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Monday, November 12, 2007

Veterans

Miguel Cervantes, having lost his left arm at the age of 23, during the 1571 naval battle in the Gulf of Lepanto (Greece), went on to write Don Quixote in 1605, effectively creating the modern novel. Yet, to the end of his life, he prized above all his military experience above all. Engaging in combat, especially for young men in their `teens and twenties, seems undeniably to fulfill some elemental male need. (Women have performed military service for two generations now, but one never reads or hears of their cherishing the experience.) Oliver Wendell Holmes, twice severely wounded in the Civil War, maintained throughout his stellar judicial career that following military orders, even when you know them to be misguided or wrong, was the highest form of honor. And he had no illusions about courage in battle. So it would appear that war expresses human needs more than it serves political ends. Clearly the glorification of combat serves our need to bask vicariously in feelings of superiority. I say vicariously because those who glorify it haven't experienced it. Combat veterans evidently miss it, but they never glorify it. I suggest that the intensity created by the immediacy of death is what charges the experience. We all fear death, but suppress our fear. The harsh fact, however, is that death--in combat or not--cannot be made "meaningful." As soon as we're born, we're old enough to die. Death is the condition of being a living thing. Each death just ends a life. So talk about conferring meaning upon the sacrifices of all those already killed and wounded fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan by "winning" the wars is stupid and mendacious. Rudyard Kipling perfectly captured this point in a couplet he wrote after his son was killed in World War 1: If any question why we died/Tell them, because our fathers lied.

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