After a terrible hurricane ripped through the Florida Keys on Labor Day 1935, Ernest Hemingway wrote a scathing first-hand report called “Who murdered the Vets?” for the left-leaning New Masses magazine.
In an unrepentantly hostile tone, Papa tore into the wealth and establishment of Washington like a storm through flat land.
This was Roosevelt’s Katrina moment or perhaps Katrina was Bush’s Labor Day Hurricane moment. Either way, both men were chastised as the faces of government, to put it lightly, for their perceived failures in dealing with the storm.
FDR’s New Deal put World War I veterans to work. They built highways, monuments, national parks and buildings.
These men who returned from the worst war the world had ever seen to one of the most prosperous times America had known, would eventually witness the Great Depression.
The journey from the fog of war to life as usual is not as clear of obstacles as we like to think. And when hundreds of veterans found themselves working along the Florida Keys during the summer of 1935, they were likely grateful for the work. Never mind that it was hurricane season.
Hemingway pointed out that the rich and wealthy from the north east did not venture to the waters off Florida during hurricane season. It was a well-known danger.
But these men who had survived the mustard gas and mortar fire in the dirt and mud of Europe were right in the sights of the most powerful hurricane ever recored, a category 5 monstrosity that bore down, perhaps, like the threat of a heretofore unknown weapon.
And Hemingway fitted official Washington with the name of assassins for their role in putting these men at such risk when they themselves would not test it.
But this is not my full point.
Over the last 8 years, I have written many stories about veterans.
I interviewed a 110-year-old World War I veteran in Portland, Oregon, members of the Tuskegee Airmen, and many, many men and women who served in Iraq, Afghanistan, Korea, Japan, Germany and points all over the globe.
I have read Tim O’Brian’s “The Things They Carried” so many times I’ve lost count.
I watched a friend’s father, a veteran, waste away under the care of the VA. I have also seen another friend’s father, also a vet, flourish under the new-found care of the VA.
I see my own father-in-law, also a veteran, getting good care now. It has not always been that way.
I’ve written stories about native American warriors who understand battle at a cellular level in a way I never will.
And as a child in Sunday School, I read stories about David and his Mighty Men and how they ventured out to war every spring, as if it was the most natural thing in the world. And how battle was as much a part of manhood as heavy lifting, animal husbandry or viticulture.
I have rarely questioned the war. But I have always questioned the results.
After World War II, after men had now witnessed the most brutal warfare the world had as yet known. After men dropped space-age weapons on Japan. After we raised the stakes of warfare to brink of worldwide annihilation, these men came home and helped rebuild a country still recovering from the effects of the Great Depression.
But in every small town newspaper, some reporter was questioning the facts in brutal domestic crimes, and acts of domestic abuse were covered over and hushed up in the buttoned-down 50s.
Post traumatic stress disorder was alive and well, it just hadn’t been named yet.
PTSD has been around since warfare was invented. Since Cain killed Abel.
Military service is not a common thing in our family. At least not American military service. My grandfather allegedly fought for several entities during a massive cross-continental trip from Ukraine to China. He was a conscript in the classic sense.
My father missed out on Vietnam, as did his brothers. But their friends did not.
I missed out on Iraq by a few months and the fact that I did not attain my high school diploma in time to attend basic training.
My father-in-law is a veteran. And though he won’t say much about his experiences, you can read about them in creases on his face and the look in his eyes and the way he pauses sometimes before he speaks.
I’ve always hoped to get him to tell me his stories so I can tell my children. Because the most painful stories can bring the most healing.
One veteran in particular taught me this. I met him in Montana when he came home from the war in Iraq.
His stories had a profound impact on me and showed me the war in ways I had never seen it before. And even as the tones of stories about the war had ceased to shock and horrify and merely added to the numbness at that point. His words cut into me deeply.
Hemingway once called out the most powerful people in America for their failure to the veterans, those 265 veterans who died on Upper and Lower Matecumbe Keys. His article, arguably the rantings of an angry, privileged and famous artist, stirred up public debate about the ineffectualness of government and class warfare.
And today we have Sean Penn, Tim O’Brian and hoards of famous people willing to speak out against this or that or for this or that.
What we do not have is dialogue with and about our veterans. We welcome them home with open arms, and every November 11, we say thank you collectively.
But we do not seek to understand them or what they’ve been through. For most of us, war is achieved in other theaters that might as well be a parallel universe.
We read the articles about the men who are lashing out against enemies unseen to the rest of us. We see our police forces filling up with newly returned veterans who have no idea that the adrenaline injecting experiences they are seeking are a direct result of driving roads filled with IEDs and seeing mortar tubes behind every rock and gunfire erupting from every building.
And while I’m grateful for the veterans I know and do not know and have never known, sometimes I feel that the words thank you are not enough.
After re-reading Hemingway’s New Masses article, I wonder why we don’t have others crying out at the catastrophic failure of our government to truly care for its increasingly technical and yet still very human military post war?
Thank you may not be enough. But from a grateful nation, sometimes it’s the only thing we can utter as we seek to understand your sacrifice and apply it meaningfully to our lives.