Our Flanders Field

For the British, the deaths in World War I struck hard. In that “war to end all wars,” some in British coastal towns could see the flare of mortars and hear the firing of guns in Belgian. In that war of attrition, men dig into trenches equipped almost like houses with cots and kitchens. For weeks, months, years, British and Belgians dug in opposite their German enemies. The soldiers could smell each other’s cooking, hear occasional voices raised in agony or song.

I imagine there is a double horror of war fought in such close proximity: fear for one’s own agony, coupled with disgust and fear at the agony you cause. Erik Marie Remarque’s quintessential war novel, All Quiet on the Western Front, (193?) tells it best–the young German students conscripted to fight a war they don’t understand, and don’t want, who in mud and fear become crazed with waiting, until they rush over the tops into blind hatred and enemy fire.

Of my father and his three brothers, only the youngest, Frankie, went into combat in World War II. Whatever bloodshed he witnessed as he recovered from malaria in North Africa, once he was sent to Naples, his service became the rollicking events of an urban cowboy. He shooed whores into American officers’ beds, requisitioed donkeys, bread, and wine. Since he spoke formal and dialectical Italian, he hinted that he’s been part of an American/British contingent to urge the Pope to speak out against the war. Yet, even Frankie came home a changed man, refusing to visit his wife and daughter, divorcing and marrying a New York lawyer he’d met in the Army.

My father, called the “professor” by his more he-man brothers, was excused from combat because of poor eyes and flat feet. Instead he did war work at Kabuta in Pennsylvania–who knew what was being manufactured there. In the worker’s cottage where we lived, my mother’s tales created my first memories–of a doctor leaning over me as she held me down on the kitchen table for him to pierce my eardrum and let the pus drain. “Snow up to the top of the windows,” she would say, turning my early memories into scenes from her North Dakota childhood, and making me a prime reader later of the Laura and Marie books.

It’s been hard for me to bring war inside the family circle, that is, until this spring when I taught three veterans in a mid-level writing class. One never went overseas, one was a helicopter pilot in Iraq, and one spent a decade in the service, both in Afghanistan and elsewhere. The two who saw active duty both came home with PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder. Now as I drive my husband to the airport a few days from Memorial Day, my husband, the Vietnam draft refuser who spent 18 months in a federal penitentiary rather than escape to Canada or fight in Vietnam, my husband who does not talk about war, any war unless prodded, my husband who has his own kind of scars from his prison experience–he’s on his way to play Scrabble in San Jose. But as I pause to study the rows of white crosses in Fort Snelling National Cemetery, I think of my three students, one who proudly described walking with his veteran grandfather among the rows of crosses, anticipating about his own burial there, who came home from Iraq, after flying the wounded from battle to hospital and could not shake the screams and terror from his memory, and the third who eventually trained U.S. soldiers to take their places in Afghanistan, surely one of the strangest wars American soldiers have ever fought.

These two wrote about returning home with a sense of terrified emptiness, becoming easily agitated and losing emotional control, of being unable to look for work or keep their hands from shaking. This is service that saps life for years after the battlefield. With help from the Veterans Administration, each man has found ways to help himself recover–talk therapy, hard exercise, weeping, writing, working with other vets. Whatever else I may think of President Obama, and I’m largely a supporter, I honor his efforts to keep the United States out of active combat in the implosion that is the near east. I honor this, even as I’m horrified at the hundreds of thousands of refugees, and the breakdown of civilized decency. It is very hard to tell what will happen there, and what we may be called upon to do.

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