The Solitude of Combat Veterans – Alan Farrell

"Ladies and Gentlemens:

Kurt Vonnegut — Corporal Vonnegut — famously told an assembly like this one that his wife had begged him to "bring light into their tunnels" that night. "Can't do that," said Vonnegut, since, according to him, the audience would at once sense his duplicity, his mendacity, his insincerity… and have yet another reason for despair. I'll not likely have much light to bring into any tunnels this night, either.

The remarks I'm about to make to you I've made before… in essence at least. I dare to make them again because other veterans seem to approve. I speak mostly to veterans. I don't have much to say to them, the others, civilians, real people. These remarks, I offer you for the reaction I got from one of them, though, a prison shrink. I speak in prisons a lot. Because some of our buddies wind up in there. Because their service was a Golden Moment in a life gone sour. Because… because no one else will.

 In the event, I've just got done saying what I'm about to say to you, when the prison psychologist sidles up to me to announce quietly: "You've got it." The "it," of course, is Post Stress Traumatic Traumatic Post Stress Disorder Stress… Post. Can never seem to get the malady nor the abbreviation straight. He's worried about me… that I'm wandering around loose… that I'm talking to his cons. So worried, but so sincere, that I let him make me an appointment at the V.A. for "diagnosis." Sincerity is a rare pearl.

So I sulk in the stuffy anteroom of the V.A. shrink's office for the requisite two hours (maybe you have), finally get admitted. He's a nice guy. Asks me about my war, scans my 201 File, and, after what I take to be clinical scrutiny, announces without preamble: "You've got it." He can snag me, he says, 30 percent disability. Reimbursement, he says, from Uncle Sam, now till the end of my days. Oh, and by the way, he says, there's a cure. I'm not so sure that I want a cure for 30 percent every month. This inspires him to explain. He takes out a piece of paper and a Magic Marker TM. Now: Anybody who takes out a frickin' Magic Marker TM to explain something to you thinks you're a bonehead and by that very gesture says so to God and everybody.

Anyhow. He draws two big circles on a sheet of paper, then twelve small circles. Apples and grapes, you might say. In fact, he does say. The "grapes," he asserts, stand for the range of emotional response open to a healthy civilian, a normal person: titillation, for instance, then amusement, then pleasure, then joy, then delight and so on across the spectrum through mild distress on through angst — whatever that is — to black depression. The apples? That's what you got, traumatized veteran: Ecstasy and Despair. But we can fix that for you. We can make you normal.

So here's my question: Why on earth would anybody want to be normal?

And here's what triggered that curious episode:

The words of the prophet Jeremiah:

My bowels. My bowels. I am pained at my very heart; my heart maketh a noise in me… [T]hou hast heard, O my soul, the sound of the trumpet, the alarm of war. Destruction upon destruction is cried; for the whole land is spoilt and my curtains… How long shall I see the standard and hear the sound of the trumpet?

I dunno about Jeremiah's bowels… or his curtains, but I've seen the standard and heard the sound of the trumpet. Again. Civilians mooing about that "Thin Red Line of 'eroes" between them and the Darkness. Again. ‘Course it's not red any more. Used to be olive drab. Then treetop camouflage. Then woodland. Then chocolate chip. Now pixelated, random computer-generated. Multi-cam next, is it? Progress. The kids are in the soup. Again. Me? I can't see the front sights of me piece any more. And if I can still lug my rucksack five miles, I need these days to be defibrillated when I get there. Nope. I got something like six Honorable Discharges from Pharaoh's Army. Your Mom's gonna be wearing Kevlar before I do. Nope. This one's on the kids, I'm afraid, the next generation.

I can't help them. Not those who make the sacrifice in the desert nor those in the cesspool cities of a land that if two troopers from the One Oh One or two Lance Corporals could find on a map a few years ago, I'll be surprised. Nobody can help… except by trying to build a society Back Here that deserves such a sacrifice.

