River of Fire, Flame-Grilled Lamb

“Veteran Owned” street food vendor truck on Fifth Avenue, east of Central Park. Photo by Koli Mitra

I noticed a lunch truck today while walking along Fifth Avenue by Central Park. It read “Veteran Owned” on the side. A tiny enterprise, calling on the potential good will of fellow citizens, for whom this entrepreneur once set aside his/her own goals and dreams, risking life and limb in a foreign land. The hope is, members of a grateful civilian society will consider bringing their business here to honor that service and sacrifice.

Will it work? Should it?

Like many Americans, I have mixed feelings about veterans. On the one hand, I admire their courage and patriotism, their willingness to sacrifice their very lives for the preservation of the safety and freedoms of their fellow citizens. I am one of those people that always gives money to homeless people who have service-related insignia on them or maybe a sign that says something like “I fought in Fallujah.” I thank them for their service.

But, given that most of our military engagements seem to have little to do with actual self-defense and more to do with empire-maintenance and the endless, misguided missions which seem to have no clear or achievable goals but instead end up bringing death and destruction on innocent civilians half a world away, is it really such a laudable endeavor? Are these young men and women of the military really “heroes” or are they victims of deceit, of a system that cruelly takes advantage of their bravery and idealism?

A few days ago, an Iraq War vet confronted former president George W. Bush at an event in Beverly Hills. He said “my friends are dead because you lied!” He wanted an apology. He got escorted out of the room instead. Independent news outlets of diverse political bents – from the libertarian-leaning USSA News to the socialist-leaning Breakthrough News are reporting it, but so far the mainstream media is oddly silent, even though almost no news is too small or petty to report on, in this era of social media-driven story telling. Like this or this or this, for example. We need to hear from the people who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. These wars were incredibly long, deadly, costly, extremely harmful to the immediate and long-term health and wellbeing of the people who managed to survive them, including both the populations of the targeted regions and American military personnel. The people who were in the thick of it and came back damaged deserve more than verbal gratitude and a couple of dollars in their begging bowl. They deserve to be heeded. We have things to learn from them. At the very least their extreme trauma needs to mean something, at long last.

One of the most powerful descriptions of the war experience I’ve read is “dipped in the river of fire” — uttered by a character in the 2005 novel March, by Geraldine Brooks. The story takes place during the American Civil War and is based on Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 coming of age novel Little Women, which follows the life of the four March sisters, being raised alone by their mother while their father is away at war. Brooks’ book tells the harrowing grown up side of that story, the story of the father, Mr. March, in the war. Mr. March had plenty of courage and noble ideals. He was a man of God, a staunch abolitionist, willing to give his life to free his fellow humans from the shackles of slavery. He learned some harsh lessons about the realities of war, the senseless carnage — not always related to the righteous cause for which people like him signed up. But at least his war had a truly righteous cause, even if it was not the only cause — and perhaps not even the primary cause. But a good cause nonetheless. It is something that modern wars can’t even begin to pretend.

Next time I come this way, I will buy a pretzel or coffee from this veteran. I will say “thank you for your service.” I will do this, not because I am a 100% certain that our veterans are all “heroes” in the strictest sense, but because they are human beings, courageous ones who stepped up to do what they thought was righteous and honorable, and in return, were lied to, used, made to kill, broken in body and spirit and dipped in the river of fire.

Categories: Society, War

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