Nearly 18 months ago, after being asked my position by people close to me, I wrote, what I see now as a vain, faulty and overly academic analysis of the situation in Ukraine, that I hoped at the time would provide an avenue to examine the situation in a broader historical context, foster a deeper understanding of the goings on, and spark some effort to end the violence. Even so, what I believed would have long since ended by now, is still going on, and the only thing that has proven to be true is my own inadequacy to address issues such as these and impact or change anything.
Asking Chat-GPT to create a plan of action, which came out good and practical on its face in a matter of seconds, did nothing to stop the fighting, and to my dismay, was largely ignored. There is something to be said here about the human condition, the limitations of our spiritual and practical understanding of wars, our individual powerlessness to impact their outcome, the series of events and circumstances that lead up to them, and the absolute horrors that are put up with by the innocents they impact.
In the 18 months since, I’ve done my best to stay out of such discussions, and to focus my thoughts on other, more productive matters. Yet, when people press in asking, and they often still do, I simply tell them that it’s painful for me, that the only flag I am willing to wave is an American one, and that my deepest hope is that the waving of that flag is used only for the purpose of ending hostilities between belligerents. Here, I am forced to face an obvious contradiction in my own actions and desires, as I am someone who has spent more than a decade applying to and facing rejection from each branch of the US Armed Forces.
Yet, in the last year, I have found my own way to be of service to the military community, and after completing a year of VetCorps, I’ve been privileged to stay on in a part-time capacity to serve in a supportive housing community for veterans recovering from homelessness with the good people of the Compass Housing Alliance. I’ve come to know these people, understand their daily struggles and have developed a deep appreciation for their service, their sacrifices and their humanity.
Nearly a month ago, one of the residents, a US Army combat veteran, many years my senior, opened up and asked me to write a public letter on a question I could not bring myself to answer.
This is a man who has given his life to serve his country, and by all accounts served honorably. When sober, he’s an intelligent, learned, and articulate man who has a deep appreciation for military history and an on-the-ground, first-hand understanding of world events that is unmatched by anyone in the uninitiated circles I encounter in my day-to-day. Yet, he is also a man coming to the twilight years of his life, still wrestling with the demons of his past, drowning them in drink, wondering what it was all for, and living each day afraid of one day dying in his room alone.
After telling me about the time he served in Bosnia under NATO and the details of the things he witnessed and participated in there, and other places around the World in service to the United States, he asked me matter-of-factly:
“What is the difference between War and Peace?”
Sitting there as a civilian, after listening to what he had just finished telling me, I felt moderately inadequate. In the context of the series of pedantic articles I had written over a year prior, I felt totally inadequate; but he, having read some of my writing and perhaps taken some amusement with it, made me give him my word that I would write something publicly on the matter. I’ve spent the better part of the last month thinking about how to formulate a response and have largely concluded that it is impossible for me to answer this question adequately, and the best I can do is scratch at its surface.
For most Americans who haven’t served, war is something that we’ve only witnessed on the television. New Yorkers living and working in Manhattan, witnessed 9/11 in person, but we’ve all seen images of the planes hit and collapse the twin towers, we’ve seen the toppled statues of Saddam, we’ve seen President George W. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” announcement from the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln. We see reports of destroyed hospitals, bombed schools and counts of dead civilians in the press. We see curated narratives of the villains we are supposed to hate. We see our government spending trillions of dollars, and we see prices for basic goods rise as our economy begins to bear the costs of the money printing required to support the things decided to be done to support armed conflict overseas.
Because of this, an understanding of the basic process of war is embedded in the logical part of our minds. That war exists; but it is something that happens somewhere “over there”, and we can casually talk about it in terms of picking sides, because we lack the experience of having the actual feeling of war.
Thus, people with strong convictions on having one side win, and a subsequent desire to wave some digital flag or to hang one on their porch, or to make some statement about justifying the continuation of hostilities, hold in their hearts a conviction for that particular outcome, invariably to the detriment of what they perceive to be the “other” side. What business do we have in any of this?
For this man, the realities of war have been an indescribable hell. After thirty years, despite being someone who is still relatively fit and not physically maimed from fighting, he carries with him the heavy pain and psychological traumas of his experiences, his feelings of war. He comes home drunk, attempting to escape the memories and the feelings he’s been left with. He sees the free world around him and he sees what we see on the television and in the press and he wonders.
He reminds me of what I left out of the analysis pieces I wrote a year and a half ago. About Stalin’s purges of Ukraine, the confiscation of grain, and the skeletal bodies of famine encountered by Nazis after the Holodomor. He tells me that Western Ukrainians had good reason for joining forces with the Nazis after Hitler broke the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, and that those old alliances against Communism and the memories of the heavy boot of Moscow from a century ago haven’t died.
My experience with him has shown me that, even though our history books clearly state the start and end dates of armed conflicts, the breaking of treaties and the sounds of the falling of the first shells, the truth about it is, the traumas of those things are carried on for a lifetime.
On the other hand, those of us who have grown up with and lived only in peace, not having to go “over there”, and witnessing wars only through our televisions, have been given a gift that we appear to collectively take for granted. We don’t really stop to think about or attempt to feel the difference between our experience of peace, and the experiences of our service members who do go “over there” and carry that burden. They do that so we don’t have to, and that perhaps is the point.
So, when the images of war, the rumors of war, and the vain prognostications of pundits and pedants proclaiming various escalation scenarios seep in through our televisions and devices, perhaps we should all stop for a moment “mute the news” and sit in gratitude for the experience of peace we are all granted through the service of those who, whether by decree or by choice, do carry these burdens for us.