We gonna win the war? I dunno. They tell me I lost mine. I know I didn't start it. Soldiers don't start wars. Civilians do. And civilians say when they're over. I'm just satisfied right now that these kids, for better or worse, did their duty as God gave them the light to see it. But I want them back. And I worry not about the fight, but about the after: after the war, after the victory, after… God forbid… the defeat, if it come to that. It's after that things get tricky. After that a soldier needs the real grit and wit. And after that a soldier needs to believe. Anybody can believe before. During? A soldier has company in the fight, in Kandahar or Kabul, Basra or Baghdad. It's enough to believe in the others during. But after… and I can tell you this having come home from a war: After …a soldier is alone. A batch of them, maybe… but still alone.

Years ago, maybe… when I was still in the Army, my A Team got the mission to support an Air Force escape and evasion exercise. Throw a bunch of downed pilots into the wilderness, let local guerrillas (us) feed them into a clandestine escape net and spirit them out by train just like in The Great Escape to… Baltimore, of all places. So we set up an elaborate underground network: farmhouses, caves, barns, pickup trucks, loads of hay where a guy can hide, fifty-five gallon drums to smuggle the evadees through checkpoints in. We've even cozened the Norfolk and Western Railroad out of a boxcar. Sooooo… come midnight, with our escapees safely stowed in that car, we wait for a special train to make a detour, back onto the siding, hook it up, and freight the pilots off to Maree-land. Pretty realistic, seems to us.

Now, for safety's sake the Railroad requires a Line Administrator on site to supervise any special stop. Sure enough, just before midnight two suit-and-ties show up toting a red lantern. Civilians. We sniff at them disdainfully. One of them wigwags to the train. With a clank she couples the boxcar and chugs out into the night. The other guy — frumpy Babbit from the front office — shuffles off down the track and out onto a trestle bridge over the gorge. He stands there with his hands behind his back, peering up at the cloud-strewn summertime sky, a thousand bucks worth of Burberry overcoat riffling in the night breeze. I edge over respectfully behind him. Wait. He notices me after a while, looks back. "You know," he says, "Was on a night like this 40 years ago that I jumped into Normandy."

Who'da thought?

Who'da thought? Then I thought… back to right after my return from Vietnam. I'm working nights at a convenience store just down the road from this very spot. Lousy job. Whores, bums, burnouts, lowlifes. That's your clientele after midnight in a convenience store. One particular guy I remember drifts in every morning about 0400. Night work. Janitor, maybe. Not much to distinguish him from the rest of the early morning crowd of shadows shuffling around the place. Fingers and teeth yellowed from cigarette smoke. A weathered, leathered face that just dissolves into the colorless crowd of nobodies.

Never says a word. Buys his margarine and macaroni and Miller's. Plunks down his cash. Hooks a grubby hand around his bag and threads his way out of the place and down the street. Lost in another world. Like the rest of the derelicts. One night, he's fumbling for his keys, drops them on the floor, sets his wallet on the counter — brown leather, I still remember — and the wallet flops open. Pinned to the inside of it, worn shiny and smooth, with its gold star gleaming out of the center: combat jump badge from that great World War II… Normandy maybe, just like the suit-and-tie.

Who'da thought?

Two guys scarred Out There. Not sure just where or how even. You can lose your life without dying. But the guy who made it to the top and the guy shambling along the bottom are what James Joyce calls in another context "secret messengers." Citizens among the rest, who look like the rest, talk like the rest, act like the rest… but who know prodigious secrets, wherever they wash up and whatever use they make of them. Who know somber despair but inexplicable laughter, the ache of duty but distrust of inaction. Who know risk and exaltation… and that awful drop though empty air we call failure… and solitude! They know solitude.

Because solitude is what waits for the one who shall have borne the battle. Out There in it together… back here alone. Alone to make way in a scrappy, greedy, civilian world "filching lucre and gulping warm beer," as Conrad had it. Alone to learn the skills a self-absorbed, hustling, modern society values. Alone to unlearn the deadly skills of the former — and bloody — business. Alone to find a companion — maybe — and alone — maybe — even with that companion over a lifetime… for who can make someone else who hasn't seen it understand horror, blackness, filth? Incommunicado. Voiceless. Alone. My Railroad president wandered off by himself to face his memories; my Store 24 regular was clearly a man alone with his.

