War is one of the biggest costs of patriarchy. It encourages a version of masculinity that relies on dominance and violence and justifies patriarchal systems of power on a global scale. Indeed, war is one of the lynchpins of patriarchy—and as such, it is sold to boys and men as their ideal, just as beauty is sold to girls and women. Although we have many stories that reflect on the glory men earn in war—the hero come home, the grand sacrifice made meaningful in the light of patriotism—only a few count the costs of war outside this narrative. And rarest of all are those war stories that, rather than reinforcing our ideas of masculinity proven via military service and sacrifice, ask us to question all of it: war itself, a masculinity based on violence, and a society that encourages both. Michael Lund’s Eating with Veterans is such a collection of stories.
Eating with Veterans recounts the stories of Vietnam vets who are remembering—and in some cases reliving—their war experiences many years later. Here, we have snapshots of veterans’ lives—past and present—as they engage in the time-honored tradition of sharing a meal with friends and family. The venue for the meal changes—a fancy restaurant in “Fire,” McDonald’s for coffee in “The Rules of Engagement,” and a church potluck in “Counterinsurgency”—but common to all the stories is a glimpse into how painful war experiences impact vets and those who care about them decades later. We see the anxiety, regret, and trauma in memories of those lost, the camaraderie bounded by a barely-suppressed awareness of mortality, and a common desire to move forward without forgetting. The characters in these stories are briefly sketched, but real—you can imagine having a meal with them yourself.
There is humor here, and storytelling that draws you in and makes you want to listen. There is also, of course, grief–for it is grief with which veterans and their loved ones must ultimately contend. Some characters experience flashbacks, others bore their listeners with small talk that moves like a babbling river around the bedrock of an unspeakable loss, and still others have a lesson to impart, if you listen closely enough. Indeed, this is what the book asks us to do—listen unflinchingly and compassionately to the voices of those who have been deeply affected by war.
This is a book that tells the truth about the experiences and attitudes (some of them sexist and racist) of the past, as well as the way veterans inhabit their present. In learning the truth of these lives touched by war, we also learn the truth of war—and it is in telling this truth that the book honors veterans. In one of my favorite stories, “The Voice of God,” we meet Mark, a vet who wishes his country would honor vets and discourage war: “The media could decide to give more time to wounded warriors, to programs supporting their families, to the case for spending more on military and civilian healthcare. Fewer people might be looking for the next war, for the next chance to demonize a person or a group, for more sophisticated weapons of mass destruction. It could happen.”
It is that hope—that war itself might be diminished while veterans are cared for—that animates these pages. Reading Eating with Veterans will give you a renewed sense of this hope, and the necessity of making it a reality.