For some veterans, wars never end

Troops now coming home from Iraq -- and those scheduled to return from Afghanistan next year -- often carry the war with them.

Mel Evans/AP
Pearl Harbor survivor, James J. Hewitt watched as hundreds of New Jersey National Guard soldiers marched in a parade through downtown Trenton, N.J., to honor their return from Iraq. The mobilization of roughly half of the state's entire guard unit marked the largest deployment of New Jersey National Guard troops to a combat zone since World War II.

In the town next to mine, a World War I Browning machine gun commands a quiet intersection. Several times a year, small flags are planted next to the much-repainted weapon. Most days, passersby don't give it a second thought, even though the conflict it commemorates was so epic in its day that President Woodrow Wilson called it “the war to end war.”

Frank Woodruff Buckles, who is 109, is the last surviving soldier of that war. He knows something about homecomings. Earlier this month, I reached out to him to ask him how it was when he returned – which he did twice, in 1920 at the end of the Great War and in 1945 after he was freed as a prisoner of war of Imperial Japan.

“In 1920, the parades had ended and America wanted to forget the war and move on,” he said through a friend. “For World War I vets, we were forgotten again in 1932 with the bonus march. Then World War II came and was all-consuming to the world.”

Every war follows an arc. It begins amid youthful excitement, the air filled with optimism about just cause and swift victory. Years after the guns have fallen silent, wars linger as a remembrance of long-ago danger and camaraderie. In between lies war’s grim business – the terror, valor, and unspeakable acts; the tedium and confusion of purpose; the difficult homecoming.

Many warriors slip back into society without a hitch, but troubled returns have always been a part of history. Odysseus was unheralded when he arrived in Ithaca after 20 years away, the glory of his victory at Troy all but forgotten.

[Editor's note: The original version of article misstated the number of years Odysseus was away.]

If you look at popular culture, recent works such as “The Pacific,” “Band of Brothers,” and Ken Burns’s 2007 documentary titled simply “The War” have been farewell salutes to the men and women who engaged in the war that followed the war to end war. Korea next approaches its final act. Even Vietnam, with its searing divisions, is beginning to pass into history.

Now veterans of the wars of the past decade are returning (for an in-depth look at the challenges of reentry, click here). Nearly 2 million American men and women have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and more than 1 million veterans from those two wars have left active duty.

Some wars come to a full stop in the elation of a VE Day. More often, as now, they end ambiguously. Combatants tire of fighting and recognize the futility of continuing. Under President Obama, programmed endings are in place for Iraq and Afghanistan. The president emphasized to a veterans’ group on Aug. 2 that Iraq is concluding “as promised and on schedule.” By July 2011, a US drawdown is to begin in Afghanistan as well, and three years later the Afghan government will be on its own.

Rebuilding those shattered countries will take decades. The insurgencies may or may not have been quelled. Iraq and Afghanistan will follow a path no one can predict. (To view a scorecard of the state of Iraq as the pullout begins, go here. For a timetable of what happens next in Afghanistan, click here.)

In any case, the fight is coming to an end for the American and allied troops deployed to those wars. Most will quietly resume the lives they left behind. They will raise families and become productive citizens. Some will struggle. All will live with their memories – vivid and disturbing now, softening with time.

That same cycle occurred with the Civil War, the most costly in American history. Half a century after the most important battle of that war, a reunion was held at Gettysburg. White-haired blues and grays traded stories and fell into one another’s arms after a gentle reenactment of Pickett’s Charge. Today, most people don't know the date of the Battle of Gettysburg or why it was so important that Abraham Lincoln declared the battlefield “hallowed ground.”

Memories fade. Frank Buckles came home and worked his West Virginia cattle farm until he was 103. The last doughboy has lived a peaceful life not far from the Civil War battlefields. He has seen a century of war, including the latest ones, which now begin their slow fade into history.

“The best thing to honor our veterans,” he says, “is to stand behind them from the beginning of their military lives to the very end of their lives.”

John Yemma is editor of The Christian Science Monitor.

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