For my two guys, it was the after the battle that they endured, and far longer than the moment of terror in the battle. Did my Railroad exec learn in the dark of war to elbow other men aside, to view all other men as the enemy, to "fight" his way up the corporate ladder just as he fought his way out of the bocages of Normandy? Did he find he could never get close to a wife or children again and turn his energy, perhaps his anger toward some other and solitary goal? Did the Store/24 guy never get out of his parachute harness and shiver in an endless night patrolled by demons he couldn't get shut of? Did he haul out that tattered wallet and shove his jump badge under the nose of those he'd done wrong to, disappointed, embarrassed? Did he find fewer and fewer citizens Back Here who even knew what it was? Did he keep it because he knew what it was? From what I've seen — from a distance, of course — of success, I'd say it's not necessarily sweeter than failure — which I have seen close up.

Well, that's what I said that woke up the prison shrink.

And I say again to you that silence is the reward we reserve for you and your buddies, for my Cadets. Silence is the sound of Honor, which speaks no word and lays no tread. And Nothing is the glory of the one who's done Right. And Alone is the society of those who do it the Hard Way, alone even when they have comrades like themselves in the fight. I've gotta hope as a teacher that my Cadets, as a citizen that you and your buddies will have the inner resources, the stuff of inner life, the values in short, to abide the brute loneliness of after, to find the courage to continue the march, to do Right, to live with what they've done, you've done in our name, to endure that dark hour of frustration, humiliation, failure maybe… or victory, for one or the other is surely waiting Back Here. Unless you opt for those grapes…

My two guys started at the same place and wound up at the far ends of the spectrum. As we measure their distance from that starting point, they seem to return to it: the one guy in the darkness drawn back to a Golden Moment in his life from a lofty vantage point; t'other guy lugging through God knows what gauntlet of shame and frustration that symbol of his Golden Moment. Today we celebrate your Golden Moment. While a whole generation went ganging after its own indulgence, vanity, appetite, you clung to a foolish commitment, to foolish old traditions; as soldiers, sailors, pilots, Marines you honored pointless ritual, suffered the endless, sluggish monotony of duty, raised that flag not just once, or again, or — as has become fashionable now — in time of peril, but every single morning. You stuck it out. You may have had — as we like to say — the camaraderie of brothers or sisters to buck each other up or the dubious support (as we like to say… and say more than do, by the way) of the folks back home, us… but in the end you persevered alone. Just as alone you made that long walk from Out There with a duffle bag fulla pixelated, random computer-generated dirty laundry — along with your bruised dreams, your ecstasy and your despair — Back Here at tour's end.

And you will be alone, for all the good intentions and solicitude of them, the other, the civilians. Alone. But…together. Your generation, whom us dumbo civilians couldn't keep out of war, will bear the burden of soldier's return… alone. And a fresh duty: to complete the lives of your buddies who didn't make it back, to confect for them a living monument to their memory. Your comfort, such as it is, will come from the knowledge that others of that tiny fraction of the population that fought for us are alone but grappling with the same dilemmas — often small and immediate, often undignified or humiliating, now and then immense and overwhelming — by your persistence courting the risk, by your obstinacy clinging to that Hard Way. Some of you will be stronger than others, but even the strong ones will have their darker moments. Where we can join each other if not relieve each other, we secret messengers, is right here in places like this and on occasions like this –  one lousy day of the year, your day, my day, our day, — in the company of each other and of the flag we served. Not much cheer in that kerugma. But there's the by-God glory.

"I know…" says the prophet Isaiah:

… I know that thou art obstinate, and thy neck is an iron sinew, and thy brow brass…I have shewed thee new things, even hidden things. Behold, I have refined thee, but not with silver; I have [refined] thee…in the furnace of affliction…

Well, all right, then. Why on earth would anybody want to be normal? Thanks for Listening and Lord love the lot of youse." 


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55 Responses to The Solitude of Combat Veterans – Alan Farrell

  1. Patrick Lang says:

    We should all love Alan. He is one of the best of us. pl

  2. frank durkee says:

    In whatever field, we must cherish our ‘truth tellers’.

  3. John Minnerath says:

    I sometimes have difficulty with prose, my mind will wander, I’ll lose track.
    This was different, I was pulled along and thrown back at the same time.
    Most excellent!

