With war, fiction better than reality

Tuesday, March 22, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 11:34 a.m. CDT, Thursday, July 10, 2008

Flickering images of young men dance across the television set. These are young men at home on leave from serving with the armed forces in Iraq. Some of them are recuperating from injuries, saying they can hardly wait to get back to the action. Their parents are naturally proud, not missing an opportunity to sing their children’s praises. Down the street, a colleague has an uncle who served in another war and is now critically ill. This individual has been going through a frustrating process, trying to get information from Veterans Affairs on the medical services available for a war hero. He was a recipient of several awards for bravery in action. These are the kinds of slices of life triggering emotions that tend to keep me awake at night.

Every now and then, someone asks me if I wouldn’t like some young member of my family to follow in my footsteps and become a nonfiction writer. They are always surprised when I say no. I hope they go into other fields, or if they want to write, I encourage them to become fiction writers. That’s a lot more fun. If you like, you can make all your stories have happy endings.

Frankly, I’d like not to have to think about the young men and women who have been and are being injured in this conflict. I’ve been down this road too many times with veterans of other conflicts, and I’d really prefer not to have to deal with the realities some of their families must ultimately face. If you have not had a friend or family member suffer with a war disability, you are a lucky one. As a country, we are not as enthusiastic about providing medical care for our disabled veterans as we are about recruiting able-bodied young people to serve.

Another one of the advantages of being a fiction writer is you can play into the ideals of patriotic young parents and paint a red-white-and-blue picture of a stalwart young warrior going off to war, winning the fight and coming home to a victor’s celebration. Home life, wife and kiddies, old job all intact. Violins, please. After all, this is a story; all the characters here are professional actors who follow the script.

Back to reality. Every year I meet one or two parents who have encouraged their children to join a branch of the military. Usually, they say something to the effect that the experience will make men or a women out of them. I’m reminded of my mother, who always remarked that people who make that kind of statement have it backward. Before she sent her sons off to war, she made sure that they became men first and then went into military service.

Apparently, people have radically different ideas about what constitutes maturity. Does it take maturity to follow orders, even if the order instructs one to take a morally wrong action? On the other hand, some people believe a mature adult should know the difference between right and wrong and be prepared to defend his or her position. You can see how easily we run into trouble here. There are people (evidence notwithstanding) who believe all commanding officers are people of high principle, moral rectitude and infallible judgment. That is the military way, I understand. Is acceptance of this belief a requirement of maturity? Isn’t it better to learn self-discipline at home?

Most of the young men and women I know who have gone into military service did so because they saw it as a way to get an education. When war came they understood it was their duty to go into battle. At the time, when many of these recruits volunteered to serve, immediate war was not a part of the landscape. So, I’m sure it came to many of them, as it did to many of us, as somewhat of a surprise. I’m also proud to say that I’m not one of those who seem to take pride in having other’s sons and daughters go on the battlefield in behalf of my freedom. I think every citizen should share a responsibility in defending the country against all enemies. I find it annoying to hear self-satisfied people applaud the sacrifice of the young men and women who are engaged in conflict. That, as far as I’m concerned, is the flaw in the volunteer Army. Some people don’t mind making war as long as they don’t have to fight it.

It’s nobody’s fault, of course, that I take inequities to bed with me at night. But that is part and parcel of the work I do. When I can remove the mantle of concern and leave it on the top of my bedside table, I’ll begin to worry about myself. I believe absolutely that in a democracy we all have to take a share of the good and bad that is carried out in our name.

Sometimes, the bed we have to sleep in is one made by someone else. Still, the dreams that stay behind to keep us company are ours alone.

You can join the conversation with Rose M. Nolen by calling at 882-5734 or e-mailing her at

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