LIVING FOR CHANGE
Reverberations of War
By Kerry Vachta
Michigan Citizen, Nov.21-27, 2010
My grandfather ran away to join the army in 1915 when he was 14. He re-upped for WWII. The army literally raised him and it showed. He was rigid, hot tempered, hostile, violent. He became one of those men – riddled with rage – shouting racial epithets at innocent passersby who never knew the battle raging inside the car as he calmly aimed for the nearest light post, intent on taking us all out for objecting. Such was the value of human life – even his family’s – for this child of war. Inevitably, Nana dove across the seat to wrench the wheel aside – sometimes into oncoming traffic – often getting smacked for her “insubordination.” It’s a wonder we lived to talk about it. We didn’t until long after they were gone.
Young people seldom run away to “join the cause” today. They’re bribed by a government that maintains bad schools and an obsolete American Dream to ensure a supply of bright, ambitious young people with only one route to college and ‘success’. Their lives are valued at tuition and fees (if they survive with the capacity for higher education intact). We wonder how they don’t understand why if you enter a misguided war for tuition, you’re heroic – but if you battle in your own streets defending the lives of people you love in a cause you understand, you’re criminal. Why, killing for college is patriotic, not mercenary. How people who claim life is priceless but put a price tag on yours are shocked when young people increasingly see their own lives as disposable.
I don’t understand either. What I do understand is that ALL of these battles are producing scars – visible or not – like those my grandfather bore. Scars that run through generations who never volunteered for the front lines. That we choose to perpetuate them, convinced that OUR cause is just and lives lost along the way are honorable or unavoidable – collateral damage.
My grandmother was collateral damage to wars she never fought. So was my mother. Two years ago, 93 years after George first enlisted, WWI claimed another victim from my family. My brother’s suicide was more complicated than that – but as the only male progeny, he heard war stories the rest of us escaped. He worshiped my grandfather and could never reconcile that with the violence he witnessed and experienced at his hands. He spent our last conversations trying to come to terms with his love and admiration for a man who caused such damage – and to understand that it didn’t start with George.
When the army called to let his (Spanish-American War vet) father know that George was trying to enlist, his response was, “If he thinks he’s man enough for war, let him go.” Later, this man kicked my then-14-year-old mother out of his house for refusing to drink soy milk. She spent two years sleeping on a friend’s couch until George returned from WWII. My father didn’t know about that until after she died when, assuming it was common knowledge, I inadvertently shattered that particular silence. Like soldiers, women have secrets we keep from those we wish to protect. Women tell women things they never tell their men. Sometimes they tell children who are not ready to know.
My wish each Veterans Day is that we reject the notion of the noble soldier (whether ‘street’ or ‘armed services’) bearing in silence the costs of war rather than imposing the stories on loved ones, never recognizing that these stories are the least of it in the face of the ceaseless, pounding reverberations of that silence. That we reject the causes that bring us to battle, the false notions of bravery that validate imposing the costs – direct and indirect – on our children. generation after generation, and pretending the soldiers are bearing those costs alone. ______
My USSF Conversation with Immanuel Wallerstein can be read at