  4. Greg Burnell says:

    Pat, Thank you for this site, and the compendium of insights it offers. Contibutors, like yourself, Richard Sale, and Alan Fallel here, are priceless. I know you get discouraged from the criticism on this site, but it is a valuable place for us vets. Thanks again.

  5. DanM says:

    Mr. Farrell — found it deeply moving, raw and honest. Thanks.
    May I ask who the audience was and when this was delivered? I only know Farrell from this website, so i went and did a little digging. Here’s a brief entry on Vietlit with a great picture that as they say is worth a few thousands words.

  6. Mark Logan says:

    Thanks again.
    @ DanM
    Under the catagory “Farrell” on this site, and under “Cortez at Darien”, there is a copy of his CV. I found many other examples of his writing there that didn’t show up in a general “Farrell” web search. Happy hunting.

  7. optimax says:

    Mr. Farrell’s honesty breeds a beautiful prose. He says in one sentence what a country should do to honor those who serve–“Nobody can help… except by trying to build a society Back Here that deserves such a sacrifice.”

  8. Eric Dobbs says:

    I am one of them – a civilian. I try to express gratitude by leaving notes on windshields of cars with license plates that reveal service. Sometimes, I thank veterans in person. After reading this, I am not sure what to say. Thank you seems so inadequate. But what sticks with me from this piece is the line about building a society that deserves such a sacrifice.

  9. Walrus says:

    THank you Mr. Farrell. Build the society – yes.

  10. FB Ali says:

    I can quite believe that!

  11. ex-PFC Chuck says:

    Thank you, Mr. Farrell.

  12. Charles I says:

    Thanks Alan. Respect. You had me a while back with something about shitting in a baggie in Germany.
    No merit or honour in it as with Service and Duty, please forgive me I claim none yet I can attest that the solitude you describe, mayhap in lesser degree or consequence, may be experienced by recovering addicts or those with mental illness. For some fortunate few, affliction and loneliness are a path to such Grace as to be had.
    “Because nobody else will” that’s as Graceful as it gets. As a former inmate and a former attorney(in that order) please may your God bless you and yours, and all the rest of youse.
    You crusty old soldiers are beautiful and loveable, thanks for opening my mind and heart.

  13. VietnamVet says:

    My Dad’s best friend spent WWII in the Army in the Philippines. He never talked about it to me before or after my tour in Vietnam.
    At least, Vietnam Vets try to talk about it; not that anyone listens to me. BG Alan Farrell is in this tradition of truth tellers. Also, among the best on the war I’ve read are “The Things They Carried” and “Fortunate Son: The Healing of a Vietnam Vet”.
    Iraq and Afghanistan Vets cannot even document that they were shipped overseas.
    Apparently the privatized Army doesn’t even have the manpower for Company Clerks to type out orders awarding you a Bronze Star or specifying your DEROS Date.

  14. Townie76 says:

    Alan Farrell reminds me I am not alone with my memories.

  15. The Twisted Genius says:

    So much wisdom and insight, so well expressed. Sorry I missed it the first time around. Thanks. I can barely see the rear sight, even with my glasses. I just have to stick with pistols or invest in a scope.

  16. LeaNder says:

    very, very good. But strictly, Alan, even non soldiers and thus non veterans can understand it. Some things obviously trigger chains of associations even personal ones in this non-soldier. I liked among many things the question mark you raise behind normal. Doesn’t this ultimately mean to function like a cog in a wheel?
    Pat Lang wrote a couple of things too that stroke me in their simplicity for the same reasons, ultimately the are profoundly human.

  17. turcopolier says:

    The point of any work of literature is effective communication of ideas. That civilians can share the emotions of soldiers is irrelevant. All that means is that civilians have a claim to humanity.
    I am intrigued by your reference to the “simplicity” of my writing. I strive for that and seek to avoid ornate language, believing that simplicty of design, using anglo-saxon based words is much more powerful than the Henry James or Faulkner models. I know nothing of German literature. Perhaps there is no analogous tradition in German literature. BTW, which “things” of mine were you thinking of? pl

