A day worthy of grappling as well as gratitude

by Kristin on November 11, 2011

in Culture, ideas & paradigms

Photo by ttarasiuk

There are plenty of messy topics I don’t shy away from here—politics, religion, divorce, depression—but there are a few that I definitely avoid, mostly because I feel so confused and conflicted about them that I don’t know where to even begin my thoughts, let alone how to wrap them up.

War and peace, and the people actively participating in one or the other—and sometimes both at once—is one of those topics.

On Veterans’ Day, I know it doesn’t have to be complicated. All I need to do is think about those who are serving and who have served, and thank them in the most sincere way I can. But I’m still left with so many questions:

- Does a general “thank you” one day a year even begin to cover the cost of lives, heartache and injury of serving in the armed forces?

- How do I take my respect and compassion for people who are fighting in conflicts I don’t believe in and untangle it from an approach to power and violence that I don’t support? (Not only was I raised by pacifist parents, I am now part of a Mennonite-affiliated church and married to someone who went to a Mennonite college.)

- How do I take a meaningful stand against the imbalanced nature of the armed forces—that a large percentage of those joining the military and being deployed to combat zones overseas come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, where college and decent jobs are often not viable options. What do I do with my guilt that other people’s husbands and brothers and children and being deployed so that mine don’t have to?

- And how can I connect to any of this in a truly meaningful way when not one person I love deeply has died in a war, been indelibly impacted by one, or is currently risking their life in a dangerous part of the world? My grandfather was in World War II, but was stationed in the South Pacific with the Navy. My father was up for the Vietnam draft in 1966, but then my mom got pregnant with my brother. (Even though I wasn’t even born yet, I can’t help but feel thankful that he didn’t have to go.)

If I wait until I have these questions answered before writing a post about this issue, it will probably never happen. And that isn’t right, because it’s just another way of living in denial about something that is very real in our world, and very real in the lives of many individuals.

Plus, I bet I’m not alone with my collection of complex feelings. Earlier this year I wrote about Why we like imperfect posts—the one that aren’t all neatly thought through and don’t have all the answers. With input from many blogger and Twitter friends, I came to the tentative conclusion that “the posts we’re struggling with invite others to struggle along with us—to participate and problem solve together.” Those are, without a doubt, my favorite moments as a blogger, so I invite you to struggle with me, enlighten me, and share your own stories here. Through our honest struggle, may we honor all who are serving and have served.

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  • http://toddsweet.com Todd S.

    I approach today from a slightly different perspective. This is the one day where I set aside the conflicting emotions and simply express my gratitude to those past and present who have served our country.

    Back in 2003 a good friend of ours was dating a captain in the Army who was set to be deployed to Iraq in the fall of that year. They ended up getting married before his deployment in a small ceremony, and Julie and I were asked to be one of two couples in attendance. Prior to that, I had no real connection to anyone in the military. However, I maintained a blog that my friend read, and she asked if I would post any news I found about her husband’s unit when it deployed. I did, and that simple action changed my life in profound ways. Because of the demand by other families for news, we created a separate online community for military families that is still active to this day.

    Not only did my work on this site prompt me to switch careers, it also introduced me to a network of service men and service women (and their families) who profoundly impacted my life. I got to know a dozen or so families who lost sons and daughters in Iraq, and attended a memorial service for one. Additionally, the sons of two of my contributors were seriously injured; one lost an arm, and the other was shot in the head and went through a long recovery similar to congresswoman Gabby Giffords. Then there is the devastation caused by hidden wounds, such as PTSD. This exposure has been eye-opening, to say the least.

    Like you, I don’t necessarily agree with our government’s policies regarding these conflicts, but you might be surprised to learn that those sentiments are shared by many in the military. Obviously they aren’t pacifists, but…

    In response to some of your questions, I offer the following:

    - Veterans have a variety of reasons for joining the military, but it’s important to remember they did not ask to fight these conflicts – our government did. We must hold our elected officials responsible for these decisions if we disagree with them. There’s a reason the military has civilian leadership at the top.

