Former Secretary of the Navy and Virginia Senator James Webb voiced an often heard sentiment in a CBS Sunday Morning interview last week. He talked about the great impassable divide that separates those who have been to war from those who haven’t. Webb said, If you were there, I don’t need to explain. If you weren’t, I can’t explain.
Secretary Webb has given much to his country. I am grateful for his service and respect his intelligence. That said, I want to challenge the belief that non-combatants can never know what soldiers endure.
It’s true that those of us who have never seen a war zone don’t know the searing pain of having a leg blown off in an IED explosion. We haven’t experienced the anguish of a friend dying suddenly, violently, a result of our mistake, powerless to help.
But we are human beings, capable of imagining. Capable of imagining the worst. We have the capacity for empathy, for fellow feeling. We can smell the burnt flesh, feel the concussions, see the outstretched hands, hear the cries for help.
I struggled for months to support a friend suffering from post traumatic stress and depression, among other injuries. I failed.
My efforts are multiplied countlessly around the globe – loved ones trying to welcome their soldiers home. Our failures inflict new wounds and create many more walking wounded. Left unresolved, these stories repeat and repeat.
Phil Klay, author of Redeployment, describes these failures. Believing war is beyond words, he writes, is an abrogation of responsibility – it lets civilians off the hook from trying to understand, and veterans off the hook from needing to explain. Other projects that attempt to engage PTS and TBI sufferers through writing or performing offer initial glimpses of success. They convince me that “suck it up” is a slow poison.
I think soldiers have one final duty to their county – to describe the war they experienced on our behalf as authentically and to as many people as they can.
We noncombatants have a moral obligation to listen to their stories with care and compassion. We cannot judge them, we can only imagine future bad places.
This seems the only bridge over that impassable divide and the only path toward healing on a survivable scale.
And, just maybe, the only small hope for addressing future conflicts more adroitly than we have in the past.
Linda Beeman is the author of a poetry chapbook, Collateral Damage, published by Finishing Line Press. Its stories describe our Afghan War experience.