Think about the generation immediately younger or older than you. What do you understand least about them — and what can you learn from them?
Tom Brokaw has called them “The Greatest Generation” and I tend to agree with that summation. I often wonder what our dads and moms went through during WWII. My uncle Harlan, who like many WWII vets has now passed away, told in detail of some of the horrors he endured on Peleliu which suffered some of the highest casualties in the South Pacific arena. It took a generation for him to begin talking about his experiences, so dreadful that I imagine he, like so many others, just wanted to bury them. My dad, who died when I was 14, never spoke of his actual war service in the Army Air Force as a navigator and bombardier, and so I’ll never know what effects bombing the he!! out of Germany toward the end of the war had on him. My husband’s British father, never talked about his wartime experiences in North Africa and India. And he lived to be 94.
I can’t imagine living in an atmosphere where violent death is a constant possibility; where you may have to kill another person with no thought about him except that he is the enemy. Not only that, but the very circumstances in which the Pacific War was fought, the jungles, the diseases, the heat and humidity, the lack of sanitation, an enemy bent on your annihilation is inconceivable to me. I can’t imagine seeing the person next to you get shot apart or stepping on a land mine and you realizing “that there but for the grace of God go I”. My uncle, who was returned stateside severely wounded, and others I’ve spoken to say that after a certain period of time, you isolate, don’t want to make friends, because the psychological and emotional cost is too high. I think this is part of the reason for burying the memories. Senseless, violent death.
Yes, there was a need for war at that time in history, but why do men resort to war? Don’t all sides know that the cost is too high — in every respect? The military is geared up to fight in an instant — that’s what they do; and many soldiers today would admit that actual fighting is why they enlisted. How do they do it? I will never understand. I am in no way denigrating what they do, what their goals are. I admire them greatly for doing what I simply could not do. Many cannot. Are they more patriotic? I think in some ways they are, because they are willing to lay down their lives for their country, and follow orders to achieve that goal. At some point they don’t have the choice; professional officers and advisers make the decisions, as do politicians. In some ways it is the highest calling. What would I put my life on the line for?
We just “celebrated” the freeing of prisoners from Auschwitz in Poland. The military who made that discovery and tore down the gates of the camp must have felt that whatever the cost, it was worth it. The Brits who fought endured the merciless bombings of their country must have felt justified in whatever retaliation the could take on Germany. Brave men threw themselves into the fray, daily, nightly, praying that they would return, but knowing how the odds were stacked against them.
I have learned that the armed forces of the past are not the present army (in the broadest sense). I don’t like the increasingly political aspect of having a trained military force. I don’t like seeing men come back from the front lines with injuries that will last their lifetimes, and change their and their families futures. I don’t like technological warfare. Yes, dropping bombs on “targets” or “camps” or even a house from modern aircraft, may be more precise and risk the least casualties of our fighting men and women, but it’s too impersonal. Face to face combat on the other hand is too personal, but if you’re killing people for their principes, should you not look them in the eye?
I guess it comes down to the fact that whereas, in the case of WWII, war was authentic and necessary — we were forced into it — in too many other cases it is or has been political maneuvering, and when human beings are the pawns, it just doesn’t seem right. Do I think we should never go to war, or take military action? No, I don’t; but it has to be the last resort. It has to have a humanitarian and achievable goal. Retaliation isn’t reason enough. We have to be in it to win.
In the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, we were and are so misguided. Is there a goal that can be attained? Do we fight on forever with opponents who respect no life, even his or her own, or the lives of the families? Do we fight a war with people whose personal beliefs so conflict with ours that they cannot grasp or enforce democracy? I’m afraid I feel that the conflict of an area or country like Syria, must be fought until they resolve their problems. How many people will die before they accept peace at any cost — probably lots. But they don’t have to be our men and women who are more evolved in their belief systems and regard for individual rights and freedoms.
I admire and cannot comprehend the bravery of the men and women who fought in WWII, a “just” war, and how they came back to create a prosperous and strong economy and government, raised families, and lived into old age loving their grandchildren perhaps more than we know.
I also cannot accept the premise of war in this generation, and I believe I am with the “Greatest Generation” in believing that while war is not off the bargaining table, it should value the lives that are put in harm’s way. There are too many crosses at Arlington Cemetery, which I pass from time to time. Those are souls who gave it all for their country, in spite of their own goals and families. I just hope that we as a country make sure that the crosses added have meaning and respect in the future, and those who died are regarded as “heroes”.