"To see the elephant" is a 19th century American expression, no longer in use, having to do with an elephant as the most remarkable thing one could see at a traveling circus, which was itself the most remarkable thing ordinary Americans of that day could experience. The first recorded definition was in 1835: "to see or experience all that one can endure; to see enough." Also, "to lose one's innocence." In the American Civil War and after, a related usage was "to see combat or to face death, especially for the first time."
The ElephantWe have seen the elephant.
We have gone and by pure blind luck, returned,
Heroes, larger, no longer the same.
We are back, and we know the elephant.
We came back mad, in shells
Of gray flannel and three or maybe four martinis,
Encrusted with invisible filth that never washed away.
The filth we'd seen, and done, when we saw the elephant.
Some still cannot speak of it, the elephant:
Larger than anything. Larger than everything,
Its gray horror reflected, always, in our eyes
And twisted bodies, standing alone at freeway on-ramps.
Some of us identify with it, and woo the elephant, as if
To win its favor, speaking of its glory (and of our part),
Teaching our children to seek their manhood
In the elephant, as we did. And then we try to sleep.
Some of us tell our children there are better ways to die,
And better things to die for. That luck is not grace,
And surviving isn't all that great either, after the elephant.
But children rarely listen. They say:
"Take us! Use us! Make us more than we are!"
Instead it took the ones who had our backs,
It took the ones we would have died for,
And made them dead, and made us veterans.
So, yes. We've seen the elephant.
We've gone, and served, and somehow made it back.
Heroes? No. Just lucky, I guess.
But not the same. We've seen the elephant.