    - What has helped me with my guilt is simply to support veterans and their families in ways that are meaningful to me. For me that has been by devoting considerbale time and expense maintaining an online community, and advocating for increased benefits for veterans.

    - As far as connecting to this community, if you have the time and interest there are numerous ways to do so. Follow a soldier’s blog. Contact @IlliniVets to see if there are any volunteer or mentor opportunities on campus. Make an effort to learn about these conflicts to understand the work our servicemembers are doing around the world on our behalf.

    Great post. As you can tell I have strong feelings on this one, and I actually tried to keep it short. ;)

    Todd

  • http://www.inamirrordimly.com ed cyzewski

    I suppose I agree with Todd on a lot here, but I have a slightly different experience. I’ve seen first hand in my own family how our recent wars have impacted both soldiers and their families, how our government knowingly put their lives in far more danger than necessary (look up depleted uranium), and how veterans from Vietnam to both gulf wars have been denied medical care for injuries that stem from our own weapons. Whether it’s agent orange or depleted uranium, the wounds our government inflicts on our own soldiers grieve me.

    And so when we talk about “honoring” our soldiers, I think about soldiers who return from the danger zone and who can’t find a doctor in the army’s medical system who will treat their conditions. I think about the dark future awaiting them and their families. I think about our government’s denial. How can I just say “thanks!” while we have veterans suffering from cancer, chronic headaches, and constant pain that resulted from their service? The way that I can say thank you to a soldier is asking our government to stop making weapons that poison them and to provide the treatment they need. How ungrateful can a country be if its government fails to treat those who put themselves in harm’s way?

  • http://takingtheyoke.blogspot.com Ray Hollenbach

    I think I’d beware of anyone you claimed to have ready answers to any of your questions. I can only share a series of conflicting thoughts:

    “I am a soldier so that my son can be a farmer and his son be a poet.” ~ (attributed to John Adams)

    “A man of peace can go to war, but a man or war can never remain at peace.” ~ Charles Simpson

    In the last year of his life, I pressed my father to tell me some Korean war stories. He said, “So, you want me to tell you what it’s like to fly a strafing run and watch men run for their lives?”
    “No,” I protested. “I was just curious.”
    “Well that’s exactly what you’re asking me to do.”
    He never talked about it again.

  • http://toddsweet.com Todd S.

    Ed,

    I agree. If we elect officials who then send men and women into harm’s way, we have to make sure that those vets get everything they need when they return. That includes medical care, counseling, education benefits, civilian transition assistance etc.

    Did you guys see the bill passed by the U.S. Senate yesterday? http://goo.gl/hHBnq

    Todd

  • Brian McKay

    While I agree that it is conflicting as a peace loving citizen, I always take this day to ponder the following: My 5x and 4x great grandfathers both fought the Brits in New Jersey and NY, my 3x great grandfather fought on the side of the Union, my 3x great uncle died in Andersonville Prison, my great grandfather fought in WWI, both of my Grandfathers fought the Nazi’s and the Japanese, my cousin dropped bombs on Khaddafi in 1986, my brother in law fought in Falujah part two with the USMC, my cousin fought in Helmand province of Afghanistan with the 101st and my best friend has been a pilot in the Army for 18 years and has toured Iraq as well as protected our borders.

    I am not a proponent of war and I regret that they ever occur. However, I cannot thank any of these people enough for what they did. If you agree with whichever conflict they were involved in or not, it doesn’t matter.

    They all risked the same thing.

  • http://confessionsofabipolarfaerie.typepad.com/blog/ Roxanne

    My late father-in-law was a flight lieutenant in WW2. He flew lancaster bombers over Germany. He kept his service pistol. He never spoke of his experience; he refused to when asked by his sons. I suspect the reasoning is the same as given by Ray Hollenbach’s father. Those who go to war are forever changed. What a huge sacrifice.

