I have never been in battle myself, and yet sometimes, when I am feeling lucky and brave and strong, and probably foolishly, I wish I had. I wish I could have proven myself, saved lives, beaten back a foe who needed beating back, been called a hero when I got home.

It’s strange to say that because I am probably not many people’s version of hero. I don’t stand out in a crowd for my size or muscles. I can’t lead a sports team back from the brink of loss by words or action. Men may follow me, but only when they want to know the way to the buffet. The women don’t flock to me because of my aura.

But maybe, if I could be in battle for a day or two, and survive, I might find something else inside.

There is something about war that brings life tragically to the front. When you face death everyday, the senses become heightened, life becomes more vibrant; it can take on greater meaning. Every moment means something. The breakfast of cold oatmeal and canned oranges. The sun setting over the line of trees. A breeze full of summer flowers.

A lot of people who have almost died will attest to this fact. Some say their lives flash before their eyes. Some have a photograph of that second stuck in their minds. Some remember the smell of the car, or the feel of the cold rain, the song that is playing on the radio.

I believe that is why it can be hard for veterans to return home, to where life seems to play at slower speeds, where things can seem ordinary and plain. They have lived in moments where life is poignant every second. And they remember it, and it plays in their head over and over.

We like to romanticize those who fought in previous wars. We pick our heroes, men who seem larger than life, who saved whole battalions right out of the line of fire and dealt back harsh retribution to the enemy. Sometimes we wonder where they get these kind of men. Were they born for great things, to be heroes?

I don’t think so. I think most of them were ordinary men who stepped up to do extraordinary things.

That’s why I admire a lot of those who have come home from war. Sometimes just making it home is an accomplishment. I have two cousins in the army right now. One is in Iraq, his life on the line every day. I pray for both of them, that they are two that make it home, their brothers in arms too.

They are all heroes. Certainly to their families. Certainly for the sacrifice of their time and devotion. For putting their lives on the lines for mugs like us, people they don’t even know.

I have visited quite a few World War II museums over the years. I have crawled through the caves in Okinawa where the Okinawan people hid from both the Japanese and the invading Americans. The caves have no lights, and it is darker than a moonless night. With only a flashlight to guide you through, it can be oppressive and panic inducing the way the darkness seems so thick you feel like it might turn to stone any moment, and the weight of stone seems to press down on you, crushing you without even touching you. Yet, people, women and children, endured that for weeks and months, just hoping to survive.

I have walked through halls in both Stalingrad and in Paris, past old tanks and faded uniforms and helmets with holes in them. You get a certain feel for the war from doing these things, but not quite the full effect. I couldn’t imagine having to ride in a tank all day, huge explosions aimed right at you, the heat, the stink of burning oil, throwing death and having death thrown back at you. I just can’t imagine it. I get tired of riding my lawnmower, of feeling the vibration even after I get off it.

I have been in Berlin, a city that little resembles the city it was in the early forties before Allied bombs changed its face. They have an old church, or perhaps it’s a cathedral, it’s broken towers and crumbled walls standing just as they did after the war. They say it was one of the only buildings recognizable after the war. It is a memory. Beside it new life has sprung, a sky scraper, business offices, and just down the street, a sex museum.

I have been in Hiroshima and Nagasaki too. In Hiroshima they have the remnants of building right near ground zero. It is nothing but brick and foundation, a barely sustained remnant of a past that won’t come back. In their museum they have things that will make you sick to your stomach, like the preserved folds of skin that sloughed off a girl’s arm as the nurse touched her. In Nagasaki they have a monument that is full of nothing but sand. It’s dark and gritty, but softer than sand. It is the ashes of people. People who died in the bomb.

It is when I see things like this that I realize how foolish I can be. Foolish for wanting to experience a battle, foolish for getting angry over a video game, foolish for not fully appreciating those who choose to put their lives in danger to help mine be better.

I have never been in war, and I am thankful that I haven’t needed to be. Others have stepped into that gap and served so that I didn’t have to. I’m glad they did, and continue to do the extraordinary.

© Seth Crossman