Every normal man must be tempted, at times, to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats. –H.L. Mencken
In the church I attended as a child, there were two very different elderly men who occasionally made ‘testimony night’ a bit more interesting than usual. One man, a short fire plug of a man, would share about his experiences in WWII and recall the horrors of war and the terror of the foxhole. He was one of many so-called ‘foxhole conversions’ to come out of the war and in his case, it stuck. The strange thing that occurs to me when I think back on his testimony was just how moved I was by the thought of the foxhole, of battles and guns, of heroism and gallantry. In the small part of Pennsyltucky (I say that with love, not disdain) where I grew up, we were all but reared by G.I. JOE cartoons and WWII films. In that place and time, everyone knew the best Vietnam flick was John Wayne’s propaganda film, The Green Berets. To be frank, I loved the military and could not wait to serve. And as this man stood in church, giving his testimony, I sat and dreamed about the ‘romance’ and ‘glory’ of a military life, missing the underlying themes of the testimony.
The other man was a giant – at least in my mind – in beat up flannel and work pants and perpetually in need of a shave and a haircut. He would stand on Sunday nights and, as it seemed to me at the time, mumble on and on about what a sinner he was and how much he had done wrong in his life. I cannot even remember the details at this point, but I certainly considered this man the town drunk. If memory serves, he did odd jobs around the town – washing windows and such – that no one else seemed to want to do. I can remember sitting in the pew, thinking that his speeches would never end. Not once did I wonder what had driven him to this state or what demons lay in his past. I always thought that he must somehow deserve this punishment God was giving him. Oddly enough, the old man seemed to agree with me. In his own words he claimed, again and again, that what befell him was of his own making.
It is horrible to remember what was going through my mind at the time, as I had simple categories for these two men: veteran and drunk.
All of this reminiscences came bubbling up when I heard a simple phrase: ‘He seems like a pretty good guy – he’s a veteran.’ It is so easy to refute this idea that someone serving in the military is enough to make them a good person, just take for example the Ft. Hood shooting – either one. A few more months or years without having murdered anyone and Nidal Malik Hasan or Ivan Lopez would have been in line for automatic ‘good guy’ veteran status. I know better than to think that most people will come to that same understanding. People want their military men to be good guys so badly that it becomes true – at least in their minds. I am normally so calloused to hearing things like this that I just ignore it and carry on whatever task is at hand. But this time it has gnawed at me a bit and got me pondering the testimonies of those two old men.
Thinking back on those youthful experiences, I cannot help but wonder whether or not the town drunk was also veteran, just not of the sort that made him automatically a good guy in my book. Perhaps he had seen worse horrors than the other old man. Perhaps in the foxhole where one man found God, another man found drink. Perhaps he had grown up to love the idea of valor in war and found it quite different when he was knee-deep in the dead.