My first year of college I had a dynamic history professor named Tim Kneeland for one of those Freshman level American History classes that came first thing in the morning. One of the assignments that first semester was to interview someone who had been alive at significant points during the past century and ask what their first-hand recollections were about those events.
I asked my Gramma H. what she remembered about the end of World War II. While my grandfather didn’t serve in the war, they were young adults at the time. I expected that she’d tell me about some grand-scale celebration in the tiny town of Walnut Grove for the victory in Europe or Japan. I don’t know why I thought a place that small could sustain a ticker-tape parade or why I thought that in a one-horse town like that folks would flood the streets. I was incredibly surprised when my grandmother told me she couldn’t recall that day. She didn’t remember anything significant about it. Here she’d lived through the history, but had no meaningful recollection of it? How was that possible?
I was folding laundry last night and watching some more episodes of The Wonder Years when I happened to click over to Google News and saw that the last troops had crossed the border out of Iraq and that the war there, at least, is officially over.
There were no ticker tape parades last night and no one flooded the streets even here in base housing. I read the news and went back to my laundry.
As I folded though, I thought about the lack of pomp and circumstance I was experiencing. I heard the war was over and I folded another t-shirt? Really?
The fact of the matter is for me, though the war is over, my husband is still speeding away from me to the other side of the world. That is a surreal feeling. For the things happening in my every day life I don’t feel like celebrating. I do celebrate greatly for those who are coming home from Iraq and will be able to be with their families for this Christmas. That is a true joy, it goes without saying. I do not begrudge them their homecoming because my husband just left in the least. They get a respite from the time apart and those days and nights of worry and fear. I am happy with them and for them.
But for me, the deployment continues and the absence continues. The war is over, but my husband’s job goes on.
I also feel the same conflicted emotions that many Americans feel about this war. It has been speculated about and pontificated on so much that I can’t make heads or tails of it. I felt ok with not being able to make heads or tails of it before, but somehow at its ending I wanted a black and white way to feel.
I thought of the thousands of service members and families for whom this war will never really be over: Those who lost a loved one, those who were injured, those suffering TBI or PTSD even if they look “fine” on the outside. I thought about the ripple effects that will have on our society for years to come. I thought of the impact that all this has had on the citizens of Iraq….
I don’t know how to feel at the “end” of this war. I don’t know if it’s really “over.” I know better than most that our troops are still out their serving. They’re still willingly saying good-bye to their loved ones for months at a time to do a job that this country has asked them to do. I wonder about those serving in Afghanistan and even those on my husband’s ship… Do they feel forgotten right now as the media trumpets the word “over” repetitiously and the politicians pat themselves on the backs?
I thought of all of these things and I folded another t-shirt, and another… I thought about the “endings” of the other wars in our history. What did it feel like at the end of Korea? At the end of Vietnam? Is there always, in some way, an understated quality to the news as the world keeps spinning and the laundry keeps being folded? Are the black and whites always a little muddy grey in the end–even in wars that we believe in hindsight made sense like World War II? Thousands upon thousands of individuals were killed, untold devastation was wrought. Did even the greatest generation find it hard to know how to feel or what to celebrate?
I folded more laundry and I continued to feel the absence of my husband still so acutely even as the headlines said, “Over.”
And I thought about my Grandma… who had no recollection of the ending of World War II.
When my grandkids ask me about what I recall about the end of the war in Iraq what will I have to say? Will I tell them that their grandfather was on an aircraft carrier speeding miles and miles away from me… that I read the headlines and quietly kept folding laundry?