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Midlands Voices: Why many combat veterans don't talk about their wars

Midlands Voices: Why many combat veterans don't talk about their wars

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Veterans Day is not just a day to honor our veterans; it is our day to thank them for what they did. While we need to appreciate what their service did for our country, we also need to understand what their service to our country did to them.

After every war, family and friends ask the same questions. “Why doesn’t he talk about the war? Why doesn’t he tell us what he did?” They worry that he might be hiding some dark, disturbing secret that causes him to stay silent. For a few, that is certainly the case. For most, there are other reasons why a combat solider is reluctant to share his experiences.

For the peacetime solider, that is never the case. Those veterans love to tell their stories, and their family and friends love to hear them. It is exciting to hear him talk about how in basic training he had to low crawl under live machine gun fire, throw live hand grenades without killing himself or others, fire his rifle at human silhouettes on the target range, and how he had to remove his gas mask inside a gas chamber.

These stories are exhilarating for both the storyteller and his listeners. He can tell these stories because they are safe to tell.

It is different for the combat solider, because he knows instinctively that his stories are not safe to tell. There is no mystery he is attempting to conceal. He is honestly fearful that his listeners are not prepared to hear what he has to say, nor prepared for how he has to say it.

Killing is the business of war, and death is its consequence. Civilians do not like to hear about killing, and combat soldiers do not want to talk about it. There is no euphemistic way to talk about killing, and there is no eloquent way to describe a violent death. So, in order to cope, soldiers have invented their own private language to talk about these subjects. In World War I the dough boys “hammered the Huns.” In World War II our GIs tried to “nail the Nazi’s” and “annihilate the NIPS.” In Korea the mission was to “rub out the Reds”. In my war we talked about “wasting the enemy” or “greasing the Dinks.”

We never gave a thought to political correctness, because this is how we talked. This is how soldiers have always talked. It is a soldier’s way to justify his actions. It allows him to sidestep the long dark shadow of the 5th Commandment.

This is a hard and callous philosophy, but soldiering is a hard and callous profession. After all, what they were doing was exactly what our country was asking them to do. While we could communicate this way with our fellow soldiers, we knew it would be taboo to talk to civilians like that.

When it came to casualties, it was exactly the same. It had to be that way for soldiers to cope and carry on. When someone asked the first sergeant, where was Randall, he simply responded that Randall had “bought the farm.” How horrified Randall’s parents would be if they heard the first sergeant talk about their son in this way. When someone asked what happened to Sanford, he wasn’t told that Sanford was wounded. He was told simply that Sanford had “caught two in the chest.” How horrified his girlfriend would be if she heard these words.

Sure, soldiers hurt when they lose one of their own. How could they not? Causalities are the byproduct of war. War is graphic and gruesome, and soldiers see it firsthand, but the civilians do not. Every army infantryman carries a first aid kit. In the kit is a plastic sheet he knows how to apply to a fellow soldier who has a sucking chest wound. In that kit is a device that is to be used immediately to stop blood spurting out of a major artery. Civilians should never have to visualize these images.

The world of a combat solider is an X-rated world. It always has been. His language is course, callous and crude. The expressions that he swore like a sailor or cussed like a drill sergeant are not exaggerations. They are descriptions of soldiers at war.

While no solider wants to admit it to their family or friends, the “F” word flows like cold beer on an August afternoon.

From General Patton down to the lowliest GI, it was used as a noun, a verb and an adjective. It was and still is an integral part of the soldier’s vernacular. Acronyms like SNAFU, FUBAR, FNG, and dozens of others bear that out. Just Google the terms to see what I mean.

GI’s during World War II all sang a special song to vent their fears and frustrations. It was as profane as it was popular, yet It was the anthem of GIs in five different theaters of war. They sang with gusto, “Blank them all, Blank them all, all the long and the short and the tall.” You can fill in the blanks. When Bing Crosby sanitized that song, it became a hit record all over the United States. When a solider returns home it’s too easy to slip into bad language.

It takes courage to come face to face with an enemy whose only mission is to see you dead. Taking out an enemy machine gun, blowing up a bunker, or rescuing a wounded buddy are what combat soldiers do. Overrunning enemy positions, breaking out of an ambush or shooting at an enemy that is shooting at you are the acts that define combat soldiers.

Yet to civilians, these exploits seem more like fiction or clips from a Hollywood action movie rather than real-life deeds. Once again, the solider is afraid to talk about these events. In this skeptical world, he knows from experience that if he does, he might be accused of bragging, exaggerating or even fabricating what he did. It is not worth the risk. It is just safer to stay silent.

Even describing ordinary military life is a problem. The military has a language full of abbreviations, acronyms and technical terminology that the ordinary person can never easily understand. How can you tell a story if it has to be constantly interrupted with explanations or punctuated with footnotes? It just not worth the effort.

Veterans day is our nation’s day to forgive our veterans for being callous and hard, for being impious and profane and for choosing not to talk about their war. On Veterans Day we should thank them. More than that, we should remember the words of the sanitized version of Bing Crosby’s song. Those lyrics say it best:

“Bless them all, Bless them all, all the long and the short and the tall!”

James Martin Davis is an Omaha trial lawyer and a Vietnam combat veteran.

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