The Broad is Back!

November 10, 2011

For Veteran’s Day

I haven’t been around in a long time for a myriad of reasons, but I wanted to share an old blog post from the original The Broad Abroad in honor of our veterans and our current service men and women.

Since I’ve been back teaching in NYC, I’ve taught more veterans than I want to think about, young men and women who have served in battle and are now back getting a degree. I read their essays about living in a war zone; I hear their stories of lost friends, broken bodies, alcoholism, and it breaks my heart every time.  I am also teaching some active soldiers, one of whom recently got wounded so badly that he ended up in Germany for surgery. he still managed to be only four days late with his paper.  And he apologized for inconveniencing me.  I don’t mention names, but I tell his story to every student I have now.  He’s my personal hero.

So the thoughts I had in Sweden 10 years ago have only grown deeper.  Thank you all from the bottom of my heart, and not just the recent veterans, but those of you who served in all of America’s wars.  You truly aren’t forgotten. Or unappreciated.

A Shout Out to the Boys

Originally published August 12, 2004

A lot of times in this column, I talk about encountering anti-Americanism. OK, talk is a euphemism. I complain.
And I’ve mentioned how I don’t wear things obviously labeling me as an American because I worry about attracting unwanted attention. It’s the same theory as not wearing my jewelry in the New York City subway–why tempt Fate?

I’m not alone in this approach, of course. Just the other day I was reading that one of the American TV networks has
warned its staff going over to cover the Olympic Games not to wear American flags or even the network insignia when they are out in public in order to avoid being the target of a terrorist attack.

But then I got to thinking about some people who can’t avoid being seen as American: the members of the US Armed
Forces fighting or guarding in different areas. And I really wanted to say something about them, but I was trying to think of a way to avoid all the political implications. It’s not easy. No, I take that back. It’s impossible. Oh, I can write without mentioning politics at all, but I can hear people out there shouting at me because I’m choosing to ignore the political.

But that’s just what those soldiers have to do. They have to ignore the shouting and the politics and just do their
job, and frankly, it’s a pretty crummy job. And for all my sitting in nice, safe Sweden and writing about the image of America abroad, I *am* safe. So I wanted to take a week and give a shout out to the “boys and girls” in the service and say thank you. Thank you for being braver than I could ever be, and thank you for putting your life on the line. Although there has been much made in the press of the bad apples, the good apples get basically ignored, so this is for them.

Just the other day I heard about two Iraqi brothers who have been living in Sweden for 25 years. They just sold
their shops and they are going home for the first time since they left their country. They couldn’t go back because of Saddam Hussein. I might not agree with how it was done, but what’s done is done, and good riddance to him. Saddam, that is. Those two brothers were quite pleased that the US finally got rid of him so that they can go spend their final years at home. And let me tell you, they say thanks to the boys, too.

A kid I used to baby sit is with the Marines in Afghanistan [note from 11/11–he recently got home from another tour over in the Middle East, so some things don’t change much] , and more than one friend has a son in Iraq. Through them, I’ve heard things that give me pause. I complain because I can’t get my favorite cleaning products in the places I’ve lived. These guys can’t get the sand out of their underwear. You know how horrible it is when you’ve got sand in your bathing suit? Well, from what I hear, this is a permanent problem over there. They feel like their underwear and socks are made of sandpaper. Sand gets into everything. One day my friend got frustrated and washed his clothes in a bucket of water. When he hung them out to dry, a sandstorm blew up and sanded themworse than before. I’m told one of the best things they can get in a care
package is a pair of tightey-whiteys (the regulation underwear) as it means no sitting on sandpaper for a day or two.

Sand is a hardship, of course, but then there’s the getting shot at. Of course, that’s an occupational hazard in their
chosen career, but still, I can’t think it can be much fun. How’s that for understatement?

I sometimes get e-mails from the mothers, written late at night when the fears can set in. Those moms are heroes to me. (Dads, too, I guess, but as a mom, I empathize with them more.) I have a hard time sending my son to school where I know there are bullies marking him out. I literally cannot imagine waving my son off, knowing he’s going into battle. Mothers have been doing it for millennia, of course, but hearing my friends voice their fears makes me wonder how they can possibly do it. I know I am no Volumnia, mother to the great Roman soldier Caius Martius, later known as Coriolanus. Thanks to Shakespeare’s version of the story, she’s famous for training her son to be a fierce soldier. In fact, in the play, based on Plutarch’s Lives, Volumnia says that she was happier when her son was first wounded in battle than she was the day
he was born and she was told he was a “man-child”.

Some ancient cultures recognized how difficult it was for women to send their children into battle. So according to
their beliefs, men could attain paradise by dying in battle, but women could attain paradise by giving birth to warriors. I can understand where that belief came from, believe me. Faith got those mothers through. Today, all of my
friends get by on Faith, as well. I’ve heard it said that there are no atheists in foxholes. Well, there don’t seem to be any among soldiers’ moms, either.

And they get by on the kindness of strangers. Time after time I hear stories of regular people doing things for
the soldiers overseas through their churches, work place or social groups. As I mentioned to one of my soldier-mom friends, one good thing about this awful war is that it has shown us that Americans really do unite and help one another
when they need to.

As I was preparing to write this essay, I found an interesting piece in the New York Times. It was David Brooks’s “Snapping to Attention,” and in it he says that civilians in America have a strange reaction to our military: “Our
attitudes seem bipolar: we’re either at the military’s throat or we’re at its feet.”

“Sometimes,” he says, “the military is regarded as a bizarre, primeval institution dangerously at odds with enlightened
American culture.” But then, “at the flick of a cultural switch, the same people who were watching “Dr. Strangelove,” “M*A*S*H” and “Platoon” are lining up to see “Top Gun,” “Saving Private Ryan” and “We Were Soldiers.” Suddenly the
military is a bastion of the higher virtues – selflessness, duty and honor.”

Burke has a few reasons for this“bipolar disorder”: “I get the feeling these bipolar attitudes arise from a cocktail of ignorance, guilt and envy. First, there are large demographic chunks of the nation in which almost nobody serves….At the same time, they know there’s something unjust in the fact that they get to enjoy America while others sacrifice for it, and sense deep down that there’s something ennobling in military service.”

I think he’s on to something there, but I also think that in its ideal form the military is a “bastion of the higher virtues,” but these virtues he mentions, selflessness, duty and honor, are losing their grip in our society. And not just American society, all of Western society. (I can’t speak for other societies here, because I’m a product of Western liberal humanism, so I’m limiting myself to that.) Honor seems to be a forgotten word in our life, and duty? Well, that just seems laughable to most
people. Think of all the people you know in your own life who shirk duties–work responsibilities, parental responsibilities, marriage responsibilities–because they are too much, too hard.

When we see young people, some just barely 18, fulfilling their very dangerous duties in a highly unpopular war,
how can we not be made aware of our own failings? And it’s easy to take our frustrations about the war out on the young people who are fighting it. Many of them joined the military for a shot at a better life. And they’ll have one if a) they can stay alive, and b) they can resist the temptation to hate. It’s difficult, but hate is what turns them sour inside and makes them into the people who get the negative headlines.

So when I pray for them all over there, and I do, every day, I pray for physical, emotional and spiritual safety. And this is my shout out to you all–thank you from the bottom of my heart.

 

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