The desensitization to violence in today’s culture has led to the development of a generation who cannot comprehend nor tolerate the brutal truth of war: that no-one comes back unscathed. The average citizen nowadays cares next to nothing for soldiers except for heroic exploits or when one veteran commits a heinous crime. Veterans are not to be used as pawns in political games, but neither are they to be idolized on a pedestal, their sufferings forgotten.

Those Fallen Stars

Do you recall that cold night when we watched the stars fight in the skies?

We listened to the rumbles of thunder that were not thunder and cringed at the flashes of lightning that were not lightning.

I remember you looking up, entranced by the streams of gold and the flashes of silver tinged with deep red. I looked at your delighted face and could not bear to say that each flash meant young men, only a bit older than you, were being torn apart and thrown into the emptiness.

You remembered the startling flares of color. You remembered the excitement as intrepid pilots performed daring maneuvers. You remembered the victorious pilots as they stood in formation at the ceremonies, heads held proudly high, as mighty and untouchable as the angels of heaven.

You remembered that cold night, I’m sure. But did you remember the stars that fell from the sky? Did you remember the meteor showers that were escape pods launched incorrectly, escape pods that were now nothing more than crematoriums for those inside?

There were celebrations afterwards as people rejoiced that the invaders had been driven off. I watched you revel, not knowing the reasons behind them, not knowing that victory had been bought at the cost of thousands of souls. All you were told was that the Empire had been preserved yet again.

And I could not bear to tell you the truth.

I watched, waited, and hoped.

But the war dragged on, year after year.

I remember the day speakers came to the schools and called together the cream of our planet’s society. I listened to their speeches that expounded on the importance of striking a blow in the name of the mighty Ascanian Empire. All the stars, waving as they always did towards the stars above, once led to the Empire and must do so again. Glory and adventure among the stars were waiting for those brave enough to join.

The crowds cheered and I shuddered at the familiarity of it all.

I tried to tell you of the horrors of the War, of the bloodshed, of the cruelties. That you had not yet looked into the scared eyes of someone as old as yourself and then pulled the trigger because their survival would mean your death. That you had not yet shot a childhood friend to spare him a slow, painful death because no medics were left. That you had not yet watched a beloved captain slowly bleed to death while you stood by, on his orders, because you both knew that one life did not balance the lives of two hundred.

All you could see was adventure and glory.

I tried to tell you again. You listened but did not hear.

The war dragged on, year after year, and one day the recruiters came.

You were one of the first to sign up for preliminary training, the first among the one thousand students that formed the newly-created 200th Battalion. I watched behind the links of electrified fencing, listened to the barks of instructors, watched you students gradually turn from fresh-faced recruits who knew nothing of war to fresh-faced soldiers who could properly salute and knew nothing of war.

I listened to the old men ruminate; how they would go to war if only they were young and fit again.  I watched them observe the preliminary trainings with good-natured jealously, but I did not join them. Those that I had gone to war with had not returned; these men knew naught of war.

Then the day arrived, and so did the transport shuttles. The ceremonies with pompous officials and the lines of recruits marching in strict formation with a trained grimness made one think that the war was over and you were as victors, not departing as eager recruits to long years of strange, hostile worlds and lonesome bitterness.

We celebrated at the victories of the 200th and wept at its defeats. We comforted those whose loved ones would not be coming back. We heard of massive casualties sustained on Temphi and the 200th’s disappearance and feared for you youths of our home. We were filled with relief upon hearing of the battalion’s reappearance at Keljiro, evacuating tens of thousands of civilians from the terrible aftereffects of bioweaponary. We prayed that the war would never come home.

The war dragged on, year after year.

The recruiters came again and left with a few more recruits.

The war dragged on, year after year.

The recruiters came again and left empty-handed; no one was left that could be recruited.

But the war dragged on, year after year.

The calls for reinforcements were almost daily now.

I prayed for an end. I prayed for your return.

Then there was the surrender of the enemy, his navies smoldering, his moons shattered, his armies annihilated and his planets devastated.

The Ascanian Empire had emerged victorious once again.

Once again, all stars led to the Empire and to glory.

I remember that cold night when the transport shuttles returned. I watched them open their doors and watched the sixteen stumble wearily out into the frigid air, you among them.

Where were the celebrations, the ceremonies, the pompous officials?

Where were the recruits that once trained here? Where was the innocence, the happiness?

Where was the promised adventure and glory?

You had changed. Where was the carefree youth I remembered, the one who was an endless fountain of laughter?

I think you now remembered the stars that fell from the skies on that cold night so long ago.

Some nights, you would curl up in bed and scream and scream. You would insist that it was just nightmares and we would all sympathize, listening but not hearing, not understanding. What happened? we asked. What did you do? we asked, ready to listen to tales of dangerous but heroic exploits.

You did not answer.

I noticed how those shadows that once haunted me were now on your face. I noticed the emptiness in your eyes, recalling and seeing things no one could imagine nor would have wanted to know. We asked, listened, and did not understand.

I’m fine, you insisted.

I’m fine, one of the survivors of my time had insisted. Really, I am he had said. But I guess he was never really fine until the day he walked into the meadow and put a bullet through his head.

I removed the triggers from all the guns that we had.

Sixteen.

Sixteen remnants of the one thousand that left so long ago, fighting and dying on worlds lifetimes from home.

All for the intoxicating promises of adventure and glory among the stars. And the Ascanian Empire, of course.

You left behind classmates as you withdrew in defeat, leaving their bodies to glow in dark nights on rocky hills and blasted fields.

You left behind the infected, the sobbing and screaming of parents separated from their children, of couples torn apart from each other, echoing in your ears as you utter “Uninfected only.”

What else did you leave behind, in those ruined glades and sickened cities?

I don’t think anyone would care to know, would they?

Was it worth it?

Everyone asks and eagerly await your responses, always listening but never comprehending.

There is no real answer, is there? you had replied.

Maybe there isn’t one.