The Landscape of War

On Memorial Day, Monday, May 31, we will commemorate all those who have died in military service to their country.

Some 15 or so years ago, the members of a women’s chat group in which I participated were berated by a young woman whose spouse was serving in a combat zone. She first shamed us for being unable to identify, on a blank world map that she forwarded, the country where he was stationed. She then took issue with another participant’s remark that, due to advancing technology, we were all under the impression that most of those in the military no longer had to rely only on handwritten letters, but had the occasional availability of e-mail or text or even the rare international phone call. I sprang to the defense of the member whom she berated for making this last comment by pointing out that I’d just responded to a charitable plea requesting funds that would provide international phone minutes to those in the military.

The young woman replied to our remarks by verbally chewing us up and spitting us out. We were part of the problem, she sniped—people who knew nothing about what military spouses and families endured. We didn’t even know where the battles were raging. We hadn’t a clue.

Since this woman was perhaps 30 years my junior, I took a deep breath and counted to about 110 before addressing her comments. Then I calmly referenced the unmarked world atlas page she’d forwarded to us when pressing her point. I suggested she place her finger on Vietnam or Korea, or even France.

She could just about manage France.

So I explained that it had been in France that my uncle, serving in WWII, had hidden in a chicken coop to avoid discovery by a German patrol, thereby contracting the histoplasmosis that destroyed his lungs and shortened his life.

I showed her the spot in Vietnam where my brother-in-law, the man I would never know, had died. I recounted my mother-in-law’s description of her anguish on that afternoon when she, playing cards with girlfriends, received the terrible news of his death–the death that had occurred weeks prior. I then marked Korea, where another uncle served, and survived, and from where he sent me, his toddler niece, a beautiful doll dressed in a red silk kimono.

I told her about a friend’s classmate who was forced to repeat her senior year of high school, having not attended classes for months after receiving word that her boyfriend had died at Phnom Phen. Ten of his handwritten letters arrived just the day after she learned of his death, I explained. She lay on her bed for days, dry-eyed, not eating or sleeping, until her despairing parents had her involuntarily committed for a brief time, fearing she might suicide.

I described the stories told me by war survivors of letters that didn’t reach them for four, six, even eight weeks, only to drop into their laps in a giant bunch, the envelopes helpfully numbered by their parents and girlfriends and spouses so that they could be opened in the correct order. No texts, no e-mails, no FaceTime or Skype or Zoom. No international phone calls. Just hand-written letters, sometimes enclosing a photo. A rare reel-to-reel tape, which they might not even be able to play.

I reminded her that all these service members were draftees, not volunteers. That they, drafted as young as age 18, could not, at that time, even vote for the very leaders who were sending them off to fight and die, many in wars that were not even declared.

Don’t shame us, I told her, that we cannot identify current combat zones. For some of us, the landscape of war is as old and weary as we are. The memories, though—the memories, despite their age, are fresh and new. The memories, the pain and wondering, the anguish—those will never fade.

There is nothing straightforward or easy about sending a loved one off to a combat zone. It is sheer, unmitigated hell, all too often ending in the greatest of sorrow. I empathized in every bone and nerve fiber for what that young woman was enduring. None of us belittled what she was experiencing. But we had, all of us, endured our own combat zones and separation and agonizing uncertainty, in a landscape of war that did not even hold out a faint hope of occasionally hearing the voices of or seeing the faces of our loved ones. For that reason alone, mutual respect was needed, I concluded sternly; respect for each group that had endured a different and perhaps even multiple theaters of war.

Not long after this discussion (although for other reasons), I ended my membership with that online group, so I’ve never really known if the young woman took my words to heart.

But I’ve always hoped she did.

If you liked this essay, you might also enjoy “Judge Not…Sort of”,
which you can locate in the Archives from March 23, 2018, or the more recent “The Big Ice Storm”, which published on February 10, 2021.

