I have a few relatives and friends who fought for the US military overseas. A very few of that few have been willing to talk about their experiences as soldiers in other countries. But most of them have been reluctant or unwilling to tell war stories.
My brother-in-law told me recently that he used to ask his now deceased grandfather to tell his war stories about being stationed in the Philippines during War World II. His grandfather always refused. That grandfather’s son fought in the Korean War. He is still alive. But like his father, he is absolutely silent about what he saw and did. So many of our soldiers come back from overseas broken and silent. I’ve asked so many of them to tell me war stories. Most of them refuse.
I’ve started to notice a curious blind spot in war stories that I think is unhelpful to boys growing into men. In fact, it might be extremely unhealthy even for the soldiers who keep silent. Most of the stories I hear, whether they are coming out of Hollywood or heard over a beer, concern valor or camaraderie. I rarely if ever hear war stories of shame. And that is a shame.
I remember one vivid exception. My high school history teacher fought with the Air Cavalry division in Vietnam. Unlike most soldiers I’ve talked to, he wasn’t afraid to tell war stories of shame. He was frank about the horrific things he had seen. And the horrific things he and other soldiers had done, on both sides. He was careful to explain the state of mind they were all in. He was careful to explain the subtleties of the Vietnam war—its many causes, its total warfare, its betrayals, and its frustrations. But hearing this history teacher talk about the Vietnam War was in direct contradiction to the narrative I had heard ever since my youth concerning the US military.
Many of our soldiers are honorable, but war is rarely honorable. Especially not these days. And what does an honorable person do when he’s faced with shameful circumstances and shameful choices? He tries to stay alive. And when he gets back home, he keeps quiet about the things he did to stay alive and the things he saw in the process. Because those things keep him up at night, and they terrify him in the day. And he wants to forget. He wants to live a normal life. I understand that.
But I must humbly plead with soldiers to go one more step in their service to this country. Tell your war stories. The humorous, brotherly, and valorous ones, for sure. But the awful, shameful ones as well. The ones that involve accidentally or purposefully killing innocents. The ones that involve witnessing or participating in rape. The ones that involve watching your friends get tortured or killed.
These are hard war stories to tell in public. The public actually doesn’t want to hear these war stories. We want to hear about bravery, honor, playing by the rules, vanquishing the enemy, near misses, epic sacrifices, and other things that confirm we’re still “the greatest nation on earth.” But those war stories give young men the wrong picture of war. We need to tell the stories that will make this axiom clear, vivid, and visceral: war is hell. Not only is war hell, but we should be doing everything we can to avoid it.
That’s the only way the hawk at the heart of America will be removed. We need to tell the war stories that will convince young men all over this country that dulce et decorum est pro patria mori is always a lie unless you are dying to protect your home, most literally.
Which is the main point of all of this really. War stories abound from the War for Independence. And they’re amazing, really. The War Between the States furnished fewer war stories. That was the last time our soldiers all freely talked of war. World War II furnished more stories, especially from the European theater. I imagine the plane pilots who dropped the big ones on Nagasaki and Hiroshima were less enthusiastic about their part in the war. And since World War II, the stories have only become more and more strained. There’s a reason the whole generation who fought in the Korean War are called the Silent Generation. And, since then, the soldiers have become more and more silent about their shame and terror.
The statistics are rather loud, though. We’ve never seen more PTSD among soldiers. We’ve never seen more suicide among troops, or lower troop morale.
If you hold to a strict just war doctrine, which I do, the US hasn’t been in a just war since the War for Independence, with possible exceptions for World Wars I and II. And some of the most under-considered victims of this national injustice are our very own soldiers. We are sending soldiers where they shouldn’t be. And they get attacked by angry locals. And they shoot back trying to survive. And they do other things as well, some of them horrible—from frustration, from boredom, from the callousness of routine, the temporary psychosis of battle-weariness, or the desperation of loneliness. Who’s really to blame for this? Our civil government that sends these boys into needless battle in the first place, with heads full of the wrong kind of war stories.