  18. LeaNder says:

    good, you don’t misunderstand simplicity. I do not only like your work in fiction, but also your blog. In your fiction I like it a lot that your main attention is on the characters and you are not dwelling e.g. Thomas Mann like on the details of the non-living world, beyond necessary to create the atmosphere.
    What I have in mind is not simple words only. If I may try again? From my perspective, it is the ability to for me as a non-soldier make something visible that is really easy to understand, but obviously very, very different in the context of a soldier. And with all due respect, to a thus limited extend can be applied in a civilian context too. I understand perfectly what makes the huge difference is that there it rarely is about live or dead.
    Concerning the simple words. I saw someone struggle with the word “Argonists” somewhere else, which made me realize I did not for a second stop to reflect more deeply about your usage of “Argonistes”, beyond that it triggers John Milton and the fact that it survives in the German language as a loanword too with obviously the same roots and the same usage,though probably similarly rare today.

  19. turcopolier says:

    Thanks for the clarification. People similarly struggle with “Athenaeum,” which serendipitously, is the name an actual building here that is a literary society but originally a bank contemporaneous with “Devereux and Wheatley.” Alan and I focus on the suffering of soldiers because we are soldiers. We think of the military as a microcosm of humanity. pl

  20. Bill Wade says:

    I guess I was lucky, after Vietnam (was there at the end: still fighting, talks, ceasefire, departure) I was sent to Thailand for 2 1/2 years and then to the Philippines for another 3 years. By the time I got back to the US the war was becoming a distant memory. No one ever thanked me for my service and I was glad for it, the whole idea seems absurd to me. I don’t think civilians know what to say to a returning combat vet and there’s nothing wrong with that, there really isn’t anything much to say. I find the mentality that’s developed over the past 20 years or so of “Let’s all thank the troops” disturbing. When I go to my local Walgreens and the clerk cheerily asks me if I want to donate a candy bar to the troops, I always decline, it’s as if giving a candy bar ………

  21. LeaNder says:

    Ok, I have to revert to my nitwit status on this one. But one can of course always try not to look like one.
    Both serendipity and serendipitously seem to have been used in Tinyurl links before, maybe be someone in your circle?
    There obviously are ends to web knowledge? “Devereux and Wheatley” are webwise only related to your books. So now I have to wonder if you in fact are trying to make fun of me, or which feels more likely that you found them in books.
    In that case it would of course be interesting where exactly. 🙂

  22. turcopolier says:

    “Serendipity’ is a legitimate word. I was unaware of the Walpole connection. In fact the Athenaeum building in Alexandria was built in the 1850s. This is contemporaneous with the fictional bank, “Devereux and Wheatley” in my novels. Since I know you read at least the first volume I thought it would be an amusing reference for you. Sorry. I was not making fun of you. pl

  23. LeaNder says:

    Concerning Walpole, the web is getting better, although it’s not quite up to the wonderful 20 volume OED yet, one of my absolute dictionaries of the English language, although it may well be online by now, but for whatever reason, I don’t quite trust them. Notoriously suspicious?
    But concerning “Athenaeum”, on that I would have been slightly better. It’s an important literary journal by the German romantics too.
    Again, concerning having only read the first volume, for whatever reason, it coincides with the more and more strong feeling I should give up my web communicating habits. Yes, I have only read the first volume, quite possibly related to the last phrase in the above sentence, although not only. But that would be a longer story. Part of it I may have already mentioned. I somehow would love to have a solid background in the history of the US civil war. That’s the problem with having studied literature in my time, the only method I ever appreciated was the materialistic/historical approach, which ultimately means you have to know the context, history, philosophy, law, and that context always was highly interesting. Ironically interesting, for someone like me, i would like to add, who had always considered history as focused on numbers, years that is, and obviously the mighty.

  24. turcopolier says:

    Harper and Madam Harper claim that my novels are “a solid grounding in …”
    If You want something else, read “The Civil War, a Narrative” by Shelby Foote. pl

  25. Bobby Murray says:

    I fully agree sir, just like someone else here – a gem of a human being.

  26. LeaNder says:

    Interesting, I had to look into that. Thanks a lot for the hint.

  27. One issue that arose in recent years is the denial of veteran’s benefits to those who are dishonorably discharged. That seems fair, but there are thousands of combat vets who come home a bit screwed up and get kicked out of the military for bad things.

