Charles Schulz often got Snoopy dressed up for Veterans Day:
To smile at that strip, you’ve got to lean on some World War II-era history. But there’s a subtle point there. “They” never heard of Ernie Pyle. Say that name around some World War II vet, and you are likely to hear a story or two. Pyle was a voice used by many veterans of that conflict, more so as they identified him as one of their own. Can’t say that any current war-correspondent gathers the same following as Ernie Pyle. Then again, journalism has changed in the last 70 or so years – technology and method. It’s a different business now days. Among the current crop of war correspondents, Sebastian Junger stands out as one who’s mastered the technology, method, and business. You may recognize the name from documentaries following a company in Afghanistan.
Something Junger wrote over a year ago hangs with me on this Veterans Day. Titled “U.S. veterans need to share the moral burden of war,” the article was a response to a question posed to him on a TV show. In short, the question asked why soldiers were not more concerned about the causes and objectives of the wars they fight. Might run contrary to the “Soldiers Studies” premise we see within Civil War studies, but that’s pretty much a common theme with soldiers. Just the way it is. As Junger noted, the war doesn’t belong to the soldiers.
Indeed, the reverse is somewhat the case – the soldier ends up belonging to the war. Not in a direct sense, but in the way the soldier transitions to civilian and veteran. For better or worse, the veteran carries a label associating them with the war. And with that the veteran ends up carrying a significant burden – justified or not – associated with the war.
This is not a unique 21st century problem. It’s a long standing experience dating back as far as nations have warred on other nations. In his column, Junger touched upon how other societies dealt with this problem. Summarizing how a Stone-Age culture might approach the veteran’s burden, Junger said:
Typically, warriors were welcomed home by their entire community and underwent rituals to spiritually cleanse them of the effect of killing. Otherwise, they were considered too polluted to be around women and children. Often there was a celebration in which the fighters described the battle in great, bloody detail. Every man knew he was fighting for his community, and every person in the community knew that their lives depended on these young men. These gatherings must have been enormously cathartic for both the fighters and the people they were defending.
I’m not entirely convinced his research was exhaustive on the matter… or even authoritative. But I’d offer up a decidedly Industrial-age example of just such a cultural process:
I’ve often called the five original battlefield parks (Chickamauga-Chattanooga, Shiloh, Gettysburg, Antietam, and Vicksburg) somewhat reliquaries. That’s the Shiloh battlefield, with the Iowa memorial standing behind a row of monuments for Indiana regiments. The Iowa memorial was dedicated in 1906. Most of the Indiana regimental monuments were dedicated as a group in 1903, with General Lew Wallace giving an oration. And those three regimental monuments in the photo above – the 17th, 51st, and 58th – were for units that arrived too late to fight in the battle. However, despite the limited participation in this particular action, the monuments served a purpose to the veterans. What is clear from the records that these monuments served as a focal point for veterans to describe their wartime experiences… or might we say conduct some of the “cleansing” that Junger alludes to. Indeed, those dedications and reunions were certainly enormously cathartic.
Certainly gives a counter to the oft used foil about taking down monuments “if we are really serious about preservation.” Some historians have explained the presence of those battlefield memorials in context of national reconciliation, carrying some trappings of post-reconstruction. But we cannot cast the battlefield memorials (those setup by the veterans themselves, mind you) purely in that light. To do so would ignore the greater function those stones played.
At the end of his article, Junger calls for times and places that veterans might speak openly. “Let them speak. They deserve it.” I would not presume to propose that as the perfect panacea for the described problem. For starters, I cannot imagine in this day of social media connections everyone has a chance to say what’s on their mind (MilBlogging, for instance). But I would say what Junger suggested is just what seemed to have worked for the Civil War generation. These battlefields are not just places to go learn about war. These are also places that speak to us as a society.