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of tongue depressors, chickens, and Mozart

Originally published at Faith Seeking Understanding. You can comment here or there.

In America, today is Memorial Day. Offline, it’s a day for barbeques, sales at JC Penny, maybe the start of the vacation season. It’s kind of like a bank holiday in Europe, a day off from work and a good chance to take a long weekend.

For the increasingly small proportion of Americans who know someone in the military, it’s a day to, well, memorialize. To honor veterans and in particular to remember those in war. That means FaceBook has been full of pictures thanking veterans, saying we remember them. It’s hard to argue with this kind of patriotism, but I still always feel uneasy with it.It’s not that I don’t appreciate what veterans try to do. I may disagree over whether a certain war is worth the cost in blood and dollars, but I really do respect the impulse to do what you think is in America’s best interest, even being ready to leave your family behind for such a long stretch of time and put their lives on the line.

The thing is, when you boil the whole situation down to praise, you tend to whitewash the true complexity of the situation. In my experiences teaching veterans at Fordham, I’ve seen that many of them struggle with moral injuries from their time in combat. I’m sure some veterans appreciate being honored, but if “honoring” means sharing a picture of an American flag and some cute kids standing beside a grave, well, that simply seems too simple. I’ve never been in combat myself, but I’ve heard my share of soldier’s stories, both from my students and from my old undergrad classmates (UNC-Greensboro was near a military base and had a lot of veterans and soldiers studying there). The trouble is the stories aren’t mine and I don’t feel comfortable sharing them. Since I’ve just finished watching the television series “M*A*S*H” and that show is at least our shared cultural history, even if it’s fiction, I’d like to share a few stories that remind me of the bits of grey that need to be remembered when we memorialize soldiers.

One of the running themes throughout the whole series is military waste and flat-out incompetence. Parkas show up in July, and heating fuel runs out in February. A first-class cook assigned to be an infantryman. A concert pianist whose leg is saved after an injury but loses the dexterity he relies on for his art. The camp going into overdrive preparing for a visit from MacArthur, who literally drives through the camp without getting out. The Korean War doesn’t even get its own stationery, as one of the characters remarked at some point.

And in one of my personal favorite moments, the M*A*S*H 4077th receives a half-million tongue depressors. It looks like a paperwork mixup (they ordered I think 5,000 and got 500,000 instead), but Hawkeye isn’t so sure. In his words:

Hawkeye: Half a million tongue depressors. Do you know how depressing that is?

Hunnicut: Why do you always see the olive-drab side of things? The Army didn’t intend to send them all here. You ever heard of a snafu?

Hawkeye: Snafu, phooey. We wouldn’t have this supply if they didn’t think there would be a demand. Tongue depressors, doctors, soldiers…we’re all the same. [Picks up a depressor] Trapper John goes. No problem, there’s plenty more where he came from. [Tosses it aside and picks up another] B.J. Hunnicut. Same size, same shape. Frank Burns out, Winchester in. Only a hair’s difference. [Picks up another] Henry Blake… [snaps it in half] Rest in peace, Henry. In coming, Sherman Potter. [sighs] My God. Hasn’t this elimination tournament gone on long enough? [adapted from IMDB.]

The mixups make for great slapstick humor, really, but toward the end of the show they also point to a deeper reality. The war isn’t being mismanaged, at least not egregiously so. The problem is it has to be managed in some way. The people doing the suffering and paying the price are cogs in the machine, and they can choose to go along with it or try to jam things up for a while by refusing, but ultimately the only wan to stop turning is to get out. It doesn’t hurt that this is Korea, “America’s forgotten war.” Even the constant jokes about bad food are often about how it’s all World War II surplus.

Hawkeye’s solution, in this infant, is to construct a monument out of the tongue depressors:

Klinger: Excuse my impertinence, but if all these sticks were laid end to end… and they are… what would they be?

Hawkeye: They would be… and are… the foundation for the Washington Monument.

Klinger: Don’t they already have one of those some place?

Hawkeye: That on commemorates Washington the man, who crossed the Delaware and gave his wooden teeth. This one commemorates Washington the place, which sends us across the Pacific and gives us wooden legs.