  28. Fred says:

    ” but there are thousands of combat vets who come home a bit screwed up and get kicked out of the military for bad things.”
    Just what facts might you have to make this statement? Thousands of people with zero military experience get fired every year for ‘bad things’ and they have no right to further employment benefits.

  29. FB Ali says:

    Col Lang,
    One of the nice things about your reposting some of these old gems is that it enables one to ‘hear’ again the voices of some old friends – such as Alan Farrell and Charles Degutis.
    Thank you!

  30. MRW says:

    I was pulled along and thrown back at the same time.
    Me too. I thought I’d read the first paragraph then finish when I got home from what I was charged to run out to get. Couldn’t. It grabbed me and held me to the screen.
    He was MACVSOG, wasn’t he?

  31. turcopolier says:

    FB Ali
    Alan still persists, living alone on Stallings Mountain near Glasgow, Virginia among the buildings he built with his own hands and bulldozers. pl

  32. Stonevendor says:

    When Memorial Day and Veterans’ Day come around I usually approach speeches and essays for the occasions with wariness and skepticism. Doubly so if they are by politicians. While a commencement address, Farrell’s piece was first rate and quite timely this weekend.
    Since the conversation has gone down a literary path I wish to ask a question. I have struck out on the web so far, does anyone know where Conrad (possibly) used the phrase “filching lucre and gulping warm beer.” That really is quite good.
    Thank you to anyone who can point me to the source.

  33. Emad says:

    Thank you for giving us this beautiful piece. Reminded me of Ken Kesey’s writing.

  34. turcopolier says:

    I don’t remember that this was a commencement address. I don’t remember what it was. He used to speak a lot for veteran’s groups and in prisons as he mentions. pl

  35. MRW says:

    Veteran’s Day 2009, to vets at Harvard Business School.

  36. Stonevendor says:

    Col., I may have misinterpreted when I read this line, “I’ve gotta hope as a teacher that my Cadets, as a citizen that you and your buddies will have the inner resources, the stuff of inner life, the values in short, to abide the brute loneliness of after, to find the courage to continue the march, to do Right, to live with what they’ve done, you’ve done in our name, to endure that dark hour of frustration, humiliation, failure maybe… or victory, for one or the other is surely waiting Back Here.
    It sounded like he was giving advice to a VMI class that was going out there to deal with… whatever would await them.

  37. Haralambos says:

    I did a Google search for “filching lucre” and it turned up this:
    I have not read the book, published in 2007, but I just read the “Preface.” The book contains his reviews of many films. I hesitate to impute motive or intention and will let M Sgt. and Prof. Farrell explain it. My speculation is that he might be “taking the Mickey” out of some of the pretentiousness of film reviews and literary theory of the last 40+ years. Some of that stems from American film critics I think, and I speculate that some of it comes from his academic background in literature (French Literature especially) and his age, a few years older than I am. Obviously, I will let Farrell have the last word here, if he so chooses, and I will be ordering the book.

  38. dbk says:

    Thank you for re-posting this, Colonel. Very moving and very apt. As the daughter of a WW II vet and US Army Reserve Sergeant Major, Prof. Farrell’s reflections remind me of my father, who almost never spoke of his service in Europe (1945). When he celebrated his 100th birthday, I pressed him for a few reminiscences – all were about his fellow-soldiers, human moments, or about the starving concentration camp survivors the 83rd ID encountered when it liberated Langenstein, a satellite camp of Buchenwald. His memories of battle he kept to himself.

  39. Charles Michael says:

    Reading the text of Alan Farrel is reading a dark and beautiful poem.
    In it unique way it links the old virtues that were tought to us (those days) to the fundamental loneliness of Being.

  40. Cortes says:

    A very moving essay. Thank you for publishing it.
    I recall my older brother and I being warned by our father never, ever to let him learn – on pain of a “leathering” (belting) – we had bothered or mocked B McM, an alcoholic who could be seen stumble around the streets of the smallish village we lived in during the 1960s. The population of the village was fairly stable back then (one of our neighbours who’d moved there in 1938 was considered an “interloper “) and B McM had siblings and boyhood friends who helped him get by after a fashion. In later years we learned that B McM as a young soldier had been one of those tasked with bulldozing corpses into mass graves at Bergen Belsen to avoid public health disaster.
    In the more mobile world we now inhabit, with proprietors moving house around once every seven years (figure from 2000 , perhaps more frequently now) perhaps even in smallish villages it is less likely that the B McMs of the world would have the support of family and friends.

