By Arthur H. Gunther III
Why does war often begin with a parade and end with one? At the first, youthful excitement, naivete, innocence, natural inclination and lack of experience and judgment as to horror fuel the adrenalin of patriotism as the quick steps of those who would save the world or avenge a wrong rush to enlistment. On the return march, the wounded, the hardened, the ones now in the know, step forward arm in arm with with the ghosts of the fallen, accepting the gratitude of a citizenry that can never grasp the horror of conflict. In each parade, organized first by fever and then on return by politicians, there is the constant cadence of background music for “All Quiet on the Western Front,” the 1930 American film based on a book the previous year by Erich Maria Remarque, a German veteran of the First World War.
The novel, the film, describe the extreme mental and physical stress of the battleground and how civilian life is never the same for many, if not most veterans. The book and movie may be about an older war, the frightening technology of which is far surpassed today, but a young, as they now say “warrior,” mind was then as now a heartbeat from the mother’s womb and embrace. It is easily and perhaps irreparably damaged. Read or see “All Quiet …” and you know today’s story for post-Iraq and Afghanistan U.S. vets.
The genuine reaction to the Sept. 11, 2001, events brought a surge of young people who enlisted for the cause in a parade of honest patriotism for conflicts now recognized as both debatable and mismanaged, war that has put us into debt when we need investment for a shrinking middle class, infrastructure and quality of life. And for veterans’ care, too.
Now, a parade, the inevitable returning one, is proposed in New York City as the Afghanistan moment winds down, at least America’s part in it. Who can deny these vets their march down Gotham’s Canyon of Heroes? Who would not feel pride and a moment of gratefulness for the men and women who went off so willingly and quickly?
But when the parade is over, as it also inevitably is, when our veterans are home alone with their nightmares, thinking of lost comrades; when so many are unable to get or hold a job; when a major national newspaper reports that one U.S. veteran commits suicide almost every hour; when brain-damaged or emotionally disturbed warriors barely exist with seizures and drugs as long waits for woefully underfunded and bureaucracy-laden care never seem to end; when we forget our veterans except to give them a parade, how “quiet” are we the American people?
The writer is a retired newspaperman who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org This essay may be reproduced.