It’s 3 a.m. and I should be reading Red Cavalry. Instead, I’m thinking about how little I know of war. Not really what war is, but why we war.
A few hours ago, a reminder popped up on my laptop screen: November 11 is Veteran’s Day. As I stared at the icon, I couldn’t shake a feeling of complete ignorance. I’ve been trying to understand combat for years now, but maybe I never wanted to know how it truly felt—to be an 18-year-old boy caught in crossfire.
As the child of two lawyers whose family’s only veteran was my doctoring grandfather during Korea, I honestly can’t place where my interest in war came from. What I’ve heard from legends and fables, though, is that it’s in my genes. While in college, my mom marched off to boot camp one summer, not to train per se, but to try to imagine what it felt like to enlist. She wanted to go into politics and justified her curiosities about the army with lofty ideals on the need to understand war as a government official. She lasted three days, I think; like me when I went to the Naval Academy Summer Seminar, she couldn’t swallow the system mandated by the military. People joked that we were both like Private Benjamin, except we never overcame our frou-frou tastes for a heroic conclusion.
Family anecdotes aside, I read my first “war book” in high school. I was home-schooled as a kid, and my curriculum included watered down versions of Homeric epic, but it wasn’t until Flags of Our Fathers that I came face to face with a modern war narrative. I remember thinking it was boring until the end, when the soldiers came home. I devoured that section like brunch on a Sunday morning because it was emotional and made me feel something. The other stuff—bombs and bullets—didn’t grip me. In fact, for the first 300 pages, I regretted not choosing one of the other optional readings. In Cold Blood sounded especially enticing and everyone was raving about how provocative it was. Flags of Our Fathers was so alien that I didn’t even know how to talk about it.
Then, my teacher assigned The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam sketches. Simultaneously, my junior English class had a project: we were each given a name on the Vietnam War Memorial Wall, and we had to put together a mini-documentary on our subject. I think most people saw the work as tedious, but I got into it, tracking my soldier’s past. I reached his sister, mother and friends, all still alive and grieving half a century after the death of their loved one. They found solace in talking about him, and it made me feel happy to think I had helped them in some way. I didn’t know what it meant to grieve then; I had never lost anyone. But the idea that I had done something good bonded me to the project—I always wanted to do something good, but never knew how.
During the aforementioned stint at the USNA a few months later, I wore a flower in my hair every day, and would wake up at 5:30 am to put on makeup before morning exercise. Suffice it to say that after the recruiting trip concluded, I knew military life wasn’t for me. But that weekend, on my way to college visits, I asked my dad to let me visit the Vietnam Wall so I could see my soldier’s name etched in stone. Now, it seems voyeuristic, but then I just crouched by it, sobbing. I couldn’t explain it; I didn’t know him. I had never known him. He died two decades before I was born, or even conceived of. But somehow, he was mine.
Four years later, and I’m taking a college course on “How to Tell A War Story.” I signed up because last year it popped in my head that one day I might want to do some war journalism. I figured it could be useful to see how the greats wrote about combat; after all, books are made to teach. In theory, I wanted to learn about war, so I could know what it felt like to straddle the line between life and death. Admittedly, I’m a masochist and enjoy danger, but I’m too jumpy to ever seek it out with reckless abandon. So to envision it and place myself in the characters’ shoes seemed like the next best thing.
A week and a half before the term started, my father died of cancer. I was not home, but I had watched him fading for a year now. I knew what death was like, I thought. I could relate to stories of war because I had witnessed the destruction of a human body. Plus in war, soldiers usually die quickly. Logically, I had seen something much worse—a slow, painful crash of the limbs that took the spirit with it.
As I plunged into my “How to Tell A War Story” coursework—nearly a book per class—a recurring motif irritated me. Almost every author told me that I was reading for no reason because I could never understand war. This spurred the question: then why read? I was spending entire days taking in texts that apparently taught me nothing, because I couldn’t get it. If I hadn’t been there. At the front. The thought was recapitulated over and over, with only one breath of fresh air from Phil Klay, who urged his reader to try to imagine. I thought he was right, that I could get it if only I tried hard enough. I just had to keep reading, and I would picture it—what warfare looked like.
Until we studied All Quiet on the Western Front. It was then that I realized I didn’t want to know what it was like to be in World War I, Vietnam or Afghanistan. I couldn’t stomach it, reading about the Germans who were just as human as us, and who were well-intentioned, and who had families, and who didn’t have to die. I didn’t want to feel how Paul did after stabbing a Frenchman, staring at his withering corpse for hours. It frightened me. I put up a block, deciding I would not understand, not because I couldn’t theoretically, but because practically it might make me explode.
Still, I continued to talk in class. I’m a garrulous person, and I like driving a point home, even if my voice is so quiet that nobody can hear the wisdom spouting from my mouth, which is more often than not complete garbage. One night, to my surprise, a colleague told me I was wrong about something I had said in discussion. “I don’t believe in forcing a dichotomy between right and wrong,” I laughed. “I do,” he said, and he was serious. He told me why I was wrong, and I felt steam gurgling in the pit of my stomach. I was ashamed, because he was right, I was wrong.
Yesterday, a friend of mine who served in the military asked me why I never wrote articles about war—why when given a platform, I chose to dash off pieces on pop culture instead of something that could really make a difference. I didn’t respond because the steam was gurgling again and I knew my answer wasn’t good enough. “Because I wouldn’t know what to say,” I thought. “Because I don’t understand. Because I haven’t wanted to understand.”
The truth is, civilians have plenty of tools at our disposal to learn, but we decide we’d rather just watch. I have tried to use books to figure out what war is, not why we war. It’s the distinction between a picture and the text beneath it; I never searched for the explanation, and I had never considered my role in stopping war. I just wanted to feel good, selfishly, like I had done my part to tell and take in the soldier’s story. I didn’t really think about my part in making him a soldier, idly sitting by as he risked his life and saw friends die.
With my non-military family in South Texas, recent wars haven’t touched me. But they’ve touched someone. They’ve touched the people who are fighting, and the families who mourn them.
So maybe it’s time we try to rethink the “why.” This Veteran’s Day, we can stop regurgitating one-liners like “thank you for your service” and start proactively educating ourselves on how to create a world where fewer people have to serve. If we haven’t been there, we won’t understand war, but if we get why it’s waged, that’s enough to make a difference. And a difference—well isn’t that the start of something good?