  • http://www.JanetOberholtzer.com Janet Oberholtzer

    Thank you for this post.
    I’m confused about Veterans Day and don’t know what to do with it… so generally I ignore it. I appreciate you taking the more mature route of talking about your confusion about it.
    I was raised in a strict Mennonite sect (almost Amish) so pacifism was all I knew. After leaving that culture in my early 20′s and entering a conservative evangelical culture for a few years … I (uneasily) embraced that idea that war is necessary, after all, most of the good Christians I met there fully supported war.
    Finally in my early 30′s … I began to think more for myself instead of embracing whatever position the people around me held. Though I don’t have all the answers on how to solve conflicts, I’m a pacifist now. But I want to support friends whose loved ones are serving now, who returned home injured and/or have lost their lives while in service.
    So on Veterans Day, I’m not sure what to do … to show support for veterans, current troops, etc seems like I’m saying I agree with war. I haven’t figured out a way to support people involved with war without supporting the war itself.

  • http://KHarrison18@satx.rr.com Karen H

    My father was one of those soldiers who came from a “lower socioeconomic background”. He was a white man in the south who came from a poor family. They ate meat once a week.

    We lived in housing provided by the US government, had medical care provided by the US government, and when not in the US, went to schools and churches built by the US government.

    You say that “decent” jobs aren’t available to these people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. The military is more than a decent job. It allowed my father to rise out of his poverty and earn an associate degree at the expense of the US government.

    I’m sorry that you feeling confused and conflicted. I don’t feel one bit confused and conflicted about Veteran’s Day. I feel indebted to the US government and the Air Force for the life they provided to my family and myself.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    Todd, thank you for taking the time to share your insights. Isn’t it amazing how much our perspectives change when we actually *know* someone who belongs to a certain sub-group of our culture? Suddenly it’s no longer generalizations about a group of people, but instead a specific story about a specific individual/family. That’s why stories are so important, as well as finding ways to connect and understand.

    ed, you bring up some other issues that leave me feeling frustrated and conflicted, in terms of decisions being made by our government about which battles to fight, and the lack of care and support once the soldiers are back home. Showing gratitude to those who have served is important, but they need us to help advocate for them in very real ways, too.

    Ray, I always appreciate good food for thought. The John Adams quote touches on something that’s often at play: We often do what we do in hopes that our children will have a better life. Many very significant sacrifices have been made with future generations in mind. I also really like this: “A man of peace can go to war, but a man or war can never remain at peace.” So maybe it’s more about where our hearts are?

    Brian, your story is a great example of the John Adams quote. It’s possible, of course, that your ancestors didn’t have a whole lot of choice about whether to fight or not, but I bet they thought about future generations when they were at war. I bet their deepest hope was that they were leaving the world a better place—that their efforts and risk weren’t in vain.

    Roxanne, yes: “Those who go to war are forever changed. What a huge sacrifice.”

    Janet, thanks for making me feel less alone in my confusion! It’s easy to feel like you’re the only one who’s conflicted (and probably over-thinking it). It makes me realize the huge impact our parents (and churches, etc.) have on our perspectives. We need to do more than try to understand one another’s viewpoints—we also need to try to understand the history those viewpoints emerge from.

    Karen, I think I’ve offended you, and I’m really sorry. That is the main reason I hesitated to write this post—because I knew I would say something wrong or give the wrong impression! I felt like having a conversation and coming to a better understanding was more important, though. In terms of my “decent jobs” comment, I wasn’t referring to the military as a not-decent job. I only meant to point out that many teens graduate from high school and realize they can’t go to college or get a good job in the civilian workforce. The military does indeed offer a viable alternative to a minimum wage job (the type I was referring to as not-decent), but even so, I’m pretty sure those who enlist today aren’t taken care of as well as your family was. Having said all of that, I’m grateful for your perspective and your family’s good experience!

