that the proudest moment of his deployment to Iraq came when his soldiers were fired on and decided not to fire back—replied, "That must make the nightmares even worse."
Tuesday, May 27, 2014
Narratives of War
Phil Klay, himself a former marine who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, had an interesting piece in the weekend's WSJ about the cultural narratives about different wars and the way they dis-serve the actual experiences of veterans: