Elizabeth Sullivan on Memorial Day: Remembrance includes engagement w/today’s fighting forces

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how little first-hand experience I have with meeting, listening to or learning from individuals who’ve dedicated significant portions of their life to military service.  So it was ironic to me that the Plain Dealer’s foreign-affairs columnist and editorial page associate editor, Elizabeth Sullivan’s column yesterday seemed to specifically address the need for people like me to engage with military personnel, in some way, at some level.

From her column:

Today, with all the bumper stickers for the troops and the atta-boys, with all the honor guards and huge community outpourings of grief when our military personnel don’t make it back alive, why is combat stress and PTSD as high — maybe even higher — than it was in the Vietnam era? Why are suicides the newest cause of death for our fighting men and women?

Could it be that, despite the atta-boys, most of us still don’t know how to speak of war, or listen or understand what it means to go to a war that is so remote, so “over there?” Is combat in Iraq and Afghanistan so beyond the ken of most of us as to become invisible?

I could not agree more with this notion that we lack the language to understand.  I remember having this exact same flash just after 9/11, when newscasters and commentators kept referring to the attack as indescribable. Why? In part because we in America had no language for it – for what happened, for the impact, for the reactions.  Countries that have endured terrorism and civil war have lexicons to match.  We didn’t.

So this notion of not having the language to deploy to try and engage now too really resonates with me.  As a result of reading Sullivan’s column, I spent an even longer time than usual with a particular neighbor at a local pool party today.  Her son will be in his final year at West Point in the fall.  And we talked a lot about the mindset and how difficult it can be to understand.

I don’t know a thing about the literature that exists to help people like myself understand what it means to be of a mind that prepares for military service, but I’ll take all suggestions, because, as Sullivan concludes:

Remembrance is not just about decorating the graves and flying the flag. It’s also about engagement with today’s fighting forces. It’s about paying attention to the details of the wars they’re fighting, and it’s also about listening. Just listening could mean a lot.

WCPN broadcast a wonderful first chance for listening this morning:

When soldiers return home from war, many cope with the aftermath of traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress. But it’s not just the soldier who suffers, parents, especially mothers, who have given up everything — their jobs, retirement savings, and plans for the future – often step in and care for their wounded children. On Memorial Day, we share a Public Radio Exchange program Picking Up the Pieces. 

You can read more here. The program this morning was excellent, and involved just listening.

11 thoughts on “Elizabeth Sullivan on Memorial Day: Remembrance includes engagement w/today’s fighting forces

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  2. Shalom Jill,

    I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain. We had heard them, sometimes standing in the rain almost out of earshot, so that only the shouted words came through, and had read them on proclamations…and I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it.

    There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity…Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene besides the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.

    From A Farewell To Arms by Ernest Hemingway. Via Connect The Dots…

    B’shalom,

    Jeff

  3. Midwestwife – thanks for reading and leaving a comment. I’m sure you’re right about how some proportion of combat vets feel that way. I immediately think of Holocaust survivors and how some cannot stop talking about it, and want people to never forget, while others are completely unable to talk about. People are different, feel differently, think about these experiences differently.

    Nevertheless, from the perspective that I think Sullivan took – which is that of the individuals who have no first-hand experience in combat or the military, finding books, finding those who are willing to talk or who are already out there talking might be worth engaging. I didn’t read what she wrote as suggesting we accost folks or anything.

  4. I respect Betsy Sullivan and her family’s service, but she does not speak for all vets and their family members.

    I have family members and friends who were combat veterans, some of them highly decorated, and none of them want to even discuss their service. Some were drafted. Some volunteered.Their service was hard and traumatic. They did what they were sent to do, often heroically, and they came home and hoped that they could get on with their lives. Nobody spit on them. Nobody criticized them. But they went through hell, and the adjustment back into calm American family life was difficult. Some of them made the adjustment. Others didn’t. But none of the ones I know thought that a parade when they came home would have made a difference.

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  6. Shalom Jill,

    I’ll echo Chuck’s sentiments.

    You can’t describe the scent of a rose if you’ve never smelled one.

    Having said that, I also agree with his suggestion to read, read, read.

    I highly recommend the works of Stephen Ambrose. I recently finished The Wild Blue, the story of the men who flew the B-24s in WW II.

    I have a friend who was a B-24 tail gunner. I’ll never look at the man the same way again.

    B’shalom,

    Jeff

  7. There are clubs an outsider cannot actually understand, like combat, but one can get an inkling by studying the literature that covers it, and that is ugly. Knowing what bullets and explosives do and the outcomes would give you some idea. The effects of living in a hostile culture and dealing with separation from loved ones and home…

    Sometimes the expressed fact of giving a damn is about the best you can do. Help with the everyday realities of civilian life, like a job and etc doesn’t hurt any.

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