Quoting a post by a guy with the moniker 'Adaptive Systems,' because goddamn, read it:
My father's mother recently died, in her late nineties, after two solid decades of fervent, daily, devoutly Catholic prayer for release from her increasingly humiliatingly decrepit body. I remember sitting with her in the dead of winter, in a shitty seafood restaurant, a few miles from the Atlantic. It wasn't too long before her mind went, and almost as if she knew she didn't have much time, she talked hurriedly, pausing only to sip her mineral water, and then returning to all the wondrous things she had the great good fortune to witness, from hearing the news that Peary had made it to the North pole, to actually seeing the Spirit of Saint Louis in person.
She remembered very keenly an afternoon spent doing the laundry in the alleyway with her mother in the Irish ghetto of Philadelphia. While they washed, they each kept an eye on her two younger brothers Frank and Joseph playing at war. A neighbor woman stopped in passing and said that she thought it wasn't proper, to let kids play at war, what with the American boys dying over there, nowadays. And plus, it wasn't Christian to encourage that sort of thing, now that we knew how horrible it could be, what with the mustard gas and the machine guns.
My great-grandmother nodded, she understood perfectly. But, she said, since there was really no danger of these children ever having to go to war, she couldn't really see the harm in it. Might as well let the little ones play, without scaring them by telling them that it wasn't a game. She thought it could hardly do any harm; everyone knew there wouldn't be any wars after this one, this war to settle all disputes, to settle the course of human civilization for the next millennia. Humanity simply couldn't afford it, and all the leaders of the Great Powers knew it, finally. The Neighbor saw her point, and confided in her how she too felt so lucky to know that her children would never have to sail off and fight in a distant land, but that she also felt guilty, knowing that Missus O'Shea's son had been born too soon for her to enjoy the same comfort.
Two decades later, my grandmother was living in San Francisco with her husband, a structural engineer who quit his practice designing skyscrapers and went to work for the military designing battleships. She heard the news of the Pearl Harbor attack while her husband was out boozing with his floozies. He came home late, and she clutched at him in a fearful frenzy the instant he came in the door. Assuming she was on again about his living in mortal sin and all that shit, he slapped her in the mouth and called her a crazy bitch before passing out. She went out to the bank that week, and remembered seeing all the pretty Japanese girls in the city all made up like movie stars, but so scared they trembled and looked like they would burst into tears at any moment.
And then, a few short years later, her brother Frank was leaning out of a tank hatch, not too far from Berlin. He was in the middle of a small town, one that had been cleared of Nazis, listening to an officer in the street, who was directing tanks forward. While he was trying to hear the officer's voice over the din of the engines, he caught a glimpse of a man appearing in the open doorway of the ruined building across the street, and saw him instantly unleash a Panzerfaust directly at the center mass of the tank that he precariously balanced from. The Panzerfaust sparked across the street, and the officer, shouting orders, never seeing it coming, took it squarely in the back. It exploded through him, sending a shower of shrapnel and flesh cascading off the tank and through Frank's torso, neatly slicing his left arm off just below the shoulder.
After the war, even with one arm, he was still able to find good factory work, and being a purple heart helped, though not as much as you might think, given that everyone was busy trying to get in on the rising tide and join the middle class. Frank's brother Joseph spent the war doing clerical, rear-echelon work. After the war, he became an accountant and did well for himself. Each brother silently knew who had gotten the better end of the bargain.
Frank suffered a stroke in the bathroom at eighty. Three more the next week, and a drooling but largely lucid death that I am sure he thanked his loving Catholic God he had lived long enough to enjoy. Losing your arm as a kid teaches you a few things, I think. Like, "Better to die flat on your back in bed than cut in half on the cobblestones," and don't let the liars fool ya, kid.
Everyone is sad to see the greatest generation go, and rightly so. The wars of the past century are myths to us; we all want to draw near the old veterans sitting around the dimming campfire and be regaled by the tales of their heroism, and fanaticize about the acts of courage we would have been capable of, if only history had seen fit to grace us with the chance. The simplest of us mourn openly for lack of an opportunity to prove ourselves, though most of us, even the most decent, will find some similar longing if we search honestly enough.
But none of us is too eager to have been the wives of some of these heroes, trying to understand why they could only sleep on the floors for years after coming home, or deal with them sinking into Alzheimer's, limping around the house shouting. Where are you? Where are you? Sergeant, Donny's in the street! Sergeant! Get out of my way you German bitch! Sergeant! Donny's hit! And none of us fantasize about being the mothers, getting the telegraph with the details of our only child's death. And none of us, honestly, is too eager to have died at Iwo Jima, no matter how much fun Hollywood makes it look.
Instead we imagine what it must have been like, wearing bomber jackets, flak flying by on our left and our right, having no fear, knowing we were as pure as Arthurian Knights. We relish the thought of outflanking our enemy and taking vengeance for poor, poor Kowalski's death, because we always imagine it'll be our best friend to go, and never us. We comfort ourselves with the compliment that it will be us that stays coolly, crucially detached in the heat of battle while the blood of our fellow teenagers is hacked brutally into our faces, between hideous pleading sputters.
For some, the fact that I should merely pause to reflect upon these truths is disgraceful; a sign of cowardice and shameful slander on the dead, if not outright treason. For them, for those brave souls unencumbered by dread of slaughter, who weep not for broken cities, who see shallow corpse-strewn puddles as a paths to glory, who see war coming to them as a sacred calling, a chance to make prideful sacrifices and secure a lifetime's worth of valor, for them I bring this consoling reassurance:
Have no fear. There is still time to be a war hero. The Great War is still coming. It's there, over the horizon, and its sails are full with the wind that beats from the wings of the angel of history on her endless journey to escape us.
That ghost ship rushes towards you every bit as fast as you could hope.
Faster than you might have wanted, in hindsight.
Assuming you get to enjoy that peculiar wisdom of the living.