Sitting rather uncomfortably on a cold metal chair, on a stage in front of about 30 veterans, family members, the local police chief and a few others from the community, it must have been patently obvious to everyone that I was a fraud. Clearly I was stuck in a grown-up version of that Sesame Street song “One of these things is not like the other…..”
Almost all of the participants on the stage other than me were veterans, dressed in crisp uniforms with razor-sharp creases that would have been a source of envy for my grandmother who ironed her bed sheets with a flatiron heated on the wood stove.
I tried to convince myself that after all I was there legitimately, president of the board of the local synagogue and invited to participate as a substitute for our usual representative who was away on an overseas trip this year. I clutched the paper on which a lovely prayer for Veterans Day, written by a Jewish poet, was typed neatly and which I would soon be called upon to read as the opening prayer.
In the days leading up to this event, I had been overwhelmed with thoughts of my father, who had been a conscientious objector during World War II. I also felt the moral weight of my upbringing in the Society of Friends (Quakers), where opposition to war was a given. And then there were the “60’s,” the decade during which I grew from adolescent to adult, surrounded by the turmoil of the civil rights movement and opposition to the Vietnam War. Sitting on that stage I wondered what my father would have to say about this day and my participation in it.
Although I never participated directly in any of the shameful treatment of soldiers returning from that war, neither did I speak out against it, or even recognize it as violence against those who had already experienced violence beyond anything I could imagine. Violence that I might have survived physically, but not emotionally intact. In the naive certainty of youth, I knew that being against war was obvious and anyone who willingly went to war deserved what they got. Because I was a mild mannered and well brought-up child, I would never call anyone a “baby killer,” but surely some deserved that name and maybe if they were shouted at and vilified, they might decide to become peacemakers instead of soldiers.
The guest speaker at this Veterans Day event works with disabled veterans, helping them receive the benefits to which they are entitled. In one of those ironic twists that often occur in life, he had served in the Vietnam War. I expected a speech glorifying the experience of serving in the military and extolling the bravery and commitment of those who serve. Had I been sitting in the audience instead of in full sight of everyone, I might have been prepared to engage in a bit of eye-rolling, or at minimum some silent scoffing.
Instead I listened to a man talk of coming home from that war “broken,” admitting that he had considered killing himself several times. Choking on tears, he described the price his wife and children paid in trying to support and comfort him in those years before he understood that he was suffering from PTSD and sought professional help. He said he did not need to describe the treatment that soldiers returning from that war received from protesters since everyone there was already familiar with it.
The speaker and I are of a similar age, and if I were able to have a conversation with him I would want to share what I have learned since those heady days when my moral certainty had not yet been tempered by an understanding of life from the perspectives of those who lived with different economic and social realities. I would admit I now understand that protesting war as a policy and holding elected officials responsible for those policies is not the same as demonizing the foot soldiers who pay the price. I would tell him that I understand now that there are numerous reasons why someone would enlist in military service, other than my misconception that they must like to play with guns and kill people who don’t look like them.
Yes, I am still anti-war and I still believe that war does not usually solve the problems for which it is initiated. I suspect, however, that it is the very people who have actually gone to war who know that truth better than any of us. The greatest honor that we could bestow upon our veterans would be to create a world in which their children and grandchildren would never have to go to war.
Sadly the human race has not yet gotten to that point. We cling to our fears and prejudices, we demonize those who are different, and we ask others to pay the heavy price required to maintain our perceived superior position.
So what would my father think about me sitting on that stage?
I think he would be proud.
©Martha Hurwitz, 11/11/18