The young schoolgirl, with the disarming charm of pigtails and braces, put it directly: "Were you in the Korea War?'' The question made sense. We were standing alongside depictions of 19 ghostly infantrymen, the heroic sculptures at the center of the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington, and the man being questioned wore a gray beard and a veteran's cap. He bent down to hear better and she repeated louder, "Were you in Korea?'' No, he said, "I was in Vietnam. April the 4th
we landed . . .'' But she was skipping away. "Okay, thank you anyway!'' she called back, and he watched her disappear into the crowd.
I often come to mingle with the tourists or to sit on one of the black granite benches at the Korean War Memorial. I like being in the company of those 19 stainless steel combat troops, the 16 soldiers, two Marines and a Navy corpsman who make up a squad on patrol. They wear ponchos against the harsh weather and their faces variously reflect fatigue, wariness, loneliness, determination and, I think, nobility. It's a good place to think about the men and women who are sent off to fight wars on our behalf. It's a good place to try to sense how vastly different their war experiences are from our ordinary civilian lives, and to think about how these men and women come home as veterans, forever changed, with this other reality throbbing inside them.
How should we think about them? It's Veterans Day today, and there will be wreath-laying and patriotic speeches. Veterans organizations will remind us that veterans services are underfunded. There will be arguments about whether homeless veterans are homeless because they are veterans or for the same myriad reasons thousands of other Americans are homeless. There will be rhetorical calls for us Never to Forget.
But what do we owe veterans, really, especially in an age when wars seem to have no clear winner or even any clear ending. Veterans were lauded for victory in 1945, but that was the last time, apart from 1991's inconclusive Desert Storm, that we were able to celebrate victory in war. Some 1.5 million Americans fought in the hell of Korea -- and that war's stalemate is still held in place only by a truce. There have been no victory parades for Vietnam, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Iraq, Afghanistan.
As a journalist who frequently covers war, I am always struck when I return at how peaceful this country is, for most Americans, most of the time. We don't worry about being killed in an air strike or by RPG fire. We are spared the smell of death. We are not forced to become refugees. The horror we see is made in Hollywood and projected on a screen. Not so for many veterans.
One night in a bar outside Boston, I spent hours listening to veterans talk about combat. As the beers went down and the ashtrays filled up, their stories poured out. There were tales of personal honor and individual sacrifice, of boredom and horror. One man had been on patrol when a single gunshot took down one of his buddies. He turned, and with a burst of fire, cut down a figure standing nearby with a smoking weapon. It was a young boy. The Viet Cong had taped a revolver to his hand and ordered him to murder an American. Killing the Vietnamese boy was a cruel necessity imposed on him by war, a justifiable act to save the men in his squad. But from that day on, this veteran told me, he was never the same. He came home to a civilian job, started a family, but was never the same. It was a story he had never told anyone. The night after we talked, he woke up with screaming nightmares for the first time in his life.
Men and women in combat invent black humor to absorb searing experiences like that. A Korean War veteran, retired Marine Sgt. Maj. John Carson, once told me that after terrible hand-to-hand combat with Chinese and North Korean troops, he and his men advanced through a battlefield littered with charred enemy corpses. One of the Marines stuck a lit cigarette in the mouth of one corpse, drawing raucous laughter from the battle-weary Americans trudging past.
Thinking about veterans, I recalled Army Sgt. Robert Bartlett, who was badly wounded in Iraq. He was driving an armored Humvee that struck an IED; the blast ripped off much of his face. Shrapnel punctured internal organs; he lost an eye and was virtually dead when medics dragged him out of the wreckage. It took two years of surgery before he could smile.
But he is irrepressibly proud of his military service -- and horrified at the ugly reality of war. Months before the blast, Bartlett told me, an Iraqi had appeared at the front gate of his base, saying that children were missing from his village. Bartlett took a squad to investigate. A dozen children had been caught up somehow in a Sunni-Shiite struggle over a neighborhood. They'd been kidnapped and shot to death, their bodies left on a dusty street. A joint U.S.-Iraqi strike force eventually found and arrested the guilty.
"War is not ever a good experience,'' Bartlett said between physical therapy sessions at Walter Reed Army Medical Hospital in Washington. "War is not pretty. There isn't anyone who hates war more than a soldier who's been there. Unfortunately, it is sometimes necessary. There are evil people out there, and I am proud of my service, that I was able to do something.'' His time in the Army, Bartlett said, was "hands down, the best thing I have ever done in my life.''
Most of us don't risk our lives to confront evil; we don't have to. But it might be worth pondering for a moment why we are spared, and whom we have to thank for that blessing. Among those who come to my mind are not only the military veterans, but the civilians I have met in war zones -- the diplomats, the negotiators, the humanitarian aid workers, who also risk their lives and absorb war's horror. If it helps, go sit for a while with the 19 sculpted Korean War soldiers still walking their lonely patrol. Veterans all, we owe them our thanks.