Osama Bin Laden may be dead, but the energy of war and terror still lives. After all, as Gandhi observed, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind;” we still refuse to see the incalculable costs of our irrational belief in the power of violence to create peace, costs so immense as to be numbing. But perhaps the story of one former soldier will serve to make the suffering real and immediate, make us re-evaluate the ancient bloodlust and quest for vengeance that runs through our veins.
Muriel Ruckeyser has said that the world is made up not of atoms, but of stories. David’s story is a particularly timely and timeless one; and is indeed part of the fabric of the world. It is as unique as he is, and as universal as any story of war and survival can be. With soldiers still in Iraq, the Afghan war making history as the longest conflict in US History, Bin Laden hunted and killed, and Qaddafi’s son and 3 grandchildren sacrificed in Libya, David’ s life shifts into particularly poignant, relevant focus. At 88, he says he has been an old man for over 70 years, and it is this that makes him an ageless icon: the universal soldier. His is the story of the long-term effects of war and violence, a cautionary tale we would do well to heed.
David isn’t his real name, but he chose it for this story because as a Navy recruit during World War II, he says “I took on Goliath.” For David, as for all of us, Goliath hasn’t died yet. Such is the legacy of war; its very conduct sows dragon’s teeth that are the seeds of new conflict and violence. We all pay the price in one way or another, but for David and increasing numbers of returning soldiers, the cost is utterly personal and permanent.
David enlisted at 16, a featherweight at 5’4” and 113 pounds. By the time he shipped out, good nutrition and rigorous training had added 3 inches and 31 pounds to his manchild frame. But he says he grew old within the next year and a half, during which he participated in three beach assaults from a landing craft during World War II.
Seven long decades of living with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder have kept his memory of events fresh. David recalls his first battle, and in visceral terms describes the hell that is the belly of a landing craft: the wretching of sick and scared recruits, the smell of fear and vomit, the raw-nerved anticipation. And then bounding out into the cold water, realizing that first time that this was no movie; those bullets, shells and mortars zinging around his head were meant for him. “Then it hits you: I could die. This is for real. They’re really trying to kill me.” The first time, he says, it’s unreal, you feel pumped for it. By the third time, he said, he was ancient. At 19, he looked at the new recruits with sympathy and sorrow, knowing in his bones that they too were about to age before his eyes. You’re old,” he says, “You’re tired, immune to reason. It’s war. It’s hell”.
There are many stories that David refuses to tell, including those of being wounded….twice. He looks away. “Terrible, terrible,” he says. “Too terrible. You don’t want to know. You can’t imagine it. But all these years later, it can never leave your mind. Never. Not in a million years.” Certainly not in 73. David has lived with PTSD his entire adult life,often repeating a constant refrain, stated with great intensity and passion, “You have no idea. You have no idea.” I’ve heard him say it many times, yet each time, this haunted phrase wrenches my heart. David is right; I don’t, I have no idea. I cannot comprehend the violence he has witnessed and endured. Most of us can’t; the wars fought in our names are distant thunder that barely penetrates our consciousness. The gruesome, horrific details of violent conflict and its aftermath are reserved for those waging war on our behalf and for those unlucky enough to be caught in the firestorms and crossfire. Men. Women. Children. Multitudes of our fellow humans permanently maimed in body and spirit, all in our declared pursuit of peace. David, and thousands like him, never get over it. He and they carry the physical and psychic burdens of the trauma and violence they have known wherever they go.
After the war David completed his high school diploma, attended Drexel and Penn State, and became a life-long, largely self –taught historian, his quick intelligence readily citing statistics and factoids of relevance: “There were 3 ½ million Navy and Marines, but only 300,00 were on ships or saw combat.” The vast majority of these were, like David, young. “ It’s always the young who die,” he says. “Wars are fought by innocent kids.” His penchant for historical detail seems to spring from a personal quest to understand his own circumstances. How can life be so completely upended, so utterly transformed by what one experiences in war? “ I don’t like BS, “ he says. “ I like truth,” and this quest for the truth of his own life and the country he served fuels his passion for history and forms his views on the conduct of war. “There are no winners”, he says, only everyone left “to endure horrors and hardship.”
In contemporary wars, more soldiers survive severe injury than in past conflicts; the numbers of sufferers of PTSD are swelling. David’s experience has greater relevance than ever; thousands upon thousands of soldiers and their families now face long lives shadowed by the trauma of war, with inadequate resources available to help them heal. These wars will be part of our common life, shaping the lives of our children and grandchildren for decades to come.
David has some thoughts about all of this: “God didn’t make war. War is never a solution to a problem. I believe that there are other worlds beyond my imagination, so much more than we see and know. When you live through this you see it for what it is. All the flag waving, that’s not patriotism; our adversaries do the same thing. And so many people end up dead. You need to live to learn the truth: Life is what matters. Life and living. Choose Life. Choose Life.”
Perhaps our bloody battles will end only when we do not insist on killing Goliath, but rather on ridding ourselves of the urge to annihilate him. The poet Rilke once observed that “perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us.” Love in action is the force more powerful, and as has been demonstrated in so many nonviolent revolutions, can protect us from tyrants and evil far more effectively than violence and retaliation, without sacrificing the health, well-being, and future of one of the planet’s most precious resources, her young.
David hopes that many people will read this, and listen to him. So do I. Listen to David, who has earned the right to instruct us. Choose Life.