“…nine painful years on that detested shore,
what stratagems we formed, what toils we bore!
‘Twas GOD’s high will the victors to divide,
and turn the event, confounding human pride;
some were destroyed, some scattered as the dust,
but not all were prudent and not all were just…”
Recently I had the rare privilege of sharing libations with an old friend of mine. Rare because my friend is an officer in the United States armed forces, and only in town for a brief leave before he returns to his post overseas.
During our palaver, I tried to keep our conversation centered upon lighter matters than the ongoing military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. Stammering around for idle talk (which I typically abhor), I asked him what books he had been reading lately.
Allowing for a beat, I took a closer look at my friend… at the lines carved into his once-smooth features, how much more “salt” than “pepper” now tints his dark brown hair, at the restless hands and slightly ill-at-ease posture.
Washed onto the familiar shores of his homeland after a painfully long absence, weary from battle in a foreign land, I picture him awakening in a daze, not even recognizing the wife of his youth or the squalling infant that was once his son who is now a gawky Little Leaguer.
To top it all off, some cruel “gods” have cast an obscuring mist over all the familiar haunts and landmarks ’til all “looked otherwise than it was.” I can imagine him gazing at the changing faces of old friends and wondering: “What are the people whose lands I have come to this time?”
Yes, soldiers had just as rough a time acclimating to civilian life 3,000 years ago as they do now.
I have been thinking about Veterans Day all week. I think it was spurred on this Sunday during church, when veterans in our congregation were recognized. These men survived. Despite the horror that is war, with its untold casualties, these are the men who lived through it to tell the tale… and what is their tale?
Once he returned home, Odysseus tried to conceal the dreadful realities underneath fanciful tales of strange adventures. But he keeps the war to himself, buried deep.
I think about a venerable elder gentleman whom I grew very close to when I lived in Annapolis.
Battle-hardened and stoic in personality, he would become tender and incredibly emotive when talking about his time in Europe during World War II. More than this, he would easily be reduced to tears when even the most basic of sentiments of appreciation were expressed.
“It’s not for myself,” he told me one time, “but for all those that never made it home.” While he received commendations for valor in the field, well-deserved (in my opinion), the one “undeserved” (in his opinion) accomplishment that continues to haunt this man is that Fate spared him and so few of his cohorts.
Unlike Achilles in “The Iliad”,” who must choose between glory and safe return, so many of the men who stand up to be recognized for Veterans Day are yet haunted for being able to return, when so many did not.
I think Achilles’ choice to die on the battlefield for immortal glory also illustrates how much less complex it is for us to honor those fallen than those who returned. His choice reflects an uneasy awareness that it is far easier to honor the dead soldier than the soldier who returns.
Time-tested and time-honored, the commemoration rites we observe each Memorial Day, the parades and speeches and graveside prayers and offerings, represent a satisfying formula of remembrance by the living for the dead that was already referred to as “ancient custom” by Thucydides in the fifth century B.C.
Yet the commemoration of the veteran, the survivor who did not fall on the field of war, is much more difficult to define. The returned soldier, it is hoped, will grow old and die among us.
Some returned home as triumphant heroes, some returned home to curses and reviling.
Bro. Tom Beene, a minister at my church who served in Korea and Vietnam, talked about how many of his peers had to change into civilian clothing before they left their military transport, to avoid an incident during the radical climate surrounding the latter conflict.
While we have seemed to recover from the lunacy of those days, sadly there remains much in the way of our public policy that continues to take the American soldier for granted.
Such, I fear, is the sad legacy of the men who fight our battles for us.