Veterans’ Day: It’s Never Really Over

On Veteran’s Day morning, my Facebook page lit up with postings from friends, “friends,” and colleagues honoring family members who had served in battles past. The one that caught my eye — and breath — was from Jessica Keener, an author whose words and character I admire. She wrote to honor her WWII veteran father, who’d been part of the American unit that liberated the Dachau concentration camp in Germany. The things he and his fellow soldiers had seen there stayed with him all his life, she said — although he never much talked about it. She’d written that “he probably had PTSD from what he’d witnessed in Dachau,” and that he hated to see war (or his own bravery) glorified in any way.

The sight of human cruelty and suffering, the sight of violent death — these sights should indeed cause stress and trauma. It is thus understandable that even well-trained soldiers have never been immune from the effects of post traumatic stress disorder. With this dawning insight, however, comes a paradox: We live in an increasingly hardened world, in which TV shows, movies and games offer guns and bodies as the bloody meat of mass entertainment. Corpses are burned and displayed for our forensic enjoyment, to be seen from the living room armchair; lives are ended (with groans and gore) at the push of a potato-chip-dusted plastic “controller” button. In that context, it’s especially touching to see the persistence of humanity, and we see it in these veterans. It’s heartening to see this vulnerability — this moral, psychological, visceral allergy — to violence, even (or especially) in those who are meant to be most immune, those who actually risked something.

Dachau’s liberation story is not hypothetical to me. I was personally touched by this author’s post, touched by her father’s staunch refusal to revel in the aftermath of war, even a war that was won. What this soldier saw when he opened the gates of Dachau, was a sea of corpses, emaciated, tossed one atop the other in obscene piles. A few skeletons emerged alive, however, and one of them was my own father. Unlike most of his fellow prisoners, he survived the Holocaust, and like those who rescued him, got on with his life. He carried his heavy backpack of memories and kept on moving. As I child, I’d learned that my father, too, had made the most of a hellish time and place, saving other lives even as he faced the grave. That moved me; it inspired me. Watching life’s constant war between the tawdry and the brave, I’d remember how he behaved.

My father died 18 years ago. That’s a number that mean’s “life” in Jewish tradition. After all these years, his courage is alive, and that of his saviors. The men who liberated the camps allowed themselves to be hit by the worst, most hellish tableau imaginable. Haunted though they were, these survivors and heroes are less “disordered” than those who don’t grasp what was outlived. The war-torn have seen and braved what most of us never did — the worst of the worst. They stood in our place as we stayed “ordered,” unstressed. And there is not a day in the year that we shouldn’t thank them for taking that mental bullet for us.