Dear Audrey, Blaine, Cheyanne, Jay, Jim, and Karla,
The ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus invented tragedy as a dramatic form. Aeschylus was a combat veteran of several terrible battles, including Marathon where his brother was killed. He used literature to express the anguish and ordeals of war, the encounters with “the bloody god of battle rout.” Two thousand five hundred years ago Aeschylus said, “The first casualty of war is truth.”
In order to inspire and inflame their people to war, societies justify, rationalize, condemn, judge and dehumanize other peoples and nations. In order to tolerate the pain, losses and wounds, societies drench their veterans and their fallen in patriotic accolades but rarely listen to the terrible truths they carry home. Every society sees its efforts as good, just, necessary and moral, and the foes’ efforts as evil, fallen, aggressive or unjust. In all the noise, propaganda, preparation, and patriotism stirred up around the war effort, truth inevitably disappears. As Blaine Stine wrote, there is “no healing for a hidden wound.” Without the truth, especially about war, we cannot heal, bring our veterans home, or make peace.
All our essayists raise powerful voices that help restore truth to the war experience. All, with their sincerity, open-heartedness, support for those who served and compassion for their pain, help heal our veterans and country and thereby help heal Truth, that first tragic casualty.
Our veteran writers expose some of this difficult truth and why civilian society does not recognize it. Jay Hagstrom and Blaine Stine both testify to how different they have become as a result of service, and all the writers see these differences in their returned loved ones. Blaine declares that vets “are surrounded by an unseen barrier… Others… cannot hear our pleas for help.” Vets live in “scattered places at the edge of this society that both adores and despises us.” Jay affirms the “connection that many will never understand.” Veterans have indeed become different and feel banished from the mainstream society that neither listens nor understands. They feel that, in World War I poet Wilfred Owen’s words, “except you share with us in hell” you cannot understand. They rely on the brother and sisterhood of hell’s survivors. They become, in Viet Cong veteran Tam Tien’s words, “the lips and teeth of the same mouth telling the world the same story.”
Our non-vet writers strive to understand what they can and affirm what they cannot. Audrey Cameron declares the pain of missing someone at war, “life is empty without you” yet it is awkward to meet again. Cheyanne Smith affirms the pain and the desire to escape it, wishing “you could be a child again and forget…” Karla Gomez sees her cousin suffering with PTSD that makes others question his courage, strength and worth. Jim Xie declares “we do not know true terror” and that we must “understand war in the violence it embodies, the people it abducts, and the irrevocable aftermath.” All these good people affirm the importance and “opportunity to have a real conversation” necessary for healing. They all promise our veterans that they will listen and not judge, nor turn away, no matter what. They provide exactly what our veterans need and what mainstream society denies them.
It is difficult to listen, difficult to understand. It is difficult to hear a veteran say, as Jay does, that “It did not feel like we were doing much to help with the war” and that he suffers from feeling like he is “not a true veteran” because he did not do enough to honor those fighting and dying. Veterans ache for honor; it is their soul food. Most veterans feel, like Jay, that they are not the real veterans, that only those who had it worse, who fought up front, who were wounded or killed, are the “real veterans.” And it is difficult, as Blaine says, “to see all manner of depravity and destruction.” Veterans need us to see it with them and to take responsibility for sending them to enact it.
Cheyanne affirms the cost: you gave me “my freedom in exchange for yours.” And Karla affirms it; her cousin is a Mexican American who went to war to prove his place and value as an American, to demonstrate that this is his country. “Becoming a warrior makes this our country” is not only her declaration but also the declaration of every immigrant, Native American or freed slave who has ever fought in any war America has perpetrated. Yet she rightly laments that her cousin’s traumatic wounding that makes him question himself and others question him. He served our country and took terrible invisible wounds—what should earn him belonging and honor leaves him wounded and exiled.
Cheyanne and Jim both declare that because we send our veterans to war, they are not responsible for what they have to do. Jim writes that they are “not responsible… blameless” and Cheyanne writes, “none of it this was your fault.” This is true; war is society’s responsibility. We send our troops, and pay for the bullets, and live in safety while they do not. In support, Cheyanne says, “You are a soldier, not a killer. You are not the enemy, you are a hero.” But Blaine declares more difficult truths: “We are all at fault… for every breath we have stolen from others…” He rightly states that veterans do not have a disease but rather “have seen Hell incarnate.” Nobody can stay blameless in hell. No veteran feels like a hero. Every combat veteran was someone else’s enemy. Indeed, it is the business of soldiers to kill. Blaine is courageously willing to carry this difficult reality and use it to fulfill “our mission to remember.”
Audrey promises “support no matter what.” She adds, “I can’t imagine but I can always listen.” Audrey admits she doesn’t believe in the war but is inspired by her friend’s devotion. Some of our writers expose the hidden wounds in their families from others who have served in previous generations. Ultimately, Jim rightly declares, we are all “a world of wounded warriors and their offspring.” Only by recognizing this, loving our veterans as they have become, helping them “love your veteran self” and as our writers declare, taking responsibility for sending them, can we hope to heal.
Very best wishes,
Dr. Ed Tick