By Dan Barkhuff
Twenty years have gone past now, for most of us, since our wars began in earnest. Enough time for many of us to make peace with what our nation asked us to do. Enough time for the smells and sights on loop in our psyches to meld into, for the luckiest amongst us, something voluntarily accessible. There are those, of course, for whom it’s not voluntary and both predictably and unpredictably present. It’s been 20 years, a quarter of a natural lifespan, to make our peace with the dead.
They bled out in Mesopotamian dust or were vaporized on a dirt donkey trail in the shadow of the Hindu Kush. That’s what happened to our friends. The last full measure was violent and terrifying and desperate, and we loaded them onto Skedco stretchers or cut their body armor off and carried them over a shoulder as their blood ran down and soaked our uniforms towards the landing zone. We found them in pieces along the side of an urban alley in Ramadi. Some of them, years later and physically home, wrote notes of tortured thought, racked one final round into the chamber, placed the gun to their temple, and pulled the trigger.
To remember how they died takes nothing away from how they lived. For us, it doesn’t cheapen it. The nobility of soldiers is not diminished by their honesty about war’s cost on those who fight it. Most of our country doesn’t want to remember the details of what a death in war looks like. If they think of it at all, it’s of the dress uniforms, the bugler, and the flag-draped casket. They think of the civic ceremony we as a nation use to mask pure horror. I’m okay with that. It’s not a truth that belongs to them, it belongs to us.
Our friends did not die for America in the final calculus, they lived for it. Like all of us, they signed on the dotted line for a waving flag or a wife or husband or their children or their high school or the United States Military Academy. They lived a life of quiet service that we all recognize as a part of our national lore for hundreds of years. They lived and wore a uniform for blossoming democracy and vital national interest, or Halliburton oil, take your pick. They lived for the abstract, but what they died for was concrete.
They died for us.
Our lives have not only taken shape in the succeeding years and decades since those gifts but have been fleshed out and hardened. Some of us stayed in uniform and rose through ranks, others left national service. We changed careers, started families, went to parent-teacher conferences, and got hired and laid off. We learned a new hobby, we drank cold beer in the hot sun, we wrote books, we rolled out of bed and drank coffee on hundreds of forgettable Mondays. It’s all been boring and exhilarating, banal and memorable. We live our lives as receivers of gifts that most of humanity have only ever been given by their parents. The gift is incalculable and unforgettable, and only we understand what actually went into the down payment.
They will never again do any of that. They won’t laugh. They won’t sit down for a meal. They won’t give a speech at a retirement ceremony with jokes about golfing or the beach. They won’t watch their children graduate, or care for and play with the grandkids for a weekend, or host Thanksgiving. All that we can do is imagine the good that would have come from their lives continuing and attempt to live up to that.
The gratitude for the gift expresses itself both consciously and subconsciously. We visit graves with flowers; we introduce our children to a headstone in Section 60. The gratitude manifests in dreams and memories, in long car trips alone with a certain song and a tickle in our noses, and a watery eye. Some of us express it publicly, in a speech or an internet post, or an essay like this. For some, it’s quiet - a pause, a reflection on how lucky we are to roll out of bed each morning with creaky knees and a sore back. The importance is that we honor these gifts in however we choose.
Because the gratitude and deep sadness that touches us, occasionally at odd moments, is the cost, the pennies on the dollar we must pay for the rest of our time on earth. Nothing about it is fair. It’s not fair that he went left in that room instead of right, or chose to be in the turret that day, or stepped where he did, onto the pressure plate. It could have just as easily been any one of us. And that would have been that. If the roles were reversed, would that ghost have lived a life more full of decency and love than we have?
We’ll never know. And that, of course, is the gift. It’s humbling and impossible: to have to live up to the imagined years of a man or woman who gave up every breath they would ever take to do their part so we didn’t have to. We must never waver in this responsibility. We owe it to them, we owe it to ourselves.