Posted on November 12th, 2013
When Veteran’s Day comes around each year, I pause, like many of us, to think about those who’ve fought in America’s wars. It’s also relevant because the novel I’ve been working on these four years deals with war and its legacy. Let me first acknowledge: I realize I’m lucky. I’ve never had to experience combat. But war continues to fascinate me, perhaps because combat is one of the most extreme circumstances a human being can confront. How do men and women endure it, and how does it change their lives? These are crucial and timely questions, even if my subject is the past.
One of the characters in my book serves in the Tenth Mountain Division, an American unit of mountaineers and skiers that fought in Italy during the final months of World War II. What these men experienced, though brief, was intense and sometimes horrific. In the course of my research I came across a photo that haunts me, which I found in the Denver Public Library’s fantastic archive of materials on the 10th Mountain Division. It’s a photo of a soldier named Solon Lindsey, taken in Italy in 1945:
I don’t know exactly why I find the photo so compelling, except that he seems to have a directness in his gaze and and wry sense of accepting his situation. I imagine he’s seen a lot, and I can’t help wonder what it is he’s seen.
According to the notes accompanying the photo, private Solon Lindsey died not long after the picture was taken, killed by bombs in the Po River Valley. Doing some research online, I could find almost nothing more about this soldier, except that he died in April 1945 (just a month before the fighting in Europe ended) and that he was from Kansas. His first name is intriguing–was he, I wonder, named for the ancient Greek thinker Solon, who was renowned as both a poet and military leader?
Perhaps private Lindsey knew the words of his namesake, a stoic who believed that because sorrow always comes for us eventually, a man can only be truly happy “once he is dead.” Maybe this soldier knew the story of how the elderly Solon, upon hearing a song of Sapho’s, urged a young boy to teach it it to him. Others wanted to know why he would waste his time doing so, and Solon is said to have replied “So that I may learn it then die.”
I wonder what beauty happened in private Lindsey’s life before it was cut short.
Each Veteran’s Day we are reminded to remember and give thanks. And I do remember and feel empathy, and try in my own way to recognize the weight of a soldier’s sacrifice, including those who died and those who survived. But the day to me seems complicated by a subtle glorification of war–that within all of this praise of sacrifice and thanking of soldiers for protecting our rights and liberties, there is also a quiet acknowledgement that war–with its power to compel human beings to do things both heroic and horrible–is something that is noble and even necessary.
It’s rare, for example, to see someone post something on Facebook in honor of Armistice Day (as the holiday was originally known, to mark the end of World War I). Something, say, by Wilfred Owen, that greatest of English poets to emerge from the carnage of the Great War, who was killed one week before the armistice was signed. The last lines of his poem Dulce Et Decorum Est (from the famous Latin line “it is sweet and right to die for one’s country”) are harrowing, as they should be, considering the topic…
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.
It’s generally considered inappropriate or even disrespectful to talk of peace on Veteran’s Day. And yet I believe it is exactly this time when one should speak up even more loudly for it, so that the reality of what veterans experience during war isn’t glossed over by empty flag-waving and poppy-wearing.
There is another group of men who served their country that I think is worth remembering on this day. Their story is one I’m also trying to tell in this novel of mine. Here’s a picture of some of them:
During World War II, the Forest Service began, for the first time, to use forest firefighters parachuting from planes to fight remote fires in the Northwest United States. Later known as smokejumpers, these men went through a rigorous training course and endured harsh conditions as they kept forest fires in check. What many people don’t know is that most of these first smokejumpers were recruited from the Civilian Public Service program, a wartime organization.
CPS was tasked with finding meaningful work for conscientious objectors, those who, in response to the draft, declared that they could not serve in the armed forces for religious or philosophical reasons. More than 12,000 men did national service work in the CPS, and more than 300 of them had served as smokejumpers by the war’s end. The story of how they pioneered forest firefighting from the air is told in Mark Matthews’ excellent book Smoke Jumping on the Western Fire Line.
In Matthews’ book, one CPS smokejumper summed up the experience in a newsletter called “The Static Line:”
Most [of these] men combined a desire to do really significant work with a perhaps unexpressed desire to prove to his critics that the CO can have courage. . . . Here was a big job well done–the protection of the Northwest’s forests. Here was a demonstration that pacifists can do as well as preach.
Perhaps it is disrespectful to mention conscientious objectors on Veteran’s Day. But it’s clear to me that these men–though their challenges were much different than those facing soldiers in combat–also demonstrated great bravery. Bravery in facing the physical rigors of their work, and also bravery in standing up for their convictions no matter how unpopular or seemingly unpatriotic.
I’m aware that the issue of pacifism during America’s “Good War” is complicated. But I think there are valuable lessons to be learned from their story.
And so I will also be remembering these men’s service on this day.