Monday, August 3, 2009

Do you think veterans and concentration camp survivors and astronauts and such really self-identify primarily as that thing the rest of their lives? On the one hand, it seems ridiculous for something you did for two years fifty years ago to define you as a person, but on the other hand, some things do completely change you and the way you look at the world.

I keep seeing headlines like this one: "Nazi Concentration Camp Survivor, 90, Found Strangled." To me, to identify someone as a concentration camp survivor in the headline means that's relevant to whatever the significant event is, like if he had been killed by neo-Nazi groups or something. But if someone is attacked and killed apparently at random and as part of a robbery, isn't that equally tragic regardless of what their past is? Do we really need to know he's a concentration camp survivor to make us care? (Well, yes, actually, but that's not the way things should be, right?)

But I always wonder if, for example, before this guy died, you had asked him to describe himself, "Well, you know, I survived a concentration camp" would be the first thing to come to mind. Probably not. I assume what he's done with the rest of the life he managed to save is more important to him.

I've actually been pondering this idea for a long time concerning veterans. On Veterans Day, when people talk about those who fought for our freedoms and how we should respect and honor them, I've always wondered if this sort of recognition seems a little peculiar to any of the veterans themselves. Most veterans, especially the ones drafted for World War II or Vietnam spent two years or so in the military, and probably only half of that actually in the war zone. Not only is it such a small chunk of their lives, but it was when they was very young and barely even the people they are today. Does it ever seem strange to them that their 18- to 20-year-old selves are what has defined their lives? (Who else wants to be defined or even reminded of the things they did when they were 18?)

For Vietnam vets, especially, they may not have even wanted to be "defending our freedoms." (Does that description even make sense regarding anything since World War II, anyway?). If you were drafted to fight in a war you didn't believe in, I imagine once you had returned home, formed a family, developed a career, built a life, and so forth, you would really probably prefer not to be forced to remember on every patriotic and pro-military holiday what you had done for your country, much less be praised for it. Wouldn't you prefer to be praised for the part of your life you actually had a hand in, the kind of person you actually chose to be, than for something that just happened to you?

Even with positive things, like landing on the moon, it seems a bit strange for such a small portion of a man's life to utterly define him to the world. In a recent TIME magazine article, the astronauts' bewilderment of what to do with the rest of their lives and how to relate to the world is evident. A few do craft their lives around their identity as astronauts, whether by writing books, painting space-themed pictures, or giving speeches. Others, however, pursue other careers. After 40 years as a CEO, would you still think of yourself as an astronaut first and foremost? I'm willing to bet there are days on end where that thought would never even cross your mind. When it does, I'd imagine it would be of the "I was in space, for Christ's sake; why do I have to put up with this crap?" variety.

None of this is to say that trauma or fame don't change people. Obviously war and other traumatic events from the Holocaust to rape do have an effect on the person involved, and presumably going to the moon has a pretty profound impact as well. Presumably the person one becomes after such an event is different than who one would have become had that event never happened, but it doesn't necessarily follow that one is (or should be) defined by that event, particularly by others. We all learn from and are formed by our life experiences, but the rest of us aren't forcibly identified by one life experience from early in our lives. If one does identify strongly as a veteran or POW or rape survivor, talking about it all the time or using it to explain why they hold some of the attitudes and opinions they do (McCain comes to mind), of course that's perfectly reasonable, understandable, and natural—I just wonder if they all do. If they don't, it seems somewhat disrespectful for society in general to decide that's who they are. I feel like we're missing the point, like we're using labels (once again) to keep from actually getting to know the individual for what he or she has done with his or her own life.

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