'War Is Indefinable' — For Some, War Is Combat. But It’s Not That Simple.

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David Rich takes a selfie with his son, Noah Rich.
David Rich takes a selfie with his son, Noah Rich. (Photo courtesy of the author to War Horse)

My name is Noah Rich, and I am in the tenth grade at Berwick Academy in South Berwick, Maine. I like to play sports and hang out with my friends, and I love being outdoors. I hope to go into a STEM field or possibly education.

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When I was born, my dad deployed in the Navy on the USS Theodore Roosevelt. It was late 2005, and my dad was stationed at the Naval Medical Center in Portsmouth, Virginia. He then deployed to the Middle East. He served as a doctor on the ship and still does today.

We have a strong relationship, so conversations about his time were never awkward. Our conversations got more sophisticated as I got older, and we began to talk more about his experiences and less about what he saw while deployed. Most of the time, something I had learned in school would spur the discussion, and I learned much of what I know about service from him. I find it interesting, and I think my dad enjoys talking about it.

For a long time, I thought military service fit on one of two sides of a coin. It was either war, meaning combat and fighting, or it wasn’t. But even though he served during a war, my dad did not see combat. He still had many of the experiences I would learn about later in the classroom, but he did not share some of the combat experiences that other veterans and service members had. I think this was why, for most of my life, I did not know that my dad was involved in a war. I thought of war as just combat, while much of war is exactly what my dad did: He provided support for the combat mission.

In the fifth grade, my class learned about mental health. I had heard of post-traumatic stress disorder, but I had not learned about it and what causes it until this point. We learned how it affects many who do see combat.

This was my first exposure to war’s impact on those who fight. I remember feeling like I understood the concept, but unless I experienced it, I would never truly know how those affected by PTSD felt.

This education also drastically changed my view on wars. I was beginning to understand the lasting effects of wars, not just that there was fighting for a few years and then everyone (countries and soldiers) went back to normal life. This experience changed both my perception of military service as a whole, but also of my dad’s service. He did not have to experience anything like this, but so many do.

Three years later, in eighth grade, my eyes began to open more to the realities of war and military service. I worked on a project comparing the details of each of two wars, and then we compared a cinematic representation of those wars to what we had learned. Some movies were better than others at showing what war was like, but often the movies were just combat because that was most interesting for the viewers to watch.

War is not just combat, but these movies defined conflict through combat. It also opened my eyes to how different wars are. No two wars are the same, nor will any two wars ever be the same. The same thing can be said for the ways wars impact countries: No two will ever be the same. This furthers the idea that war is indefinable. Upon my realization, I talked to my dad about it. He agreed and added that military service isn’t just war. Many service members will never see war in any form.

But I learned the most about war and service from the service members and veterans themselves when they gave presentations to our class. These were firsthand accounts of combat and service that illuminated how war influenced the lives of those who serve. We heard from people who had seen combat and who had not.

Either way, we heard from every single one about the friends they had made while serving.

I remember the moment that we learned about this well. For about a week, we’d listened to these firsthand accounts. This concept of camaraderie was one of the two things that left the biggest impressions on me: Every veteran said that they had gotten incredibly close to someone with whom they had served.

The other was the combat portion. I yet again expected most speakers to tell us about how they had served in combat, but only some did. Those who did were changed by it, but those who did not were still changed by military experience. Combat does not define either war or military service.

War is an indefinable concept that varies for all those who experience it. I wish that I had learned this sooner, especially about how war affects all soldiers differently. In schools, you learn just about what the war was about, and what happened during and after, then you move on. There should be more of an education about how war affects people, so that a student can understand what war does to individuals. They should learn from multiple sources about what war is, because war affects each person differently, whether in combat, like veterans we spoke to; or otherwise, like my father. Stories in class, both combat stories and otherwise, were informative. I remember clearly that these were not classes that anyone wanted to miss, nor were they classes that anybody regretted joining. All of us valued hearing these accounts.

War, contrary to popular ideas, simply cannot be defined. It comes in all different shapes, sizes, and forms. Experiences in war are unique to the veteran; no one veteran or service member will experience war in the same way. In eighth grade, our teacher brought in a few veterans to class. All veterans and service members shared some details from their experiences in service. These included values, such as camaraderie and friendship, but no two had the same takeaways. The curriculum for this unit changed my thinking drastically. Had I not had this valuable education, I would have continued to think of war as just combat.

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