Listen to an American veteran of the war in Afghanistan.
Often, since coming home, I’ve had strangers tell me they can’t imagine what I went through. These comments are always made with kindness, with deference and sympathy; but I have always found them disempowering. If somebody can’t imagine what I went through, it means I’ve had experiences that have changed me and yet have made part of me fundamentally unknowable, even inaccessible, and disconnected from the person I was before. If that’s the case, it means I never truly get to return home: I am forever cut off from the person I was before these wars.
Why do we build these memorials anyway? We do it to honor the dead, of course. We do it so veterans and their families will have a place to gather and remember. But there’s something else, a less obvious reason but one I would say is most important. If a memorial is effective, if it’s done well, anyone should be able to stand in front of it and, staring up, feel something of what I felt when my friend J.P. Blecksmith, 24, from Pasadena was killed by a sniper in Fallujah on Veterans Day, 2004, or when Garrett Lawton, his wife and two young sons back home in North Carolina, was killed by an IED in Herat Province, Afghanistan. If civilians can feel that ache — even a fraction of it — they might start to imagine what it was like for us. And if they can imagine that, we come home.
– War and Remembrance, Elliot Ackerman, Smithsonian Magazine, Jan/Feb 2019 (emphasis added)
That’s a lot to expect of a memorial: That it help any civilian feel even a fraction of the ache that combat veterans feel. Maybe it’s even too much to expect of a memorial.
But here’s the thing: It isn’t too much to expect of me that I try. To expect that I’ll read the stories, watch the interviews and documentaries, and visit the memorials. To expect that I will do what I can to understand. That I will leave myself open to imagining what it was like; to feeling what they felt. Even a fraction of it.
And as with war veterans, so, too, with those who’ve suffered in other ways: Victims of all the things that we do to hurt each other; victims of all the ills that flesh is heir to.
If I don’t turn away, if enough of us don’t turn away, then maybe they can all come home again.