The Kindly Neighbor and the Generations

§  To imply that today’s youth do not know sacrifice is to minimize and belittle everything they have experienced.  §

A friend asked me—not in an accusatory manner, but just curiously—why none of my recent weekly blogs had discussed the coronavirus pandemic. My initial reaction to her question was, “Dear God, don’t we all have to read and hear enough about it every day?” But, the simple truth is that my blog posts are usually scheduled as many as four to six weeks in advance, leaving them very little probability of corresponding to current events.

Only a day or so after her question, though, I received an e-mail lightly connected to the pandemic which simply set my teeth on edge; so much so that I decided to rearrange some scheduled posts to include an essay about it.

I cannot name the original source of this material, since the e-mail I received did not include it. Here, however, is the article that arrived in my email in-box, along with a note remarking that it was “just beautiful”.

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My reaction to this essay was swift and very negative. I re-read it multiple times in dismay, finally summarizing it for myself as follows: A kindly, thoughtful person makes special effort to ask if an elderly neighbor needs anything during a national crisis, and receives in return a rant, a harangue; a tirade closed by a scathing, condescending remark. And while I have rarely been the recipient of offers of neighborly helpfulness, I am certain that a critical lecture and nasty remarks would not be my first choice of response.

My second reaction to the account was that of weary disgust: I am so tired of generation bashing! Whether it is the self-named Greatest Generation deriding Baby Boomers, or Boomers disparaging Gen X’rs and Millennials, or Millennials ridiculing Boomers and Generation Z…I am sick of it. Each generational group is composed of individuals—individuals who differ greatly from each other despite their shared experiences. There are things we can all learn, wisdom to be gained, from appreciating one another’s viewpoints–but that wisdom cannot be gained so long as we continue to disparage each other.

No generation has a premium on dreadful events.  Each generation endures pain, and war, and sacrifice. Pearl Harbor was no more shocking than 9/11. The “police action” of Korea and the undeclared war of Vietnam were just as horrific for those who fought them as the Second World War. And I feel certain that those soldiers who battled through the First World War could easily have spoken just as scathingly to the man of this story as he did of subsequent generations.

Nor is disease limited to any one generation. A survivor of the Black Death from the Middle Ages, transported through time to the era of Spanish Flu, might well have laughed ironically: people were not, after all, dying while lying on straw pallets, covered with lice and fleas.  Lesser diseases were not under the sole proprietorship of the Greatest Generation, either. A Boomer myself,  I had classmates who survived polio; I endured measles, mumps, chickenpox, and rubella.  I was dreadfully sick with whooping cough as 40-something adult. My daughter, a Millennial, caught chickenpox before a vaccine became available.  I watched two co-workers barely survive MERSA.

Boomer children grew up under the horrifying reality of the bombs that fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki,  and the grip of the Cold War; we daily walked past the radiation insignia of the shelter areas within our schools as we ran practice drills for surviving nuclear annihilation. Sissies?  I feel sure that “duck and cover as you prepare to be vaporized by a nuclear warhead” did not comprise part of childhood  of that 80-something man.

To say that today’s youth do not know sacrifice is to minimize and belittle everything they have experienced. True, they do not recall a world without instantaneous communication, even from the battlefield, but the very world they have been born into is dying: the polar icecaps and Antarctic ice fields melting away; bees, butterflies and bats, all our pollinators, dying off at unprecedented rates. They have grown up in schools drilling not to survive nuclear war, but active shooters; they have watched their classmates mown down before their very eyes. And now they are dealing with the first genuine world-wide plague for 100 years. For them, this will always be the defining moment of their generation: when they had to shroud themselves in a chrysalis of isolation, afraid to hug a loved one or touch their hand; watching their parents and grandparents and even classmates succumb to an invisible enemy and barred from them as they died, gasping for breath.

No, I have reached the conclusion that the real man in the sad little tale I was sent was not, as declared, that full-of-himself 80-year-old, declaiming his one-sided story,  lauding himself while deriding all those whose experiences did not match his particular world view. The real man, was, I think, that kind-hearted neighbor who, unasked, came to see to the needs of an elderly man…and who came away, quite unappreciated and totally belittled.