Monday, December 7, 2009

Wars and Rumors: Reflections about War on Pearl Harbor Day

Wars and rumors of war. I’ve noted before on this blog that my father was a World War II veteran.

In fact, he was at Pearl Harbor when it was bombed. Each Pearl Harbor day, I spend time thinking about the few pieces of information he was willing to share with my brothers and me about this horrific event. And about what war does to those of us who choose to pursue it.

My father seldom spoke about his war experiences. I know from various bits of evidence that he spent the entire war in the Pacific theater. I have pictures of him from Honolulu, lounging on the beach with other soldiers, sitting in nightclubs with a lei around his neck as hula dancers cavorted in the background. Whether those photos were taken in the months in which he was stationed at Pearl Harbor or at other points in the war—whether he went back and forth to Honolulu during the war—I don’t know. And no one is left who can tell me about this.

About the bombing of Pearl Harbor, I remember my father telling me the following: he and other soldiers were asleep when the attack occurred late at night or early in the morning of the 7th December. He awoke to hear bombs exploding, shouts of distress. He climbed to the deck of his ship, the USS Pennsylvania, and a bomb fell near him. He was wounded by a piece of shrapnel that lodged in his stomach area, without causing serious injury. He had the scar for the rest of his life.

I remember my father telling me that with the smoke, the noise, the confusion about what was taking place, it was very difficult to know who was bombing American ships and why they were under attack. For those in the thick of an unanticipated attack, it’s not immediately apparent that one is even being attacked. Experiences like this are surrealistic.

This was my father’s approach to the war in general: surrealistic. Nonsensical. A tragic, if necessary, waste of human life, of the lives of a generation of young men. Of his generation.

My father was not a pacifist. He stoutly defended the decision of the U.S. to enter World War II. He defended the decision to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and became very angry when I asked questions about that decision.

At the same time, he did not talk about the war—not ever. He would, I think, have been wryly amused, if not downright irate, at those soldier wannabes of the next generation for whom World War II became the Grand War, the Good War, the supreme example of American altruism in the world.

In my father’s view, war was war. It was dirty business, and the less said about it, the better. In this respect, he was very much like all of my uncles who served in World War II. My father’s brother was an Air Force pilot who flew missions from England to the Netherlands, and who helped liberate the Netherlands, making good friends there whom he returned to visit several times before his death. My mother’s older brother (her half-brother, to be precise) was in the landing at Anzio and marched with his cavalry troop up through Italy into Russia, where he saw scenes of death and carnage that unhinged his mind, contributing to his suicide soon after the war had ended.

My mother’s younger brother was involved in the liberation of Germany. Like my father, he almost never spoke of what he saw and heard during the war. I know from stories his sisters told me that he “adopted” a young German boy who had somehow been made homeless during the war, and who followed him around, calling him Willie, eating the chocolate and food my uncle set aside for him. I know, as well, that he and his unit came on a horrific scene in a German village as the war ended: someone—they were not certain who—had locked a number of people into a barn and set it afire. They arrived just after the blaze had become fierce, and when they opened the barn door, they found the bodies of those locked inside piled at the door, where they had scrabbled to get out.

This uncle also captured an SS officer. The story goes that he happened on the officer shaving in a hut in the forest. When my uncle asked if he had a gun, the officer told him no. My uncle then turned over his mattress and found a Luger beneath it. The SS officer told him that, had he been in my uncle’s shoes, he would have shot him for lying. My uncle took him captive instead.

As I say, none of these relatives of mine who were soldiers during World War II ever told stories about their war experiences. It was not that they were ashamed. Their silence had to do, I believe, with their desire not to see the pain and burden of memory inflicted on the next generation. They came back from the war, most of these relatives, eager to take advantage of the opportunities for education that opened for them when the war ended, concerned to advance in their professions and make a better life for their children.

My father talked freely about the war on only one occasion that I can recall. On this particular day, he had taken too much to drink. I recall him sobbing as he said, “No one will ever know what that war did to the men of my generation.”

That’s the legacy that has stuck in my mind when I think about my father’s service during World War II. Not the legacy of the Grand War, the Good War, the war that the good, altruistic Americans fought to liberate European nations subjected to dictatorship. The legacy that remains with me is my father’s honest, pain-filled statement about what the war did to him and the men of his generation: “No one will ever know what that war did to the men of my generation.”

War is, I take it, nothing like the romantic imaginings of war urged on us by purveyors of macho military narratives and macho military images. War is bloody, mindless, tragic business. War is not to be admired, replicated, desired. War is to be opposed at all cost, whenever those with power offer war as a solution to a nation’s problems.

I am disheartened by Mr. Obama’s decision to continue the war in Afghanistan, as I have been disheartened by his (lack of) leadership in general, as president. In my view, the new president has been altogether too willing to serve the interests of powerful men at the top of our society—in Wall Street, in the political sector, in the military-industrial complex.

Mr. Obama’s failure of vision stems, I believe, from his eagerness to surround himself primarily with men—above all, with powerful men. The scope of his vision is determined by this choice, and we are all paying a price for the new president’s choice to continue the macho power games that have dominated our society for far too long now, and have contributed to its decline. And which will continue to contribute to our decline, so long as these games are permitted at the center of our society . . . .

Those who glorify war would be better served, it seems to me, to talk to people who have actually taken part in a war. The first-hand testimony of those who have waged war is seldom romantic and sentimental. Those who have gone to war know that war is an insane and unsavory business, not to be preferred by civilized human beings.

If the testimony of Vietnam veterans and veterans of the recent wars in the Middle East, and of the wives and mothers who bear the losses of war, could be heard—really heard, heard in a powerful and effective way that makes the words count—in our halls of power, we might hesitate to solve our current problems by continuing war. We might, instead, think of creating more jobs to build our country and permit people out of work to lead decent and fulfilling lives. Something war cannot accomplish.