War Stories

Mother saying goodby to her son World War I
A mother saying goodby to her son.
World War I

This past week we had the bank holiday to honor veterans, both those who have served in the military and those who have been to war. Close to 40,000,000 US soldiers have served during war time, and over 580,000 U.S. soldiers are estimated to have died as a result of armed conflict since our nation was founded. (Sources  Wikipedia and OPB)  It is notoriously difficult to count the dead, but no matter what specific number you chose, every single digit represents someone’s baby, grown up and marched off to war.  Statistically only 1.5% have been killed, however it is important to consider the other 98.5%- most of whom are immensely changed by their experience, their lives irrevocably altered.

It is right and good that we take time as a nation to acknowledge the enormous loss these numbers represent, loss and heartache for not only the soldiers, but their families and communities.  The pain that results from war often entwines into the life of those who serve, so utterly that they may reach for self-medication from drugs or alcohol. A significant number commit suicide later in life.  It is no small thing what we ask of our military men and women – part of their training for service is to “break”  them to obedience.  The repercussions tend to remain with people for the entirety of their lives. Because killing is not something that human beings do easily, soldiers must make efforts to reclaim their own humanity.

Australian soldiers World War I marching to the front lines.
Australian soldiers World War I
Marching to the front lines.

It is probable that nearly everyone has someone they are connected to who has died in a war. It is even more likely that everyone knows someone who has served in one. Most of the time we don’t think too much about it. It is so easy to let it slip from the mind as we go about daily life. Which is why as a culture we take time to create monuments, and have annual ceremonies to honor those who die while serving in our military.  We may fail to provide adequate mental health or physical healthcare to our military veterans – but we do a good job of maintaining cemeteries and monuments.  It is at least something.

King George visiting a cemetery for American soldiers in France 1918.
King George of Britain visiting a cemetery for American soldiers in France 1918.

2014 is the 100th anniversary of  the beginning of World War I. (The US joined in 1917.) At the time it was called The War to End All Wars. Sadly, since then we have declared war many more times. In the 1960’s we even started declaring war on things other than nation states- starting with President Johnson who declared a War on Poverty, Nixon who declared a War on Cancer, Reagan who declared a War on Drugs and Bush who declared a War on Terrorism.

I find myself noticing that it seems inappropriate to use the term War to describe national policies for such things as alleviating poverty, searching for successful ways to treat disease, addressing the impact of addiction, or handling the violent acts of the desperately disenfranchised.  Nor do I wish to support the use of war strategies towards problem solving of these large and complex issues.

One soldier comforts another who is grief stricken over the death of a buddy killed in action during the Korean War.
One soldier comforts another who is grief stricken over the death of a buddy killed in action during the Korean War.

Referring to cancering as a War both limits the way a person can define the impact of their cancer experience in their life, and undermines the reality of what soldiers go through.  I cannot truly know the soldiering experience, but I do know that negotiating through cancering is distinctly different.

Emotionally and physically, cancering can have devastating impacts on people’s lives. Unlike war it does not require enemy imaging, nor does it call to people to do unspeakable acts of violence. Cancering has the potential to positively transform people’s lives. I have witnessed people making the best of their “bad” situation- one man I know has used his terminal diagnosis as an opportunity to clarify the love he feels for the people in his life, and dedicated his efforts towards appreciating the immense beauty in every moment he has. He and his wife renewed their wedding vows. Many others respond by finding ways to give of themselves.  This is perhaps the one place in which I do see some overlap with soldiers, who when thrust into horrific circumstances often find ways to cultivate love and friendship under impossible conditions.  The bonds formed during war are sometimes stronger than familial bonds.

Men in the trenches during World War One
Men in the trenches during World War One

The idea of waging a war on cancer creates immediate parallels with all the actual wars waged in trenches, jungles, deserts, on the high seas and even in the air. It encourages folks to use terms like “fighting” or “battling” their disease and emphasizes the importance of being brave, stoic and tough.  People sometimes describe themselves as “being in the trenches” during treatment. Women might use surgery to “sacrifice” their breast in order to be healthy. Then there is the term Survivor, which can somehow imply that those who die just didn’t “fight” hard enough, and has no place for those who are actively living with cancering.

We don’t often speak of the returning soldiers as war survivors, perhaps because the term would both fail to acknowledge those who don’t come back in a respectful way, and possibly induce guilt in those who do.  Survivor also carries with it the connotation of victimhood, which is incompatible with our ideas about soldiers. (The term War Veteran carries with it less emotional charge.) I believe Survivor is equally limiting for describing someone who has undergone treatment for their cancering.

Personally I do not resonate with the Survivor moniker. Yet I do wish for a simple way to refer to this year of many changes, without using Survivor or appropriating Veteran.  I am not sure which term is most benevolent to describe someone who has traveled a cancering path. When you graduate from school you are an alumni, when a woman is married we refer to her as a wife, when she gives birth she becomes a mother.  These are just a few of the titles we accumulate as we move through our life. At times I use many terms in regards to myself – but I don’t keep them all in mind all the time.  For one thing it would be absurd to  introduce myself with all of them at once. “Hi I’m Iris – an Artist, Baker, UO alumni, Wife to Joe, Mother of Sam and Martin, chicken & cat lover, fermentista, vegetable eater, and a Breast Cancer Survivor!”

I can imagine there will be times when I might wish to refer to my cancering experience in the future, I just don’t have a good title to use yet. I do know that I feel called to end the “War on Cancer,” to stop aligning the two life experiences of war and disease.  I wish to honor veterans by giving them back the terminology of their experience.



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