Last week I was able to catch much of the live stream of the ceremony marking the Centennial of America’s entry into the Great War. It was wonderfully done, reflected multiple perspectives, and offered insights into the impact that moment had on America and the world. The ceremony wrapped up with a rousing rendition of “Over There.” As I hear the lines “We’ll be over, we’re coming over,” I realized I had tears in my eyes. I wondered, “How could a hundred year-old song move me to tears?” I suppose the reason is because my own experience of war gave me at least a little glimpse into what was in store for the young men and women headed “Over There.”
To be clear, between the Balkans, Iraq, and Afghanistan I never set foot in a trench. (Well, that’s not entirely true: in Kosovo I stood in a two-foot deep decoy trench the Serbs dug to draw attention from the well-camouflaged foxholes they had prepared in the woodline nearby.) I never huddled in a shell crater, never endured a sustained artillery barrage, never dodged machine gun fire while negotiating a barbed wire obstacle, was never gassed, and never had my tank break down or get mired in front of the muzzles of several enemy machine guns. That was not my generation’s experience of war.
Our experience was very different. Several years ago I had the great honor of delivering a Posthumous Bronze Star Medal for Valor to the family of a fallen soldier with whom I had served. Before the ceremony I chatted with a few WWII 10th Mountain Division veterans, and I remarked that their accomplishments in Italy were an inspiration to today’s soldiers. I was surprised by the humble reply: “Are you kidding me? We got there in January and the war was over in May; then we were done! You people today go over there for a year, and then you go back over and over again. I don’t know how you do it.”
So it would seem every war is horrible in its own way, and each participant’s experience of war is different. There are moments of horror, but in the midst of the violence and chaos, many, if not most, participants also find moments of valor, excitement, and exhilaration. These highs and lows leave a lasting imprint, and the longer one is exposed to them, them more imprints are left. I think that is true for all wars.
I suppose the most important thing to remember is that when a soldier comes back from “Over There,” a little bit of “Over There” comes back HERE. Some return better people than when they left. Some returned shattered by their experiences. For most, it is somewhere in between. I can only imagine what went on the minds of veterans of the Great War; I know that I carry a bit of my wars with me wherever I go. If I move over when I pass a broken-down car on the side of the road, it’s to give me room in case the car explodes. If I duck during the weekly tornado siren test, it’s not because I was startled, it’s because in Afghanistan sirens meant a rocket was inbound. If I spend an hour and a half on the phone with someone I’ve not spoken to for years, it’s because at one time he and I were ready to give our lives for each other, and that is a bond that will never be broken.
There is another complicating factor for me: while my military service is over, my wars go on. The dirty roadside where I found my first IED (to be fair, it found me) is still in the hands of Daesh. There is still fierce fighting in Afghanistan. American service members are in harm’s way every day…and I have a son who is seventeen years-old. A hundred years ago he would have been in the target age group to go “Over There,” and I still worry that someday he is going to decide to follow in my footsteps. Maybe that perspective is really why I had tears in my eyes last week.
I did not serve in the Great War and I did not serve in the American Revolution; I can’t claim to know what soldiers experienced in those wars. But I did serve in the Balkans, Iraq, and Afghanistan and I am beginning to understand what I experienced in those places. When I write about Gideon Hawke’s involvement in the American War for Independence, I hope that my involvement in other wars can help illuminate some universal experience of war. Perhaps people will better understand what it means to go “Over There.” If so, then perhaps I will have truly accomplished something.
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