By Major Matt Cavanaugh
Warriors get all the heroic upside if war goes well; families are left with all the downside if war goes wrong.
On this Veteran’s Day, though it’s worth honoring and remembering the fallen, we should also convey our deepest sympathy for those left behind. Like Mrs. Eleanor Bradley-Peters, mother to a son killed in World War I, who spent her last 23 years living in France watching over the Tomb of a Very Well Known Warrior (more on that to come). Or the West Point classmate of mine, who’s surviving spouse twice attempted suicide in the flood of grief that comes with death. There are too many stories like this, because for each fallen soldier, there are multiple survivors that live on with a canyon of blank social fabric. Those that remain know war in a different, non-heroic way, adequately described by Knut Hansen, a Norwegian resistance veteran of World War II: “Warriors deserve our deepest gratitude and respect, but though wars can bring adventures which stir the heart, the true nature of war is composed of innumerable personal tragedies of grief, waste and sacrifice, wholly evil, and not redeemed by glory.” War destroys people. War devastates relationships.
Author Sebastian Junger has said much the same thing, though with a bit more detail, in a radio interview:
“I know it sounds strange to say that, but when you go to war, you’re bombarded by so many different experiences and so many of them are meaningful, and intense, and even pleasurable. I mean, the camaraderie in a small group in combat is very pleasurable, you know the excitement is very intense. It’s a lot of good stuff that happens out there any stuff you can’t get back home.
So it’s possible to miss the central point, which is: it’s all just actually tragic as well, and, when [close friend and photojournalist Tim Heatherington] died, that point was driven home in a way that I couldn’t avoid and ultimately didn’t want to avoid. And within an hour I decided not to cover combat again. I didn’t want to risk traumatizing everyone I loved by getting killed myself.
I mean, you go to war, you think you’re gambling with your own life and I realized that what you’re really gambling with is everyone else’s lives – everyone who cares about you. You’re dead, it doesn’t matter, it’s over, its everyone else who has to deal with it. I hadn’t really gotten that either and when Tim died I did and I also just ran headlong into this central tragedy of war which is that good people get killed and I sort of didn’t want to have anything to do with it anymore.”
As a currently serving member of the Army, I can say that it is only recently, after 16 years in uniform, that I have come to know war in this way. Were I to go to combat, I would do so leaving my wife and two daughters behind. I’d be privileging the needs of the nation ahead of their need for a husband and “Daddy.” What gives me the right – without their input, whatsoever – to make decisions that have consequences my family must live with forever? This thought puts knots in my stomach. Can I even do this anymore?
And, the possible consequences are why this thought is so troubling. One example is the experience of Mrs. Eleanor Bradley-Peters in the selection below, which comes from a New York Times article by Richard Rubin describing the people in World War I era American military cemeteries in France:
“Not all lives claimed by war can be found on casualty lists; but even some of them have their own monuments. After the armistice, 53-year-old Eleanor Bradley-Peters moved out of her elegant New York home and into a small apartment near Thiaucourt, France; she never left, even after the Germans returned in 1940. When she died, the next year, she was buried in Thiaucourt’s town cemetery, in a plot near the gate.
She chose it because it was the nearest one to the St.-Mihiel American Cemetery, about a mile away; among the 4,153 Americans buried there is her son, First Lt. Edward McClure Peters, of the First Division’s Machine Gun Battalion. He was killed on March 3, 1918…
A proud stone eagle sits in the middle of St.-Mihiel atop a pedestal bearing the inscription: Time shall not dim the glory of their deeds. I’m sure that Lieutenant Peter’s mother – who also designed her own gravestone, a white cross identical to her son’s – read those words many times in the 23 years she lived nearby.”
Am I dooming my family to this future? Something like it? Would my wife attempt to live with my memory, so as to preclude any life of her own, were I to die in a war? How would my daughters move forward? As difficult as these thoughts are to entertain, they force me to reflect on the sacrifice our family members make for our service to the country.
In northern Iraq, the Kurds refer to their soldiers as peshmerga, which, loosely translated, means “those who face death.” This description is, at best, incomplete. Soldiers do not face death alone. Their families and friends do so with them. Warriors receive the glory and accolades while families live with what is left.
On this Veteran’s Day, I think we should consider all family members (and close friends) part of our solemn “thanks.” The skin they have in this game is liable to be hurt even more than if it were their own.