Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Experience of Combat: Sacrifice and Meaning

I personally have never engaged in combat, so I can't begin to imagine the gut-emotions of the experience.  But a recent serendipitous concatenation of events has been setting me to thinking often about it lately, about its impact on one's soul and psyche and about the bonds soldiers form both to each other and to the places where they fight.

Both the NY Times and the Washington Post now have reporters in Afghanistan, embedded with US troops, who've been regularly filing reports about the experiences with the units they're accompanying to God-forsaken places where the locals tend to resent or hate them, where death or mutilation courtesy of an IED or a resistance fighter can be literally only a footstep away.

HBO has been running for several weeks now a series, The Pacific, that very graphically depicts the experiences of members of the Marine First Division in the Pacific theater, from Guadalcanal to (this week) Peleliu.  TV, of course, is not reality, but for those of us who haven't been in combat, it can at least hint at the fear and the fury.  And before each episode, a few of the actual survivors (now 80+ years old) whose experiences are recounted in the following episode are interviewed. Their comments are straightforward; they don't wax on or brag; and sometimes, as the gates of memory swing open, their lips tremble as they choke back tears.  Those of us old enough to have been raised on John Wayne movies but have had relatives or friends (one of my grad school roommates was a Marine vet of Vietnam) who fought in WW II, Korea, or Vietnam know that  real combat veterans (one of which "The Duke" definitely was not) won't talk about their experiences much.  (For those of you who want to know more of Hollywood actors who were indeed World War II vets, but who customarily didn't talk about their experiences because the memories tore them up too much, google the name "Audie Murphy.")

Finally, I recently received from my aunt a salvaged and recopied collection of letters that her husband (my mother's brother Jim, who actually served with her/his other brother Phil with the US army in Europe in WWII) sent to their mother shortly after the war ended, while he was still in Germany, recounting (though in sanitized fashion) some of what had happened to them.  When I was a kid (up until I was about 13), my parents and all of us kids used to visit Uncle Jim's family in Grand Rapids in the summer.  Uncle Jim (who became a highly respected surgeon in GR) never, ever brought up the war, but now I know (from his letters) that he and Phil saw some bad times.

Now, the often brilliantly evocative author Sebastian Junger has penned a piece for the NY Times about the experiences of the US forces with whom he was embedded in the recently abandoned Korengal Valley, where more than 40 US soldiers were killed between 2005 and 2010.  Here's what part of what he has to say:
The men at Restrepo seemed to make “sense” of combat in a completely personal way. They were not interested in the rest of the war and they were not much concerned with whether it was just, winnable or even well executed. For soldiers, the fight is what gives a place meaning, rather than the other way around.

In that sense, the Korengal was literally sacred ground. Every man in Battle Company lost a good friend there, and every man was nearly killed there. These soldiers did not require “strategic importance” or “national interest” to give the place value — it already had that in spades.

Outpost Restrepo was named after Juan Restrepo, a platoon medic who was killed on July 22, 2007. He was one of the best-liked men in the platoon, and his death was devastating. The men took enormous pride in the outpost they built, and they can now go online and watch videotape of it being blown up by an American demolition team. It is a painful experience for many of them, and in recent days, e-mail messages have flown back and forth as the men have tried to come to terms with it. One man became increasingly overwrought from watching the video over and over again, wondering what all the sacrifice had been for. Another soldier finally intervened.

“They might have pulled out but they can’t take away what we accomplished and how hard we fought there,” he wrote to his distraught comrade. “The base is a base, we all knew it would sooner or later come down. But what Battle Company did there cannot be blown up, ripped down or burned down. Remember that.”

It's understandable how men in such predicaments would become bound both to each other and to the places where they suffered together, regardless of the "justness" of the cause for which older men might have sent them there.  But don't all of us have an obligation to try to understand why indeed those young men are sent to far-off places, and to raise our voices when we sense that the cause for which we ask them to walk into the maw of death may indeed be a lost one - or, at least, one that's unwinnable, at least by them?

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