  41. turcopolier says:

    He was at that time Dean of the Faculty at VMI. pl

  42. Lefty_Blaker says:

    “Soldiers don’t start wars. Civilians do. And civilians say when they’re over. I’m just satisfied right now that these kids, for better or worse, did their duty as God gave them the light to see it. But I want them back.”
    Great, haunting piece by Alan Farrell. Thanks for posting it. I read it after my usual 5 hours of sleep after falling asleep on the couch as I normally do these days. And now once again I cannot sleep as usual. I am a civilian and I take that responsibility very seriously. I don’t know war personally and most likely never will first hand. I do know familial destruction from the devastated remnants of my Eastern European relatives who fled the ravages of Europe for the safety of this country. I was raised as part of the privileged minority in this country that was raised to run the country, to become the elite that dictate policy and use other people’s children to fight wars in other places.
    I cannot know what it is that many (all?) of you soldiers have to live with after your have served. I can only imagine what that it is. I do know solitude, isolation and the despair that drives me late night after late night to stay informed about what is happening worldwide so I can be the pain the ass that I am to most people. I rejected long ago the path of domination that was laid out for me in my elite white suburb of NY and that was taken by so many of my oldest friends who so easily took what was/is seemingly “theirs” to take. And take is what they still do even though they already have so much…
    “Nobody can help… except by trying to build a society Back Here that deserves such a sacrifice.”
    I take to the streets for decades now to fruitlessly stop other people from having to fight what I have been told for those same decades are “my interests.” I get little solace from my actions nor do I expect any. And I do know what a good life I have in comparison to so many others in this country who struggle on so many fronts..I have been lucky enough to learn and understand my good fortune throughout the course of my life. I am both a man of the streets through my labor and one that has meetings in the over-built, luxurious offices of Manhattan.
    “So here’s my question: Why on earth would anybody want to be normal?”
    I don’t know what normal is, I don’t think I ever have. In NY, I am sickened by the extreme wealth and the poverty rolled all together….although now in Manhattan (my former home) the poverty has been largely expunged, pushed elsewhere, out of sight. In the 80’s the streets were filled with the homeless, many of them apparently Vietnam vets, whom I passed by nearly every moment of my life back then. Now the city has been cleaned up so those homeless veterans are not a continual affront to us good citizens and not a constant reminder of what some people have to endure. Where have they all gone? Maybe into the isolation and personal despair that Mr. Farrell’s piece alludes to.
    So on this day of Memorial, I think on the many people who have given so much in service to both their country and in service to those “leaders” who continue to make decisions so often in their personal/class interest and not in the name of those they purportedly serve…
    I also give thanks to the efforts of Colonel Lang and others at this site who have served their country and continue to serve in the discussions here from which I continue my quest to be a citizen worthy of that title.

