Like many people, I have spent the past few weeks watching and reading the news out of Ukraine. Images of desperate refugees fleeing home, of men pressed into service, of mass graves are now firmly lodged in my mind.
I had to turn the television off one afternoon after watching a young man say goodbye to his wife and children, only later to turn it on again to see someone else’s children being treated for life-altering injuries in a hospital.
“I watched my mother die,” a battered girl said to the camera.
It is hard to know what to say in the face of such devastation. When I asked my uncle, a Vietnam War veteran, how he was doing with the news, he quietly but firmly said to me, “All war is senseless.”
His remarks prompted me to revisit “The Things They Carried,” Tim O’Brien’s 1990 fictional masterpiece on the Vietnam War.
The first chapter is to my mind one of the greatest openings to a book ever written. O’Brien introduces his servicemen by detailing the things that they carry — what they brought with them overseas, what weapons and supplies they were required to have based on their rank and mission, what good luck charms they placed in their pockets for their own safekeeping.
With each long, detailed list, the absurdity of war becomes clearer.
Interwoven with these material items O’Brien chronicles are immaterial things the men carried with them:
“For the most part, they carried themselves with poise, a kind of dignity.”
“They carried the land itself — Vietnam, the place, the soil — a powdery orange-red dust that covered their boots and fatigues and faces.”
“They carried all of the emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing — these were the intangibles, but the intangibles had their own mass and specific gravity, they had tangible weight.”
As the war in Ukraine presses on, I have been thinking about this last line in particular.
It is of course important to take stock of what refugees carry with them — food that they can find in stores, suitcases filled with essential clothing and a few mementos, memories of a life they are leaving behind.
It is important that reporters tell us what civilians who are staying behind have to carry, including food, clothing, blankets and supplies for Molotov cocktails. It is important to contemplate what the conscripted and volunteer soldiers (on both sides of the conflict) now hold in their hands and have to learn to use.
And it is of the utmost importance to consider what the elected leaders of Ukraine carry in their hearts as they stay to defend their country alongside their countrymen: the knowledge and love of freedom.
But the cold, hard reality is that Ukrainians now all carry the “baggage of men (and women) who might die.” They are, by and large, all faced with the ultimate questions: of what really matters, what might be more important than their own lives and what comes after we or our loved ones are gone.
It is a worthy consideration for all of us, especially during Lent.
While the gruesome reality of war might make us want to turn away, this liturgical season puts blood, pain and carnage squarely in front of us. We are encouraged to meditate upon what Jesus carried — the instrument of his own torture, the psychological torment of knowing he was to die, the crushing weight of the sins of the whole world.
“They shared the weight of memory,” O’Brien writes. “They took up what others could no longer bear. Often, they carried each other, the wounded or weak.”
Perhaps this can be our prayer this Lent as war rages on. Jesus, carry us. Jesus, carry them.
Elise Italiano Ureneck is a communications consultant and a columnist for Catholic News Service.
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