Veterans Day is here again. And with it an opportunity to say to veterans of our armed forces and active-duty service members, “Thank you for your service.”
But how do we thank them when our country is now relying on fewer citizen enlistees and more high-tech weaponry. How do we say “thank you for your service” in ways that are meaningful?
This is no easy matter. The sincerity of the thanks we give for anything is commensurate with the true feeling behind our words. Veterans know this. They detect and feel this.
In his poem “Thank You for Your Service,” written 50 years removed from being a Marine in Vietnam, Bill Ehrhart imagines, when he is routinely thanked for his service, telling the truth about what he and his brothers in arms did in Vietnam. The young boy he shot and killed.
The dead infant in the arms of a severely wounded and dying young Vietnamese mother he came upon after calling in a naval artillery strike on a village. He uses the F-word with wicked anger a dozen times in his imagined honest response. He then says in despair that we civilians will never want to know the truth. “You’re welcome.”
Ehrhart also has a theory about all of this: You can tell the truth in war poems because nobody reads them.
Glenn Towery, an African American quartermaster in the Navy in the early 1970s, channels his anger about his own service into projects such as the Austin Warrior Chorus, the Veterans Suicide Prevention Network and the newly created Austin Veterans Arts Festival — Towery’s idea now made real. During the month around Veterans Day, veterans act, sing, talk, write, draw, paint, sculpt and otherwise create reflections of their experiences.
Towery is acting in a one-man play “The One” about the Battle of the Bulge, when the virtually all-black 761st Tank Battalion, the first African-American fighting unit to see action alongside white units in October-November 1944, came to the rescue of the 101st Airborne. I asked him for questions he thinks his audience might ponder during and after the play. First on his list was: “Why were African American soldiers willing to fight for a country during World War II that was denying them basic civil rights?”
In my large lecture class on the human significance of ancient Greek myths, we probe what war does to human beings who take war as the natural state of human societies. The supreme war story for the ancient Greeks was Homer’s “Iliad.”
It was more than the Bible to every Greek man, woman and child. The great Greek playwright Aeschylus served in the infantry against the Persian war machine. The tragedian Sophocles served as a general when the Athenians brutally suppressed a revolt of an allied state in ways that would now be considered war crimes. His “Antigone” resonates with this real event. Students take this all in and try to feel it all, a tough assignment.
Chicago songwriter Joe Goodkin is trained in ancient Greek and Latin literature. Goodkin has performed his song-cycle about Homer’s “Odyssey” in 39 states. But taking on Homer’s “Iliad” was another matter. Goodkin spent years working with veterans in the nonprofit Guitars For Vets.
He read accounts of vets ancient and modern. He spoke to a grieving father who flew to Iraq to scoop up sand 100 kilometers away from where his soldier son had died. And then, when Goodkin felt the truths that the “Iliad” conveys, he wrote songs that were real and now and not littered with ancient names and foreign gods.
After he performed in my class, one student, Cameron Crates, wrote that the immediacy and universality of Goodkin’s songs helped her bridge “the large separation” between what service members go through and her life: “My heart went out to all those who suffered directly and indirectly during the battle at Troy.”
Where our hearts go, our minds will too. So instead of simply thanking a vet this Veterans Day, ask, “How is it going?” And then listen.
Tom Palaima is the Robert M. Armstrong Centennial Professor of Classics and teaches courses on the human experience of war and violence at The University of Texas at Austin.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the Houston Chronicle, Waco Tribune Herald , Austin American Statesman, and the Corpus Christi Caller Times.