I promised a post about what veterans can contribute to the larger culture. This is hardly a subject that I can exhaust in a short post, but I’ll put down a few thoughts and maybe continue later. Veterans have often seen how good and how bad things can get. They’ve experienced the heights of service and comradeship, courage and loyalty. As I’ve said in this blog before, I never felt the kinship of all people so keenly as I did when I was coming back from war, with the possible exception of the birth of my first son. The veteran has also seen how fragile a thing are our lives and the collective lives of cultures and communities. I saw Iraqi society collapse like a house of cards in 2003. In An Nasiriyah, the thugs and criminals came out of the woodwork with the breakdown of order. US society is more stable than that of Iraq, but plenty of American cities and towns are not so far away from a similar state of nature. This doesn’t make me an authoritarian, by the way, but a believer in social connectedness. Iraqi society was held together by authority of a very direct, brutal kind, and when that went away it had no source of cohesion, in fact it had already been fragmented by fear. This is something else the veteran often knows: what fear can do to people, how quickly it can remove the veneer of civilization. I worry sometimes that our society is too dependent on greed and narrow self-interest. A strong dose of fear and want would have some of us preying on our neighbors without scruple.
Some of you may recognize that the picture above is from Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. The knight comes home burdened by sadness and guilt over his crusade. He finds that home is not a secure refuge but is on the point of collapse due to plague. He’s used to fear, so he can keep his composure, and finally he saves the young couple in the picture and their child by distracting death at chess: something he can do because he’s a soldier who sees what’s coming, who has been trained to think as a tactician, and who values the love he sees holding the family together, giving them a better chance of survival, and maybe more right to survive, than the other travelers.
Next post: As long as I’m on rather gloomy movies, who’s seen, These Are the Damned?