I hate war. I hate that people die. I hate that soldiers live with horrific trauma. I hope and pray for the end of it.
In our movies and books (and video games), we tend to romanticize war. We display the extraordinary—the carnage and the heroics—which are meaningful aspects of war.
Too often, we miss the humanity. We forget that these were real men and women—as real as you and me—who fought and died. They sweat and bled. Their hearts raced in fear. They lost control of bodily functions. They wept. They took real, deep breaths and charged into something they did not want to do. They looked at pictures of family, families just as real and complicated and loved as yours and mine. They remembered laughter and grieved regrets. They ate a meal and exchanged jokes with a friend who did not come back from an expedition.
In my mind and my writing, I’ve made it a point to humanize those involved in warfare, whether it be the soldier in battle or the family back at home. When I watch a war movie or read a book about a soldier, I try to imagine as clearly as possible what they experienced.
You’re in a high-sided plywood boat. You’re gripping your weapon. You pull back the bolt part way to check for the tenth time that it’s loaded. In less than a minute, you will charge out from the end of the boat to kill men who are trying to kill you.
You can’t see over the sides of the boat. You hear boat motors. Soldiers screaming. Machine-gun fire. Bullets piercing the plywood of your craft. A soldier in front swears and then announces the man next to him is dead.
The ramp on the front of the craft drops into the water. Someone behind you screams, “GO! GO! GO!” But you can’t go. Several rows in front of you have fallen. Some dead. Some groaning. Some crying. The man behind you grabs you. He’s shouting to climb over the side. Someone pushes you up and over. You land in the freezing saltwater and gasp for breath. You open your eyes. The water is red.
You swim until you can stand. Something collides with your shoulder, spinning you in the water. You hit your knees. You try to stand but have no strength. Everything is numb. A wave crashes into your back. You fall face-first into the water. You taste salt-water, sand, and blood. You can’t move your arms.
The sky is blue with cotton ball clouds. You smell the black earth, which you worked the day before with your prize-team of horses. Gravel crunches under your boots. A jackrabbit shoots from the ditch across the emerald green lawn. You turn to see the faces of your mother and father. Your new bride holds one hand over her mouth and waves with the other. They’re watching from the front porch as you walk the lane to wait for your ride.
You exhale, coughing blood into salt-water. Then you inhale it.
Everything goes black.
Even with a fine-tuned imagination searching for life experiences and patching them into some semblance of war, it’s impossible to think, see, smell, taste, hear, feel what they did.
One man who helped make war seem more real is Merle D. Hay—the first Iowan and one of the first three Americans killed in the Great War, World War I. I knew of him from childhood. His large tombstone is the centerpiece of my hometown cemetery, where his body now rests.
My great-grandfather, George Blinn, arrived in Glidden in the summer of 1891. He would have known Merle Hay. He bought equipment from the young man who worked at the Glidden farm implement. They shook hands and exchanged smiles. George’s oldest children may have attended school with Merle. Alice Mae was two years his junior. (Did they ever go courting?)
Glidden hasn’t grown much in size since Merle D. Hay worked at the Glidden farm implement and drove his horse and buggy on its streets. The population has only increased by 150 persons. We drove our cars on the same streets and country roads. We may have worked in the same fields. The house I grew up in was built when Merle was a teenager. (Did he help?) My father owned a business on Idaho Street (the main street), a building in which Merle would have sat. We are members of the same place.
I’ve loved researching Merle’s life. (You can read my full tribute to him here, which incorporates just about everything I could verify.) He liked to roller skate and to drive his horse and buggy. He savored his pipe and his mother’s sweet rolls. He was a practical joker who once removed the ladder and stranded his mother on the roof. His mother begged him not to go to war. She gave him a watch, which stopped when he died.
As you celebrate Memorial Day, remember those who died in war. Remember them. They were more than soldiers and heroes. More than medals and uniforms. More than a cause and an example. They were human beings. Sons and daughters. Husbands and wives. Individuals. Real live people. They were just like you and me.
That what’s so tragic about war. We are all members of the same place.