T.R. Fahrenbach: When a soldier dies in battle, there is no tragedy
Web Posted: 08/28/2005 12:00 AM CDT
San Antonio Express-News
In 1969, my grandmother and a cousin died.
I remember saying to someone that there was no tragedy in either death. My grandmother was 89, long past normal life expectancy, and her last years were not good. In fact, she was kept alive on medications, which in consultation with family and doctor, we stopped. Shortly after, she passed peacefully away. She had lived a long and splendid life.
My cousin was young, a recent graduate of the Air Force Academy. He was killed at a fire base in Vietnam. He was an only son, and this was a bitter blow to family.
Unfortunate, painful, but hardly tragic. He had taken the shilling, a regular officer, and he was doing what men do when he died. He did what he wanted, a short but also a splendid life.
I think we dwell too often, when soldiers die, upon the living rather than the dead.
And in doing this, we dishonor our honored dead.
Every soldier has a mother. I had one, of course. She was not happy when, at age 18, I went to war. However, then every mother's son was going, in the great fatherland patriotic war, sometimes called World War II.
There were some 300,000 Gold Star mothers before it ended. A Gold Star in a window signified a child killed in action, and it was both proudly and sadly displayed.
But that kind of war was different. Everybody was involved; cosmic consequences were at stake. We have not fought that kind of war again.
Mothers react in different ways. My closest friend in school, again an only son, died in combat in the Ardennes. His mother never forgave me for living while her boy was killed. When I met with her after the war, she had nothing to say, and I did not call again.
Which made me wonder about my own mother, when I took the shilling and voluntarily went to a new war. She didn't like it, nor did my grandparents. Which I understood. But it was my decision; I was of age, and men untie the apron strings. We do it when we marry and when we go to war.
Had I been killed, I would have expected my mother to grieve. She grieved when one of her cats died. In fact, if no one grieved at my passing, my life would not have been worthwhile.
But if my mother had condemned my service and my dying, I would have felt that she dishonored me. I was not a child, her little boy. I did what men do, though women may weep. The way it's always been, and probably always will be, world with or without end.
When men or women make honest choices, families should respect those choices and honor them, whether the girl I married or the peril I accepted, as due course.
I was in a war with great popular support (we're right behind you) and one with little of it. To the real soldier, it does not make all that much difference. When you take the shilling, pledge to serve your country right or wrong, your home becomes the service and war, any war, your profession.
If you argue this is wrong, I point out that we have never been free of armies since before the flood. We have soldiers because the human race has always had to have them. We are not a peaceful species, and some tribes always permit the others no peace. So Thucydides wrote, and nothing's changed since his day.
Spartan mothers, it is said, told sons to return with their shields or upon them. In other words, death before dishonor.
Our culture does not allow us to say such things today. But the ethos still lives. Which is why we honor the valiant dead.
I cannot speak for others, but I would hope my mother would have done so had I not returned.