Remember the Veterans' Bodies

Taking war more seriously than we have.

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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 Reason.tv and Reason.com.

NEXT: The Armistice Day Horror

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  1. When these soldiers pladge their own ‘lives, fortunes, and sacred honor’ it cannot be to a nutjob state that is terribly deluded about why we fight, or where, or against whom. they deserve better, it’s true.

    1. ‘pledge,’ even.

  2. Well done.

  3. Why did we need to draft a bunch of kids in the US to go fight WW1?

    anyone? Who profited? Why did the Bolsheviks and JP Morgan both want hte war to go on longer?

  4. Nick Gillespie,
    As a veteran whose greatest sacrifice was being awakened after 36 hours straight duty for a fire drill, that was the best Veteran’s Day reflection I’ve ever read.

    1. I’ve been there, and I also have to say that my time in Iraq was more boring than most people could understand. I’m grateful, though.

  5. Great piece Nick, thanks for sharing.

  6. we can honor those currently serving by taking their lives more seriously than we have

    Quote of the Day.

  7. Excellent piece, Nick.

  8. Beautifully done. The proper perspective for Veteran’s Day.

  9. really good peice Nick

  10. again, good

  11. Eloquent piece, everyone should read this. Thank You.

  12. Great article about your father….really puts a face on war and demonstrates the modesty that most men lack these days.

  13. Nick,
    Your father was a wise man. His perspective, however you gleaned it from him is, I believe, more representative of those who have seen real combat than what we are normally fed. I am a veteran who served most of his hitch in California. Pure luck and happenstance.
    Thanks for sharing.

  14. When we sign up, enlist, we take the oath to protect and defend. As we serve and grow older if not wiser, sometimes it seems that the shining beautiful lady who we swore to protect and kill and die for is a raddled old whore, the property of a collection of cowardly civilians who never served an instant outside of some soft billet in the States. That she is just the plaything of politicians, psychos, men and women who in a less tolerant time might have been ridden out of town tarred and feathered on a rail. That she nurses and shelters and gives her opportunities and the blessings of liberty and freedom – and never forget for a moment that we have the freest nation in the world, bar none – to people who hate her and everything she stands for. And we wonder, sometimes late at night when our pains and memories keep us awake, why we were crazy and stupid and ignorant and uneducated enough to sign up. But then, one day when you’ve become a middled-aged white man instead of a young one, one of your fellow soldiers – your best friend in fact – brings his grandchildren to meet you, his first sergeant, and this four or five year old child toddles across the car seat to hug you with her arms and kiss your old cheek with her young black face, then you know that she truly is the shining lady you’ve loved all these years. Happy Veterans Day.

  15. My father drug his bleeding guts through the Korean dirt, so I can relate to your experience seeing the scars.

    Like the other males in my family I’m also a veteran. None of us can speak for all of us, I can only speak for myself, I really don’t like being used as a political football, not implying you’ve done such, I didn’t read your whole article. Just that I usually see that sort of thing on Veterans Day.

    Like countless others I didn’t enlist to just defend the freedoms of those who I agree with or even respect me, but for all of us. So it would be my hope, naturally, that Americans will feel free to speak their minds, regardless of what they have to say.

    In a perfect world people would let us speak for ourselves, instead of speaking for us, that’s all. Of course it isn’t perfect, it’s the one we got though.

    No doubt your father would be someone I would’ve respected, Mr Gillespie, chances are he raised a good son.

  16. Well written, beautiful article.

    One of the best ways to take a veteran’s life seriously is to see him or her asa person who made a choice, for various reasons, to support and defend the Constitution of the United States.
    Not a vicim, not a pawn, just someone who took on a burden willingly, and didn’t quit.

    I served this country for 21 years in peace and war, and love it warts and all. I don’t understand those lucky enough to be born here and not at least appreciate it.

  17. My maternal grandfather also served in the infantry in Europe, participating in the relief of the 101st Airborne at Bastogne and the Battle of the Bulge. My paternal grandfather was career Army, serving in Burma during WWII and ending up as CSM in charge of NATO forces in Europe.

  18. My only point is that if you take the Bible straight, as I’m sure many of Reasons readers do, you will see a lot of the Old Testament stuff as absolutely insane. Even some cursory knowledge of Hebrew and doing some mathematics and logic will tell you that you really won’t get the full deal by just doing regular skill english reading for those books. In other words, there’s more to the books of the Bible than most will ever grasp. I’m not concerned that Mr. Crumb will go to hell or anything crazy like that! It’s just that he, like many types of religionists, seems to take it literally, take it straight…the Bible’s books were not written by straight laced divinity students in 3 piece suits who white wash religious beliefs as if God made them with clothes on.

  19. My only point is that if you take the Bible straight, as I’m sure many of Reasons readers do, you will see a lot of the Old Testament stuff as absolutely insane.

  20. My only point is that if you take the Bible straight, as I’m sure many of Reasons readers do, you will see a lot of the Old Testament stuff as absolutely insane.

  21. My only point is that if you take the Bible straight, as I’m sure many of Reasons readers do, you will see a lot of the Old Testament stuff as absolutely insane.

  22. Nick,
    Your father was a wise man. His perspective, however you gleaned it from him is, I believe, more representative of those who have seen real combat than what we are normally fed. I am a veteran who served most of his hitch in California. Pure luck and happenstance.
    Thanks for sharing.

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