What Killed Sergeant Gray?

I’m grateful to my friend, Flimsy Sanity,[1] for introducing me to Sergeant Gray. Sergeant Gray was the subject of a program on American RadioWorks recently, entitled, “What Killed Sergeant Gray.”[2]

Sergeant Gray was a young man who grew up wanting only to be in the military. He eventually joined up and was sent to Iraq in 2003. After a tour of duty that lasted a year, he returned home to America, physically uninjured. After a short time at home, he was sent to Alaska for retraining. While there, he took his own life.

The program asks, “What killed Sergeant Gray.” It fails, in my opinion, to reach any firm conclusions.

So, I’ll tell you what killed Sergeant Gray, or, if not this Sergeant Gray, then another, more anonymous Sergeant Gray, now lying dead in Arlington, or some other convenient place of disposal.

America killed Sergeant Gray. From a small child he wanted to be a soldier. Why? Because he was fed on heroism and patriotism, and the glory of being in the military. He grew up hearing about “heroes”. It became his life. He didn’t just want to enlist for a few years – he was in for the duration. Then he went to war. He quickly discovered that all his life he’d been lied to. There was no heroism; there was no glory, and the patriotism was false, because his war held no relevance to ‘fighting for his country’. His war didn’t consist of the glorious battles he’d dreamed of as a child. Instead he was forced to debase and torture other human beings, kill civilians, behave like an ugly barbarian.

How often does one hear the stories of men home from war, sitting forever on the front porch, eyes glazed, distant: “He never talks of the war – he just sits for hours staring across the street.”

War only serves one purpose: to teach men – real men – of the great lie they’ve been fed. Others never learn, or, if they do are too afraid to admit that what they were told to believe all their lives was a great untruth.

Sergeant Gray grew up inside a bubble of glory and patriotism, inflated by Hollywood fiction, video gore, and the insincere ramblings of political misfits seeking cannon fodder. He was taught war games in kindergarten; saluted the flag in first grade; watched Black Hawk Down fifteen times during high school.

Then he went to war.

Sergeant Gray could have ended up on his front porch, glazed, distant; lost to the awful conundrums wrecking his life, tormenting his mind, destroying his soul. It’s hard for any man to come to terms with the truth – that everything he’d ever believed, sworn to uphold, was prepared to sacrifice his life for, was worth less than a barrel of rotten apples.

Sergeant Gray didn’t spend his life sat endlessly on the front porch staring across the street. He died a lonely, suicidal death with a plastic bag over his head. Sergeant Gray had learned the ultimate lesson war has to offer. In many ways it’s the only lesson of war worth learning. Sadly, for many like Sergeant Gray, they learn it too late.

War is not glory; it’s not heroism, it’s not even patriotic. There are no heroes in war, we just let our media make them up afterward. War is a lesson in barbarity; it’s a test of the depths of depravity to which human beings can sink. It makes a mockery of patriotism, flags waving, and all the contrived rigmarole that passes for nationalistic pride.

The psych-docs will say Sergeant Gray suffered from PTSD, or mental breakdown, or something else with a long, fancy-sounding, name. It’s more professional than admitting he died of a broken heart. Broken because the country he loved lied to him his whole life, then sent him to war in Iraq and brutally exposed him to the truth.

It didn’t have to be Sergeant Gray, it could have been any young man.

It didn’t have to be Iraq; it could have been any war.

After all, for once let’s face the truth, they are all the same.

[1] “Flimsy Sanity”

[2] “What Killed Sergeant Gray” American RadioWorks, undated

In memory of the millions like Sergeant Gray whose lives have been wasted in politicians’ wars, take a few minutes to listen while Eric Bogle sings of “Willie McBride”.

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6 Replies to “What Killed Sergeant Gray?”

  1. Applause from me too, RJ.

    Nobody wins in war.

    I’ve an uneasy feeling though that World War 2 simply had to be fought – and there were some heroes then. We shouldn’t forget them, or sully their memory.

  2. When reading pieces like yours, RJA (and very well written, BTW) I am reminded of that song “Willie McBride” which never fails to move me to tears. Forgotten heroes of forgotten wars. The war to end all wars. There are no heroes. It is a crock. There are countless victims, even the ones who live. Or the ones who suicide. And they are all so unbearably young.

  3. Marvelous work, R.J.. And oh, so true. Every single word of it.

    I never had a grandfather, thanks to war. My dad came back deaf, thanks to war. I grew up among bomsites and ruins, thanks to war. My dad’s brother, one of my my uncles, came back a raving alcoholic and commited suicide in instalments over many agonising years. Out of my mother’s many brothers, only two survived for me to get to know, thanks to war.

    Two older (girl) cousins finished up being confined to mental institutions for the remainder of there days, thanks to the war and it’s May blitz upon our home city of Liverpool.

    I could go on, but I won’t. No need, is there?

  4. Flimsy – thanks for giving me the opportunity.

    Twilight – the very best, and worst, of human capabilities present themselves for inspection in wartime. I didn’t set out to condemn individual acts of heroism in a war zone, but merely to point out the falsehood of the whole heroic aspect of war.

    I do agree with you that sometimes war is inevitable. Your ‘uneasy feeling’ is justified. It would have taken some excellent statesmen with considerable foresight to have prevented what became WW2. It could have been achieved, if the German economy had been handled with greater expertise by the victors in the aftermath of WW1. Unfortunately our ‘statesmen’, then and now, are endowed with far greater hindsight, than foresight.
    War results from the failure of politicians. The reasons they fail are usually complex, but until we begin to accept war as a sea of filthy slime into which we dip our toes only as a very last resort, rather than a glorious and epic moment of national history – and America still has not, in the main, grasped that concept – there will be many more Sergeant Gray’s.

    “And though you died back in 1916,
    To that loyal heart, are you always 19?
    Or are you a stranger, without even a name,
    Forever enshrined behind some glass pane…”

    A moving tribute to all those Sergeant Gray’s who died needlessly to satisfy a politician’s whim. I’ve embedded Eric Bogle’s version of this great ballad at the end of the article. Thank you for the idea.

    TOB – no need to apologize for a few spelling mistakes. You tell it so succinctly, and with an honesty and poetry that can only come out of Liverpool.

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