In the Sunday review section of the NY Times, Phil Klay, the author of “Redeployment”, a forthcoming collection of short stories, writes on the subject of experiences of veterans in war in an article entitled “After War, A Failure of Imagination“. As a former Marine, he relates conversations with civilian friends and acquaintances on the subject of the War in Iraq in which they frequently feel obligated to say: “I could never imagine what you’ve been through”. In fact however, some of them could imagine Klay’s experiences very well based on traumatic events in their own lives albeit not in a military setting.
Klay goes on to explain the reticence that many veterans and civilians alike have to broach the subject of war experiences. As Klay says, it is rooted in “the notion that war forever separates veterans from the rest of mankind” because war experience stories are “just beyond telling”. In fact, through frank and unjudgmental discussions of war experiences with friends who have never served, many veterans have come to better understand what they have witnessed. Exposure to the arts has accomplished even more by providing a vocabulary for something you’d thought was incommunicably unique. He finishes the article by chiding Americans for sending our all volunteer military on deployment after deployment without making a serious effort to imagine what that means.
I find the article interesting but lacking in explaining the reticence of veterans when the subject of war experience comes up. Many veterans have war experiences that are characterized most accurately as sheer boredom and are best left to that truth. Others have experienced events that have produced nightmares that no amount of discussion can expunge. Between these extremes are many more war experiences that will forever remain unknown because they are better left un-revealed to an audience that is perceived as judgmental. War veterans for the most part want to hold to their conviction that they did what was asked of them at a time when they had a choice in the matter. They want respect for that decision. And they want to respect and honor those who were unlucky and paid the ultimate price for it.