I would like to say that my experience of war was the most important thing that happened to me. It wasn’t. It was profound, but I was a war-grazer, a journalist who embedded with the troops from time to time, for limited periods. I could always go home after a week or two. I was shot at, but not by anyone I saw take aim; I was mortared, but never in a legit barrage, just occasional anarchic blasts that didn’t come close. Above all, I was lucky. I never saw real blood and gore. But I was scared enough—especially on patrol in Afghanistan when I’d gotten way too old to be there—to understand that this was not a video game. It wasn’t “politics by other means,” as
Bismarck Clausewitz had said. It was far more serious than a “life or death” presidential debate. It was more deadly than a “killer” negative ad. It existed on a different plane of reality—and reality, the suffering and hunger and carnage visited on most of the rest of the world, was a place that most Americans of my generation simply did not understand. But the experience changed me—especially Beirut, my first war zone, a dystopia of rubble that had been a sophisticated masterpiece of a city. Civilization was not a given. It was a flimsy state of grace. The memories come back, metaphysical flashbacks, when I consider the casual brutality of a monster like Yevgeny Prighozin, founder of the Wagner mercenaries:
“My advice to the Russian elites — get your lads, send them to war, and when you go to the funeral, when you start burying them, people will say that now everything is fair.”
These are sentiments usually expressed by anti-war sorts. But that’s not what Prigozhin is saying: He wants more war in Ukraine, more deaths. In the service of what? Why on earth? Same old reasons: national pride, testosterone poisoning.
We don’t have many Prigozhins wandering about in American politics these days. In my experience, in our country, it’s been the chicken hawks—the Cheneys and Rumsfelds—who’ve sent our kids to die in dusty periphera like al-Anbar and Helmand. I think of war lovers like Newt Gingrich and John Bolton, who can describe Napoleon’s every battlefield maneuver, but never fired a gun in anger or pissed their pants in a moment of terror; they always pushed for more war. I think of the vast majority of the U.S. Congress who never served. I think of myself, who dodged Vietnam. It is risky business to have such innocent, self-important sorts making decisions about war and peace. Every General or Admiral I spoke with in 2016 was terrified by the notion of Donald Trump’s feckless finger on the trigger. They were less worried by—indeed, they respected—Hillary Clinton, who worked overtime on the Senate Armed Services Committee to understand, and make amends for, the conflicts she had foolishly supported.
I spent years interviewing people who had been damaged, and sometimes deranged, by the experience of combat…but also others, ennobled by it and made wise, which is why I believe veterans have a distinct advantage when it comes to political leadership. They have perspective the rest of us lack. They have a sense of community the rest of us need.
My last book, Charlie Mike, made the case that the Post 9/11 generation of veterans was different from the rest of us. They had volunteered, all of them; more than a few had signed up immediately after 9/11. I had watched them in action. I was, and remain, convinced that they were going to have a positive political impact on the country. There are now 30 members, Republicans and Democrats, of the For Country caucus of Post 9/11 veterans in the Congress; they don’t always get along, but they talk—and they understand their shared experience of war is something more important than politics. There is also Wes Moore, the Governor of Maryland, who was one of the veterans featured on the cover of Time Magazine in 2011 as part of “The New Greatest Generation”—a story I wrote. Service doesn't guarantee nobility, of course: there is also Eric Greitens, whom I featured in Charlie Mike because he saved a lot of lives as the founder of The Mission Continues, a community service program for wounded veterans. He was elected governor of Missouri, but was removed from office—and then disgraced himself as a Trumper trying to return to public life.
But it seems to me that service, of some sort, should be a requirement for elective office. Indeed, I’ve made the case—and I’ll make it again—that service, of some sort, should be a requirement for citizenship. Maybe you shouldn't be able to vote if you haven’t served. Government work should be something each of us does for part of our lives—this is particularly true of the professional classes, the doctors and lawyers and academics, the architects and engineers, the fine arts majors; they all should be required to serve (and this should be the only way to pay off their student debts).
So, for me, Memorial Day is for remembering those who have served and who serve us every day. It’s a day to mourn, but also to celebrate people like Colbert King, a Washington Post columnist for longer than I can remember, a black man who was commissioned an officer in the military when it wasn’t an easy thing for a black man to do. He writes:
I don’t know where I will find myself on Monday when taps are played at the National Memorial Day program at Arlington National Cemetery. But count on this: I won’t be partying it up at a backyard barbecue bash or dashing from store to store in a shopping mall catching doorbuster sales.
I also can’t say whether I will devote an hour or minutes to remembering the fallen. But I know with certainty that some time will be spent giving thanks for the men and women who shed their blood and sacrificed their lives in service to the United States.
And I would extend that to people like Colbert King, who spent their lives conscious of others and trying to do the right thing. I would extend it to the first responders, the bedpan-emptiers, the volunteers at food banks and refugee centers, the docents and doulas and hospice caregivers, the guy who held the door for me on the train the other day, the granny with the three-year-old who returned my smile. All of those who know that we are in this together…and, of course, to those who are no longer with us.
Have You Forgotten Yet by Siegfried Sassoon.
Have you forgotten yet?...
For the world's events have rumbled on since those gagged days,
Like traffic checked while at the crossing of city-ways:
And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow
Like clouds in the lit heaven of life; and you're a man reprieved to go,
Taking your peaceful share of Time, with joy to spare.
But the past is just the same--and War's a bloody game...
Have you forgotten yet?...
Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you'll never forget.
Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz--
The nights you watched and wired and dug and piled sandbags on parapets?
Do you remember the rats; and the stench
Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench--
And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a hopeless rain?
Do you ever stop and ask, 'Is it all going to happen again?'
Do you remember that hour of din before the attack--
And the anger, the blind compassion that seized and shook you then
As you peered at the doomed and haggard faces of your men?
Do you remember the stretcher-cases lurching back
With dying eyes and lolling heads--those ashen-grey
Masks of the lads who once were keen and kind and gay?
Have you forgotten yet?...
Look up, and swear by the green of the spring that you'll never forget.
In memory of Clay Hunt and Mike Washington Jr., Marines who deployed together to Helmand. Never forgotten.
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