I’m restless – one moment watching (not really) “Battle: Los Angeles” and the next absorbing Anthony Bourdain’s new show on CNN. Walking Truman through the streets of Old Town Alexandria in the morning, then dodging “Rolling Thunder” riders in Arlington during an early evening jog. Doing some work in the home office, then reading through an edition of The Washington Post as bland as a bowl of Cream of Wheat. Avoiding the televised Memorial Day concert on the National Mall at all costs.
I get this way two times out of the year – around April 14th and Memorial Day. It’s terrible for the wife – I mostly want to keep to myself, stay busy, cross off a few things from my weekend “to-do” list. I’m task-oriented. Says so on my resume.
I stay awake late, sifting through details of missions and patrols from years past, some funny moments, a few close calls and one awful day. Anger becomes guilt, indifference, helplessness, then back again. A kaleidoscope of emotions turns, yet the one constant is that I don’t want to talk about my feelings with anyone. Not one word, to any … fucking … body. And that might be half the problem these days.
So says author and filmmaker Sebastian Junger, who wrote the book on which “The Perfect Storm” movie was based and co-directed the excellent documentary “Restrepo” about a U.S. Army infantry company fighting for its life in Afghanistan’s restive Korengal Valley. In a column in the aforementioned flavorless edition of the Post, Junger wrote a must-read editorial headlined, “U.S. veterans need to share the moral burden of war.” One notable excerpt:
“… the obscenity of war is not diminished when that conflict is righteous or necessary or noble. And when soldiers come home spiritually polluted by the killing that they committed, or even just witnessed, many hope that their country will share the moral responsibility of such a grave event.
“Their country doesn’t. Liberals often say that it’s not their problem because they opposed the war. Conservatives tend to call soldiers ‘heroes’ and pat them on the back. Neither response is honest or helpful.”
Aside from post-traumatic stress disorder, suicide, drug and alcohol abuse, and a high likelihood of ending up in prison, Junger warns that the cultural divide between America’s warriors and their nation is widening, a far cry from World War II, the Korean War or the Vietnam War, when practically everyone in America knew someone who was fighting, wounded, killed, or at least had gotten drafted and was in the rear sipping hot coffee. It was probably difficult to find a home without a blue star banner hanging in a window – denoting a family member who was fighting overseas. As my friend Chris mentioned to me recently, everyone had skin in the game.
Roughly 1% of Americans deployed in support of either Operation Iraqi Freedom or Enduring Freedom. This is not an angry veteran screed; this is just fact.
To bridge this unhealthy cultural divide, Junger suggests that vets should open up more about their experiences in war, essentially therapy in storytelling. This could serve as a catharsis for them, he writes, while also allowing people back home the opportunity to better understand the war that was fought in their name, warts and all. (Editor’s note: Among those may fit this category is my little brother Garrett Anderson, a veteran of the Battle of Fallujah who is making a documentary about his experiences and his peers’ efforts to reintegrate into society. He was recently featured on “60 Minutes.”)
Easier said than done, but doable even among the strong but silent types who find themselves in uniform. A while ago, I was having beers with the Jiminy Cricket of my Marine Corps life, a tough former boxer I’ll call Boom-Boom. He told me about the weekend rides he took up and down scenic Pacific Coast Highway on his Harley, and the different kinds of people he met along the way – pudgy Orange County professionals in Tommy Bahama shirts cradling Blackberries, surfers in boardshorts and Rainbow sandals, beach bums without a care in the world.
Inevitably, these new acquaintances discovered he was a Marine who had gone to war. The question would pop up: “What was it like?”
Rather than sulk and stare angrily at the foam on his beer, he did something extraordinary: he talked with them, explained his perspective, told them what it was like.
They did something extraordinary, too: they listened.
For Matt Lynch, John Maloney, Chris Perez, Micah Gifford, Ricky Nelson, Dean Opicka, Adam Benjamin and Ergin Osman. RIP.