A concrete blast barrier is as good a symbol as any for our wars. They are visually synonymous for those of us who there with the American bases that once dotted Iraq and those that remain in Afghanistan. They are wider than a pickup truck, taller than a man, and strong enough to deflect the explosion of a car bomb. They are also expensive, difficult to move, and heavy. They are the embodiment of the heavy footprint of American power and strategy: they can protect, but only so much and only in so many places.
These behemoths are an accepted figure of war’s landscape, no more out of place or remarkable than the ragged faces of hungry children, suspicious little white sedans, red tracers against the night sky, or the casual lies of a humiliated and suspicious people. They are as common in an American war zone as sidewalks, firehouses, or schools are in an American city or town. Or graveyards.
In my adopted city of Rochester, N.Y., one of the loveliest places in spring and fall is Mount Hope Cemetery, home to the remains of Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass. Along with the famous names of civil-rights leaders, revolutionaries, and city fathers, there are other less-descript markers—tombstones with letters like “SGT,” “LT,” “CPL,” or “MAJ” before the names, and timelines that tend to run in short spurts of 20 or 30 years, usually covering those periods that social-studies teachers use to break up the monotony of memorizing the dates of Supreme Court cases.
Along with the dates, there is the name of a war, a campaign, or a battle. Among the graves of the men and women who are memorialized, their ranks are part of their names; even those that register full life spans list their wars.
Even in death, they cannot escape their wars’ impacts on their lives, on how others saw them, on how they lived and how they died. Those who died in war—whether by enemy, disease, mishap, or their own hands—have a special relationship to our nation’s independence, safety, and prosperity.
In far-flung places across the globe, American blast barriers still stand. Here in Kuwait, at the dull end of my nation’s spear, the barriers are decorated with the emblems and insignia of units that rotate through this rear-echelon base. Most of the names on the barriers, hand scrawled or painted, represent still-living servicemen and women, some of them stationed here and others who passed through on their way to serve in Iraq during combat operations.
But some of the names are mirrored on gravestones back home. The dead are interred in Arlington or in a hometown graveyard. Those who died in operations receive tribute here with their names written in bold, striking letters, along with the name of their unit. Sometimes their valorous decoration or place of death is also listed.
Here in Kuwait—as at Mount Hope Cemetery in the States, so far from the death and suffering of conflict—I stare at these monoliths and try to see the person who inhabited the rank or name. I try to imagine working alongside, joking with, or taking for granted the person.
I have friends who were wounded in war, but I do not personally know anyone who died. I have never consoled a wailing mother, or a silent and withdrawn father, a frightened wife, or a confused and frightened child. I count it a great blessing that no one in my life became one of those people and that I have not endured that tragedy.
Many of those who have experienced it come to hate war with a sort of creeping exhaustion, while at the same time revering the heroism and the example of the fallen—those who, whatever else they may have done in their lives, saw past our nation’s many imperfections and flaws and raised their hands and swore to step forward to stand between their homes and the (sometimes necessary) waste of treasure and ideals and blood.
The fallen, like blast barriers, stood between America and war’s destruction. That is why, no matter what they may have been besides soldiers, sailors, airmen, or Marines, they will be remembered for the gift of their lives to the vision of a peaceful and prosperous homeland.