Christopher Hitchens once published a collection of essays titled, Love, Poverty and War. In the volume’s introduction, Hitchens explained, “An antique saying has it that a man’s life is incomplete unless or until he has tasted love, poverty, and war.”
By that standard, I expect I will die an incomplete person. On most days, I hope as much.
While I have indeed tasted love and have done my level best to dip my toe into the wonders of extreme scarcity, war to me remains a complete and abject mystery.
Sure, I have watched Saving Private Ryan and Apocalypse Now, and enrolled in a college course, “History of War,” that broadened my understanding of the peculiar institution in ways for which I will forever be grateful.
But I also realize that nothing quite substitutes for actual experience on this matter, and being the moral and physical coward that I am, I would be perfectly content to maintain my basic ignorance for the rest of my natural life.
As we recognize our veterans on this eleventh day of the eleventh month, at the forefront of our minds ought to be the enormous and inevitable gulf between those who have served in the United States Armed Forces and those who have not, and to honor and appreciate our uniformed comrades accordingly.
As the above quotation suggests, there is something about the fact of having engaged in real live combat, in its many forms, that shapes and alters one’s outlook of the world in a manner that is singularly strange and ultimately inconceivable to nonparticipants like yours truly. It makes the duty of celebrating the work of veterans that much more imperative, but fraught with a certain awkwardness and dissonance as well.
To wit: I can instinctively perceive great writing when I see it, because I have made innumerable attempts, however unsuccessful, to produce it myself. Likewise, I can respect the talents of a great ballplayer from all the miserable, mediocre seasons I spent in little league.
Call it the Amadeus effect: In any creative endeavor, it takes one to know one. And as demonstrated by Salieri with respect to Mozart, no one appreciates success more than a failure. This involves a conjecture of sorts, but one that is reasonably coherent.
Per contra, civilians’ respect for soldiers comes not through experience, but rather through lack of experience, and through the outright awe for someone with the nerve to join the armed forces at all.
I defend the rights and values that define America by writing about them in the comfort of my own living room, remote and free from harm. For those who do the same by strapping on a uniform and willfully parachuting into enemy territory to face physical threats to one’s person, known and unknown—well, there is no means of comparison.
It is a natural human impulse to try to relate to another’s experience—particularly a difficult one—by drawing an analogy from one’s own life, as a means of assuring, “I know exactly how you feel.” Sometimes this is a perfectly healthy and useful means of exercising basic empathy. At other times, however, it takes on false or outright ludicrous forms.
Many couples preparing for their first child, for instance, like to comfort themselves with the notion that they will make fine parents because, to date, they have made fine pet owners. A woman with her newborn will sooner or later be told by a friend, “I don’t have a baby, but I have a dog, so I know just what you’re going through.” Late Late Show host Craig Ferguson, periodically informed as much by certain guests, aptly responds to the effect of, “Yeah, try leaving a baby alone in the backyard.”
In like spirit, let us use today to reflect upon the myriad ways in which war is sui generis in the human experience. It’s not “like” anything else that might happen to us in our daily lives. It is a monster unto itself.
Probably the only solution—the means of bridging this gulf between the fighters and the bystanders—is to shut up and listen. To tone down our more mindless expressions of reverence and simply allow our soldiers to tell their stories, if they so choose.
It won’t enable us to escape our “incomplete” lives, insulated from and naïve about the big, bad world around us. But it will provide us a tiny window into the psyches of those who have, and with it, a more proper respect for the enormity of the sacrifices they have made on our highly unworthy behalf.