By Arthur H. Gunther III
Why does war often begin with a parade and end with one? At the first, youthful excitement, naiveté, innocence, natural inclination and lack of experience and judgment as to horror fuel the adrenalin of patriotism as the quick steps of those who would save the world or avenge a wrong rush to enlistment. On the return, slow march, the wounded, the hardened, the ones now in the know, step forward arm in arm with the ghosts of the fallen, accepting the gratitude of a citizenry that can never grasp the horror of conflict for they were not there.
In each parade, organized first by fever and then on return by politicians, there is the constant cadence of background music for “All Quiet on the Western Front,” the 1930 American film based on a book the previous year by Erich Maria Remarque, a German veteran of the First World War.
The novel, the film, describe the extreme mental and physical stress of the battleground and how civilian life is never the same for many, if not most veterans. The book and movie may be about an older war, the frightening technology of which is far surpassed today, but a young, as they now say “warrior,” mind was then as now a heartbeat from the mother’s womb and embrace. It is easily and perhaps irreparably damaged. Read or see “All Quiet …,” and you know today’s story for post-Iraq and Afghanistan U.S. vets.
The genuine reaction to the Sept. 11, 2001, events brought a surge of young people who enlisted for the cause in a parade of honest patriotism for conflicts now recognized as both debatable and mismanaged, war that put us into debt when we need investment for a shrinking middle class, infrastructure and quality of life. And certainly for veterans’ care.
Now, yet another parade is planned in Washington by a president who, like me, never saw war, as a tribute to all who serve and have served. Who can deny these vets their march down Pennsylvania Avenue? Who would not feel pride and a moment of gratefulness for the men and women who went off so willingly and quickly? But the cost alone, perhaps $10 to $30 million, could feed all homeless vetrans for several weeks.
When the parade is over, when our veterans are home alone with their nightmares, thinking of lost comrades; when so many are unable to get or hold a job; when a major national newspaper reports that one U.S. veteran commits suicide almost every hour; when brain-damaged or emotionally disturbed warriors barely exist with seizures and drugs as long waits for woefully underfunded and bureaucracy-laden care never seem to end; when we forget our veterans except to give them a parade, how “quiet” are we the American people? Too quiet.
Rather than a parade, every American should take a vet to lunch, or buy him or her a coat, or obtain medicine or give a hug. That would be real “thanks”.
The writer is a retired newspaperman who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org This essay is adapted from an earlier piece..