Remember the Veterans' Bodies

Taking war more seriously than we have.


On Veterans Day, my thoughts always turn to my father, John Gillespie (1923-1997), who served in World War II. He volunteered for the Rangers after Pearl Harbor, was turned down due to problems stemming from childhood illnesses and poor eyesight, and then was drafted into the Army as an infantryman soon after. He landed at Normandy as part of the D-Day invasion, participated in the breakout at St. Lo, and then moved across Western Europe to Germany, where he was wounded and awarded a Purple Heart before returning to combat until the Nazi surrender. Like virtually all semi-able-bodied men of his generation (especially those relatively lucky enough to have been stationed in Europe), the interstice between V-E Day in May and what became V-J Day in August 1945 felt like being on Death Row. No one in his situation assumed that he would survive the coming invasion of Japan.

One of the strangest—and strongest—memories of my childhood was putting my fingertips in the five fading indentations across his ribs and back where German bullets had ripped his flesh and almost killed him. The wounds had hardened into shiny pinkish pearls in some places and faded almost to nothingness in others. Until I was 10 years old, whenever he took his shirt off in the sun at the beach or in the backyard, I would instinctively touch those secular stigmata and ask him what it felt like to be shot and he would shrug and say he didn't remember but it didn't feel especially good either.

My father came out of World War II with decidedly mixed feelings about war: that some times it was necessary and that most of the time it wasn't. He was never particularly political, but he was outspoken that no child of his would ever serve in any war that wasn't clearly and brutally necessary to defend the United States. "I'd break both your legs first," he would say while watching war movies and documentaries on TV. He'd been part of one of the single-greatest manned invasions in history, but he vastly preferred the daily commute into New York City and its environs, a wholly different sort of mass movement. He'd fought for precisely the right to work and live peacefully, even with former soldiers from the other side (several ex-Luftwaffe, of all things, ended up among his work colleagues).

I don't know what he would make of the current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but I know he was sorry for the people who fought in Korea (all guts, no glory) and thought Vietnam was a bad echo of Korea (no clear plan, goal, or resolve at any level). He was relieved that the Gulf War was over as quickly as it was and with so few (American) casualties, but wondered why we were there in the first place and he worried that such seemingly easy wins would only embolden politicians. From a dogface's point of view, he once told me late in life when he would talk more freely about his experiences, the worst thing was being thrown into a fight without a clear mission, whether you were trying to take an acre of land or an entire continent.

When it comes to war and military service, it's the easiest thing in the world to bootstrap yourself out of the particular and into an abstract world of geo-political ideals, heroic narratives of derring-do, and superhuman sacrifice. On Veterans Day, of all days, it's worth hovering over the most particular moment of all, when a bullet hits the body of someone you know, someone you love.

I never learned what my father thought or felt as he lay in a field in the Moselle Valley, wondering whether he was dying. Could he foresee a day when his children would touch his wounds out of curiosity and that some of the wounds would disappear altogether? Did he doubt what his mission was?

Veterans Day is never a happy occasion, especially when we remain at war in two different places, with leadership in both parties who have manifestly failed to define victory or mission or goals with any sort of clarity or consistency. We can and should honor past veterans for their service and sacrifice. And we can honor those currently serving by taking their lives more seriously than we have.

Nick Gillespie is editor in chief of and