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  • http://themoderngal.com The Modern Gal

    I can completely relate to this, especially: “How do I take my respect and compassion for people who are fighting in conflicts I don’t believe in and untangle it from an approach to power and violence that I don’t support?” I think my conflict might even go a step farther in that I don’t understand the decision to willingly join an organization that exists because of war (although I realize many veterans didn’t have a choice) — and yet I am scared to every say those words aloud because I know how unpopular they would be. I’ve been blessed that every family member of mine that has gone to war has made it home and been able to continue their lives, and I’m grateful for that, but I wish they wouldn’t have gone in the first place. How do I express that on Veterans Day (or any day)?

  • http://themoderngal.com The Modern Gal

    I should also point out that I know war and peace is not as black and white as I make it sounds. I understand some of the complexities and realize my attitude is not realistic, but I can’t seem to overcome my feelings about it.

  • Karen H

    Modern Gal – you don’t need to understand willingly joining an organization that exists because of war but it amazes me that you don’t. Because of a war, you are allowed to speak your opinions along with many other freedoms. Because of a war, Hitler was stopped. Because of war, the country you live in exists.

    I wish your relatives (and everyone elses’s) never had to go to war either. The reality is that sometimes war is the only way to have peace. It’s barbaric and it’s been going on since time immemorial. Does that make it okay? Of course not.

    Also, the military doesn’t only exist to go to war. It exists to protect our country. Unfortunately, these days we seem to be protecting everyone else as well at the expense of our soldiers. However, this is not the fault of the veteran or soldier. This is the fault of the American government. A blog for another day, perhaps.

  • http://toddsweet.com Todd S.

    @Modern Gal – I think your question is a very good one, even if I don’t have a clear answer. Here are some thoughts that come to mind. Do you believe in the theory that the best offense is a good defense? I can’t say I’m fully convinced myself, but there have been plenty of times that our military has been a peacetime organization. We’re not always at war. Do we then only honor and celebrate the veterans (you don’t have to go to war to be a veteran) who have *not* participated in combat? What about the National Guard – an organization established to serve w/in our borders during times of emergency (natural disaster etc.)? Its members are considered veterans, and many had no idea they would end up being sent to foreign lands as combat troops.

    In terms of the motivation behind joining the military, the reasons are probably as numerous as the people signing up (education benefits, no other job options, fight nazis…). Previous wars have involved drafts, so those vets didn’t have a choice. What about the chaplains who enlist to serve the troops? They’re vets. The cook who serves the meals? The computer programmer keeping the internet working at a base in Iraq? Yes, they are supporting the war effort, but how far down the chain do you go? We as citizens are also responsible for what our elected officials and civilian leadership of the military do in our names.

  • Ron Simkins

    I missed this posting earlier, and am probably too late entering into the comments. But, I want to thank you Kristin for posting your thoughts and questions. Many of us who have now and have had family in the military share those questions and conflicted thoughts/emotions.

    Two quick thoughts.

    I do not think the fact that God has blessed us personally after our many wars as a country means that God approves of either our chosen ends or our chosen means. Life and the Bible are full of times when God continues to bless people who do things that are far less than godly. For example: I do not think the fact that everyone reading this is blessed with a relatively affluent life living on land that was stolen from Native Americans through war and constant treaty breaking means that God approved of those wars and broken promises. Nevertheless, we are blessed. God has God’s hands full doesn’t God!

    I would think we would all be in a better place about this if we would follow Jesus in, not only loving the patriot Simon the Zealot, but also the Roman Centurion who according to Jesus showed more faith than any of the disciples? Could we maybe not only pray for our warriors, but also for the warriors among the Iraqi Christians who have been devasted in the after-math of our invasion? Do some of them have more faith in Jesus than I have ever dared to express?

    I don’t have it figured out either, but I do know that for God it is not just about America or my friends and family – all of which I care about deeply and believe God does as well. May God have mercy on us all and bring his justice gently or we are in big trouble.