Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Cost of War

What is the true cost of war?  It is not the cost of the materiel, training, salaries, and post-war reconstruction.  It is not factored in costs of healthcare, in the rise or fall of GDP or due to manufacturing losses or gains.  The true cost of war - which I cannot begin to calculate - must be in the dreams of those who survive.


My grandfather wore a .45 caliber pistol at his hip when he fought in the Pacific theater in WWII.  The trigger guard was shot off.  He kept that pistol until he died. It was a kind of reverse sacrament, an outward and visible sign of an inward, invisible wound, of a bullet that nearly ended his life, of the bullets and bombs that ended so many others.  To me, he was a hero, but I wonder if he was ever able to see himself that way.

As a young child I asked him, in wonder, if he had ever seen a man die in war.  I did not know what I was doing.  He was a good man, and a kind one, but that question drew from him the most anger I ever saw in his eyes or heard in his voice.  "Of course I have!" he shouted.  He got up from his chair and left the room, leaving me with my firmest impression of war, of anger and pain stored up for thirty years, like the shrapnel in his back that set off airport metal detectors until his death in the late 1980s.


My neighbor Bob died a little while ago.  His father fought in the first World War, and when Bob wanted to sign up to fight the Germans, Bob's father begged him not to go.  Bob went, and entered the war at the Battle of the Bulge, "my baptism by fire," Bob once told me.  When Bob's son signed up to fight in Viet Nam, Bob begged him not to go.  Jim went anyway.  Three generations of men survived wars, each one eager never to see it again.

I sat next to Bob at a Christmas party ten years ago.  On his other side sat another veteran of the Great War.  They huddled close and whispered loudly, as old men do, thinking I could not hear.  I looked away to preserve their imagined secrecy, but could not help hearing bits of the stories they could speak of only with one another.  The war was sixty years behind them, but their voices still trembled as they unburdened themselves in that moment only brothers in arms can share.  I recall Bob saying this:

"...I checked on my men, and they were fine.  I turned and began to walk away when the shell fell, right between them in their machine gun nest.  All three were killed instantly.  I had been speaking to them just a moment before, and now they were gone...."  Both men were silent for a while after that.  The men were gone, but their deaths lived on and on in Bob's dreams.


That cost, that's what I find impossible to calculate: the cost of asking men to carry in their hearts and in their dreams all of the deaths of other men.  I do not know how they carry it all. I do not know how we can lightly ask others to carry it anew.


If you don't know his work, let me recommend Brian Turner's book Here, Bullet.  He's a young veteran and a brilliant poet who writes about his experience as a soldier in Iraq. 

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