A Veteran’s Story

In an NPR interview, Benjamin Busch, author of the foreword to our anthology, Standing Down: From Warrior to Civilian, takes exception to our impulse to routinely thank veterans for their service. While expressing gratitude for the sacrifices citizens make when they join the armed forces is well meant, the gesture hardly begins to address the complicated circumstances surrounding military service. Better, Busch says, to ask a veteran to tell you a story. And so, to commemorate this Veterans Day, as an Army veteran myself, here’s my veteran’s story about a veteran’s story:

A few years ago, when I was editing Standing Down and developing Talking Service, our reading and discussion program for veterans, I asked my 102-year-old friend, Sidney Hyman, to tell me if he had had any books with him in Word War Two during the Italian Campaign. Since Talking Service uses works of literature to prompt veterans to reflect on their experiences, I was curious to know what writings Sidney might have found especially helpful right in the thick of things. He did indeed have a few books in his knapsack: Homer’s Iliad, Thucydides’ Peloponnesian Wars, and Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Once during the campaign, he found himself sharing a shelter with Eric Sevareid and a couple of other reporters, wondering how they could capture what was going on around them in writing. Sidney handed out his books to them saying, “Just update the names and places: war is always the same.” And so it is. But the subtle implication of Sidney’s story is that each man or woman who has served in the military must tell his or her own individual version of the story of war. And in doing so, struggle to come to terms—and hopefully help fellow citizens come to terms—with the values underlying how our society deploys its human and material resources in wars of defense and seemingly interminable wars of political policy.

On Veterans Day, I urge you to ask a veteran to tell you a story. But be prepared—the story you hear is not likely to be as simple as it may at first seem.

Donald Whitfield is the Director of Community and National Programs at the Great Books Foundation. When he isn’t on the road supporting Talking Service programs across the country, he can be found in his Chicago office devising new initiatives to extend the Foundation’s reach.

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