Hawkeye and the chaplain, Fr. Mulcahey, write the names of all the wounded who passed through the M*A*S*H on popsickle sticks and use it to build a tower. Then, when the military propaganda office wants to use the story for recruitment, Hawkeye blows it all up and the story goes away. There’s something about the sheer amount of waste, along with the fact that it’s really quite reasonable given the circumstances, that always gets to me.

Speaking of waste, and skipping ahead a few seasons, indeed to the last episode… Hawkeye is in a mental institution because he’s had a breakdown, and Sydney Freedman is trying to get him to face what led to it. Hawkeye is telling about how the company had gone to a nearby beach and on their way home had encountered some refugees. They also ran into a North Korean patrol and had to hide in the woods and stay absolutely silent to avoid detection. That’s where this scene comes in.

What exactly can I say about it? This seems like one of those moments where analyzing it breaks it of its power. Again, there’s a sense that when you’re in a warzone, particularly where you’re dealing with civilians rather than soldiers like they were, this kind of thing has to happen eventually. I’m not even sure the woman’s choice was the wrong one – the ethicist in me insists there’s a strong case to be made for sacrificing the one to save the many. And if you aren’t calloused, it has to effect you this way so you can never quite leave it behind.

This is what I think people mean when they talk about the moral wounds of war. War situations force people to do things that under normal situations they never would, that they probably think of as wrong. I know from the people I’ve talked to, it’s sometimes hard for them to be called heroes. I know from the things I’ve been through (which aren’t on the same scale, honestly; this is strictly civilian trauma) when I’m called strong or brave it feels like a lie. Even if it isn’t, objectively, I can imagine there are some veterans who struggle with being eulogized, because they know even if we don’t how false it is. If Hawkeye were real, he’d never be able to forget this, I’m sure. In another scene, Hunnicut is given a medal for bravery in trying to rescue someone he ultimately had to abandon and had exactly the kind of reaction I’m thinking of.

Tl;dr version? War is far less black and white for soldiers than it is for those of us trying to honor them. It seems to me that if we’re going to honor them, one way we can and should do that is by facing the shades of grey with them.

That moment with Hawkeye and the bus made me sit up and notice, but it was also very loud. It was trying to be dramatic. The quieter moment, the one that really tugged at my heartstrings from that same episode included Major Winchester. In this last episode a tank runs over the latrine and so the camp has to go into the woods to relieve themselves. On one such trip, Winchester stumbles on a group of Chinese musicians and “captures” them (because of language issues, they just follow him back to camp and walk calmly into the area fenced off for POWs). Their Chinese music drives them crazy, so he teaches them how to play some of the classical music he loves so much.

At last the POWs are taken away from the camp to be ready for a prisoner exchange after the armistice. However, on the road their transport is attacked, and only one makes it back to the M*A*S*H. He’s obviously a lost cause, and Winchester –who seemed to barely tolerate them before, and isn’t known for being emotionally involved in his cases– is lost within himself, finally saying they weren’t even soldiers, they were musicians. This incident radically changes his ability to enjoy music, his refuge in Korea. He even breaks his record of the song just after the incident.

This is something I’ve seen time and time again. Life changes everyone, of course, but this kind of change in a way stays with you even if you avoid tragic moments like the one with Hawkeye on the bus. I’m not saying it ruins people, but at a deep level it does seem to change who they are and who they can be. The more exposed you are to random violence, the more prepared you are to be violent even in self-defense, the more likely it is to take away part of what you value about yourself. For Winchester that means his music. He will go back to Boston, but he’ll never enjoy it like he once did.

These are the things I think a true Memorial Day requires us to remember. That war is wasteful, and perpetual war in particular makes a veteran’s sacrifice seem less worthy. That it is messy and that messiness traumatizes many of those who survive it. And that even those who do survive are still changed by their experience.

As someone who has never seen war, I hardly know where to begin making sense of all these facets of the experience that I’ve encountered in the veterans I’ve known (and, incidentally, are a big part of why M*A*S*H resonated with me as much as it did). I don’t know what it means for policy and politics, exactly, but I suspect this might be a good place to start: be ready to hear the whole story, and fight to give wars a true resolution, so those sacrifices actually add up to real, positive change.

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