War Across the Generations


It is Veterans Day today, and that means different things to different people. For some, it's simply a day off work or school. Others, bless them, see it as a day to give thanks to those Americans, young and old, alive and dead, who served or are now serving in the armed forces.

And then there are us veterans. For many of us, Veterans Day is a reminder of experiences we'd rather forget.

The thing about war - mine was Vietnam - is that no one comes home the same. Few of us are the people we were when we left, and the changes last a lifetime. We can treat PTSD, rehabilitate the body, and do our best to pick up our lives where we left off. But once you've opened Pandora's Box and been exposed to what's inside, some of the consequences are irreversible. Worse, the changes ripple through our families, our friends and our careers, causing collateral damage even to those we love and would never want to hurt.

One of the unfair realities of war is that those who declare it often are not veterans themselves, so they do not, and cannot, understand the costs they are imposing on those who are sent into the fight. They can empathize, but they cannot understand and there is really no way we can tell them. They have no context in which to grasp what goes on in and after combat. I write this not to elicit sympathy for veterans, but simply to state the facts. War is what it is, and what is always has been, and it permanently damages both warriors and victims.

Yet there is another side to the experience that many of us are hesitant to admit, even to ourselves. Combat is the most intense, most real and most bonding experience we had ever had, or ever will again. Some veterans long for that experience and volunteer to go back into theater over and over again, or to find warrior roles outside the military. Combat reveals how incredibly shallow normal life is. Normal relationships, even with loved ones, are unable to match the bonds formed by war. That is why old warriors are inclined to get together from time to time to retell their stories.

There are some effects of war that I'm still trying to understand 50 years after coming home. I am awed at the resilience of the human body and spirit at the same time I am terrified at our fragility. I have seen men and women irreparably shattered in a millisecond, or broken emotionally by one too many traumas. But I also have seen men survive the most devastating emotional and physical injuries. Some of us cannot be broken, and some of us cannot stay whole.

The men and women in America's wars today are a much different generation than mine, of course, and the wars in the Middle East are in many ways as different from mine as jungles are different from deserts. But some things about war never change. For that reason, the bond I feel with those with whom I served a half-century ago extends to those who serve today. I respect them beyond measure, and I thank them for accepting the considerable price they and their loved ones will pay.

Bill Becker was a combat journalist with the 25th Infantry Division and later with the Army's daily newspaper Stars and Stripes in 1965 and 1966.