  43. Colonel Lang,
    A couple of thoughts, rereading this piece.
    If I recall correctly from comments of yours some time back, the ‘humanities’ are being marginalised at VMI.
    Assuming that I have not misremembered, and this is indeed the case, it seems to me an apt illustration of the suicidal mentality of contemporary élites.
    One thing that should have been made amply clear from recent history is that there is a vast range of problems in the understanding of which a grasp of technical military considerations, and an understanding of the history and culture both of other societies and one’s own, are indispensable.
    Moreover, one simply cannot as it were ‘parcel up’ these different kinds of understanding. Only can only hope to make some progress towards making some sense of things, if there are military people who have broader understandings, and civilians who are prepared to make a serious effort to understand military technicalities.
    So, for instance, if one wants to make any sense of events in the post-Soviet space, some understanding of the events of 1941-5, in all their complexity and ambiguity, is critical.
    And, of course, here, the pre-eminent figure in opening up the Western historiography on this subject – in emancipating it from an over- and uncritical dependence on German sources – is your fellow VMI alumnus Colonel David Glantz.
    Again, I was both amused – and frankly relieved – to discover, after he became CJCS, that General Dempsey had done a thesis on Yeats.
    The complexities, and ambiguities, of nationalism are central to making sense of very many aspects of today’s world. I can think of many worse ways of being introduced to these than reflection upon the histories of Yeats and his friends.
    They came, most of them, from the ‘Protestant Ascendancy’ – but then, the woman he loved (mistakenly, in my view!), Maud Gonne, and others of his oldest friends, like Constance Markiewicz, were up to their necks (almost literally, in the latter case), in nationalist politics.
    And, critically, thinking seriously about the work a writer like Yeats, and the reasons he wrote as he did, is in itself an education in the exercise of imagination.
    Another point that strikes me, rereading Alan Farrell’s piece, is that although the gap between veterans and civilians has always been there, it seems to me it may be much more acute now than at earlier times.
    In my own generation, and its predecessor, most of us had members of our families, as well as the parents and grandparents of friends, who had served either in one or other of the world wars. (So also, among school and university teachers, there were a fair number who had done so.)
    Quite often, the presence of family members was felt as a silence: either because they were dead, or because they never talked about their experiences. But then, it was not the kind of silence which inclined one to treat what those involved had been through lightly.

  44. Peter AU says:

    “Nobody can help… except by trying to build a society Back Here that deserves such a sacrifice.”
    The wars that the US has fought in the last decades, perhaps most post WWII wars, seem to be a product of US society.
    If the US had a society that deserved such sacrifice, many of these wars may not have occurred, or the US may not have been involved in them?

  45. Thanks for reposting this, Colonel Lang. Like a fine wine, it becomes fuller, more sophisticated and satisfying with every reading. Solitude is a wonderful gift from God, but it can be addicting.

  46. mike allen says:

    A minor snivel or quibble on my part, not to the post, but to MRW and Stonevendor:
    There is no apostrophe in “Veterans Day”. Ike and Congress back in 54 deliberately never put an apostrophe in the name. This day does not belong to veterans alone.
    Colonel Lang – I hope you will forgive my persnicketyness. I’m getting to be a fussy old man like my grandfather (who by the way never gave up on the term Armistice Day).

  47. turcopolier says:

    mike allen
    on 11 November 1839 a cadet sentinel guard replaced the Virginia militia guard on the arsenal at Lexington and VMI was born. pl

  48. rjj says:

    clamor! clamor! clamor! come back, Shane!

  49. rjj says:

    it is also adaptive. mileage varies on the costs/rewards=? of sociability. purpose modifies that ratio.

  50. LeaNder says:

    Does it matter?

  51. trinlae says:

    Sir, you might like to try some Dietrich Bonhoffer.

  52. turcopolier says:

    If you are writing to me as opposed to Alan, I was familiar with him as an undergraduate at VMI. pl

  53. Diana Croissant says:

    “where have all the young men gone–long time passing. Where have all the young men gone, long time ago?”
    Gone for soldiers every one”
    When will they ever learn? When will they ever learn?”
    (an example of the “ubi sunt” theme found in literature of all time periods of literature.
    Thank you for this piece, Mr. Farrell.
    I have never stopped praying for all the young men of my generation–The Vietnam generation. But I also have an uncle who came back from Korea, and older uncles and a father from World War II. And now we have younger members of our family who are veterans of Middle Eastern engagements.
    Thank you for your life.
    All these men and now women who go to war desrve our love and our support. I do wish that somehow we humans could “learn” how to find peace so as not to require that they go.

  54. JoeC100 says:

    Always moving – thanks so much for bringing back this reality back to remind us all.
    And maybe not just combat veterans – my wife recently reconnected with a high school friend who flew F-8 Crusaders off carriers in the late 60’s early 70’s, I think never in combat. He was clearly one of the Navy’s best F-8 pilots and has told me some of his many extremely challenging experiences (in some cases ending with “I can’t tell you the rest of this”), leading to a 100% PTSD disability on discharge. Some of his stories overlapped with my USMC RVN tour in ’69 and I think he would have been safer in my boots..
    So maybe some of our non-combat peers ended in this same life space..

  55. turcopolier says:

    Poor, poor zoomie Were you in the actual fight and living in a muddy hole for a year?

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