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What will these soldiers carry home?

Jane Eisner Knight Ridder

I sat in the audience Tuesday evening at the Free Library in Philadelphia, listening to Vietnam veterans talk about the ghosts that haunt them still.

One speaker reverently repeated the names of the two men who died while saving him. Another irreverently described how it felt to see his comrades burned to a crisp after a helicopter crash.

The occasion was a panel discussion of Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried.” Published 15 years ago and never more timely, O’Brien’s work is a lush collection of stories that, like all fine fiction, echoes with blinding, uncomfortable truth.

I stared at the vets, their hair gray, their voices gravelly, and was struck by the bitterness they carried into old age, as if time had negated whatever glorious images once were associated with war and replaced them with a picture of resentment.

And I couldn’t help wondering: Who will be on this panel 30 years from now, and what will they say? The veterans of the war in Iraq will carry things home with them; all veterans do. Will they be similarly burdened with bitterness and confusion? Or will they be able to file away their experiences in a drawer marked achievement, the way so many men did after returning from World War II?

O’Brien’s book makes us confront what he calls the “memory traffic” of war: the thoughts, memories and fears of men forced to kill or be killed, and all too often, see their buddies go down. The details may change from one conflict to the next – from jungle to desert to urban neighborhood – but the existential experience is the same regardless of when, how and where war is fought.

But soldiers carry different things home from different conflicts. So again, it’s worth asking: What will our veterans carry home this time, and how will it be received?

Will we idolize those who fought in Baghdad and Basra as we did the Greatest Generation? Or will we offer only the belated recognition accorded those who emerged from My Khe and the Mekong Delta, after a war many never understood and didn’t want enough to win?

At least today we no longer blame the soldier for the conflict. At least today most Americans acknowledge that even if this war was begun under false pretenses and prosecuted poorly, it can serve a noble purpose.

That should lighten the burden they carry home from Iraq.

I wonder if today’s soldiers will return to the Middle East one day as those who fought in the European theater still do, in the embrace of aging reunions that make their slow way around the graveyards at Omaha Beach. Will they, as modest victors, show off to the grandchildren and pay their respects to the fallen?

Or will their visits be propelled by guilt and atonement, as some visits to Vietnam are now – by the “faceless responsibility and faceless grief” that sent Tim O’Brien back to the muddy river where years earlier his best friend had died?

O’Brien writes about bringing his 10-year-old daughter with him on that grim journey, even though she could barely understand its mission. Some Vietnam vets, coming of age in a confessional time, need to include their families in ways the more circumspect WWII vets could never fathom.

The daughter of a panelist asked about services offered to families who also suffered from the trauma of war. I grew up with a father who saw heavy combat in Europe and never remember feeling traumatized by it.

What will it be for the families of those now serving in Iraq?

The answers will come only when the U.S. military involvement is truly over and the outcome clear. While I wish for neither the sentimentality of World War II nor the cynicism of Vietnam, I do hope honesty will prevail.

I hope we’ll recognize that the Iraqi veterans will carry home their own burdens that can’t be explained away under the guise of purpose or patriotism. As Tim O’Brien writes: “You can tell a true war story by the way it never seems to end.”

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