What do War Veterans Remember on Remembrance Day?

Richard Eaton

I am a war veteran.

Remembrance Day is this week. Many people who are not war veterans wonder: what do war veterans remember on Remembrance Day? The answer may surprise you….

Remembrance Day is November 11th each year. On the 11th hour of the 11th month of the 11th day we are all invited to fall silent and remember. Before I was a war veteran myself, I always wondered what they remembered. Did they remember dead comrades and the enemies who killed them? Did they remember discomfort, fear, hunger, near misses, and victories and defeats both small and large? Just what were they thinking about, I wondered.

The Obvious Stuff

War is such a huge, traumatic and complex endeavor that it’s quite impossible for any one individual to grasp fully. Like victims of a car crash or bank robbery, or even a visit to Disneyland when it’s busy, following the event itself, everyone gives a different story about what happened. The only thing that you can reliably comment on relates to what happened to you, personally, and even then sometimes you can’t be too sure.

As a consequence, one of the things that I tend to remember is where I was and what I was doing during various phases of my career as an infantry officer in charge of paratroopers and marines engaged in a deadly conflict with some of the world’s most accomplished terrorists. I remember what I was doing when one of the Sergeants in our battalion, a well-liked veteran of the Falklands War, was killed by a remotely controlled bomb. The same fate befell a search dog and his handler. I remember reporting deaths on our company radio net. I remember meeting a grief stricken young widow when we returned from one of our tours. I remember getting smacked in the left side of my head, just above the eye, by a blast thrown sliding door as I rushed to the operations room to take charge during a mortar attack on our base.

I remember hundreds of hours of boring, exhausting, extraordinarily dangerous patrols through urban and rural areas where you knew that everyone hated you and wanted to kill you, and one of the reasons you knew that was because they told you that all the time, especially the children. I remember the almost overwhelming sense of responsibility for my soldiers and marines and the endless worry that I would somehow screw up and get everyone killed. 

These are some of the things I remember, and is pretty much what you would expect, right?

The Not So Obvious Stuff

We. Kicked. Ass.

We did hundreds of searches in houses and other buildings, as well as rural areas, and found and deactivated thousands of pounds of homemade explosives, dozens of weapons, and thousands of rounds of ammunition that would otherwise have been used against us and others. We confronted and dispersed or deterred gigantic mobs of lathered rioters, intent on burning innocent people out of their housing estates.

One of our guys even rescued an old lady from a burning building while under attack from such a mob. The Bad Guys could never figure out just where we were, or what we were doing, and this is the most important thing to get right when there are people trying to map out your habits so they can blow you up. We had to plan strategically in order to ensure that we could outwit and outlast them. We roamed fearlessly by day and night across over hundreds of miles of city, farm and fenland, seeing and not being seen, arresting, protecting and reassuring, and generally disrupting the enemy’s plans through being smart, tough, unpredictable, professional and aggressive.

And most of us were under the age of 20. As a relatively elderly 21 year old platoon commander my troops, many of them teenagers, awed me with their resilience, professionalism, street smarts and Monty Python worthy sense of humour in the face of danger. We had all come from separate backgrounds, yet we were able to come together as a cohesive unit which valued teamwork and leadership to persevere through what was some of the most difficult situations any of us had faced.  I am honoured to have serve with all of them and to lead them into harm’s way without getting any of those in my charge killed, or myself, in that order.

So, on November 11th…

I’ll be thinking about all of that, as I do many other ‘normal’ days anyways: the good, the bad events, but mostly about the people I worked most closely with in days past. And, of course, myself. When I think of me, there is the me ‘before’ these experiences and the me in the during, and after. These are different people too, although it’s hard to say exactly how, but it is a different person I think of in each case.

Although I can’t answer for others, this war veteran certainly thinks of that too and I believe that Rudyard Kipling explains why the best, of course:

“All good people agree,

And all good people say,

All nice people, like Us, are We

And every one else is They:

But if you cross over the sea,

Instead of over the way,

You may end by (think of it!) looking on We

As only a sort of They!”

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