The Last Full Measure of Devotion
Last Memorial Day I wrote about the loss of life in the endless and unproductive war in Afghanistan that has now lasted twelve years and counting. Since then little if anything has changed. The war drags on, with Afghan soldiers still turning their weapons on NATO troops, and losses from IEDs and suicide bombs still the norm.
During the Vietnam War there were anti-war protests, marches and rallies, some violent. Headlines, editorials, op-ed pieces, and books spoke out against a war that dragged on for far too long, to a messy ending. Servicemen and women returning to the United States were taunted by epithets and it was common practice to change into civilian clothes (as I certainly did upon landing at Travis Air Force Base in 1972) upon returning to the United States. Public outrage eventually brought down a weary Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson, who had become almost irrelevant in a nation beset by controversy and unrest.
By comparison, the Afghan War has barely caused a ripple. Public indifference is prevalent. It’s a war few seem to care about except for the participants, their families and the war hawks in Congress.
News of the war has become as remote as the outposts guarded by our soldiers. Our local newspaper, for example, only publishes the names of the fallen once a week. Sports stories, crime, and the dysfunction of our government routinely make news, as do the comings and goings of self-important wannabe celebrities like the Kardashians.
And while Memorial Day is when we appropriately focus on and honor the service and the sacrifices of the those who have died in the service of this nation – “the last full measure of devotion” as Lincoln so eloquently said at Gettysburg – we also must not forget the living: those who have served and are suffering from physical wounds and from psychological wounds in the form of PTSD and survivor guilt.
And, yes, while we celebrate our veterans each November, I cannot help but believe that Memorial Day can be more than just about remembering and honoring the fallen. In addition to Veteran’s Day, this is also a fitting time to comment on the struggle faced by those who have survived war.
Our government has never been able to adequately care for our veterans, not only in the current wars, but also in every conflict since the Civil War, when only those who served the Union were entitled to care. In 2013, the Veteran’s Administration seems hopelessly ensnarled in red tape and many veterans are being supported by non-profits like the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund and patriots like the Fisher family, who helped create and fund a number of Fisher Houses that provide aid and comfort to the families of wounded and recovering servicemen and women.
In April 2013, at the William E. Colby Military Writers’ Symposium, held at Norwich University, a distinguished panel that included authors Karl Marlantes and Dr. James Wright (former president of Dartmouth College), both very active in supporting veterans, focused on the problems and challenges faced by our returning veterans. An audience of some 1,000 students, faculty, alumni and members of the public were made aware of the great debt owed these men and women and how we can best help them through an often difficult transition to civilian life.
How serious is it? Every day over twenty veterans commit suicide and last year there was nearly one suicide a day by active duty military personnel.
Two dedicated Americans have made a deep commitment to our veterans, and are co-sponsoring a bill in Congress (HR 1492) to establish a presidential commission on healing the wounds of war.
Karl Marlantes is the author of Matterhorn and What It Is Like To Go To War. He is a former Rhodes Scholar and one of the most highly decorated Marines of the Vietnam War, where he was awarded the nation’s second highest decoration for bravery, the Navy Cross. He has also received the Bronze Star, two Navy commendation medals for valor, two Purple Hearts, and ten air medals. In his highly acclaimed novel, Matterhorn, Marlantes has written one of the finest books about Vietnam ever produced. As journalist and best-selling author Mark Bowden has written, “Matterhorn is a great novel. There have been some very good novels about the Vietnam War, but this is the first great one, and I doubt it will ever be surpassed … Here is story-telling so authentic, so moving and so intense, so relentlessly dramatic, that there were times I wasn’t sure I could stand to turn the pages.” Regardless of the war they fought in, every soldier who has ever experienced the adrenaline and fear of combat will identify with this superb book.
Sebastian Junger is an acclaimed writer and war correspondent who has covered first-hand the war in Afghanistan for Vanity Fair. He is the author of the best-selling book, The Perfect Storm, and more recently, War, a book that Publisher’s Weekly called “an unforgettable portrait of men under fire.”
As Marlantes recently noted in an e-mail, “Sebastian and I have been writing letters for around 15 months about marking the close of 12 years of war and increasing citizen ownership of the war’s consequences. We feel that the alienation that many returning veterans feel is exacerbated by the growing gap between our military and the citizenry. It is not about these wars being right or wrong … if you paid your taxes and drove your car, you need to share some of the moral/spiritual burden of the killing, not just the 19-year-old who pulled the trigger of the rifle you paid for.”
In their proposed bill they note that: “In his 2012 State of the Union address, President Obama pointed out that in combat all other identities become irrelevant – rich, poor, black, white, gay, straight, liberal, conservative. If the troops can achieve such unity, the President asked, why can’t Congress? Why can’t our society as a whole? This is a complicated moment in our nation’s history, and we are proposing a Presidential commission to examine and articulate the spiritual challenges, and to help heal the psychic wounds, faced by a nation emerging from a decade of war.”
To those who lie forever in hallowed ground we honor your service and your sacrifice. To the living, who have survived war, we must pledge to do better. What Karl Marlantes and Sebastian Junger have proposed is an important initiative that resonates Lincoln’s words at Gettysburg about service and sacrifice.