We’re fighting three wars now – that we know about. I couldn’t even guess how many wars there have been on our beautiful little planet, during the brief time I’ve been on it. It’s a seriously crazy way to live. So to speak.
My dad was in the US Navy in WWII, but his war stories were mostly about clever engineers and craftsmen. He was in the Seabees, and it was their job to build infrastructure to extend the reach of US power after the fighting forces had “cleaned out the Japs”. He drove trucks, and his stories were mostly about construction and life on South Pacific islands.
“You could tell how long someone had been there,” he said, “in the mess hall. The first week they’d see bugs in the food and lose their appetite. Second week, they’d pick out the bugs. Third week, they ignored the bugs.”
I guess tropical islands aren’t necessarily paradise.
Someone once described space travel as “hours and hours of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror.” War is like that, I guess, though some people get more than their share of terrible moments. My dad recounted the story of a new guy who was blustering about some combat he’d seen. Fair enough, but then he turned to an older man who was listening quietly. “What did you do in the last war, old-timer?” he challenged.
“Oh, I was around,” the man said.
Somebody found out later through other channels, that the old man – who operated a pile driver at the base – had been in a number of firefights in WWI. Hardly anybody had come back alive. Apparently he didn’t want to talk about it for one-upsmanship of some young sailor.
One story my dad told was about discovering that a fuel truck built without proper internal baffles requires extra care when coming to a stop. He’d pulled up to a stopsign, took his foot off the brake, and about three thousand pounds of sloshing fuel rammed his truck right into the back of the Jeep stopped in front of him. Sorry sir. It won’t happen again, sir!
My dad got the boredom, other men got the terror. My father-in-law was also a sailor. He spent considerable time in the water, waiting to be rescued while sharks helped themselves to the menu. The memory… tortured him. For the rest of his life.
Dana Hunter’s dad was in Vietnam. She recounts some of his stories:
He’d been in Vietnam. Infantry, United States Army. He’d gotten drafted while switching colleges (never let it be said grades aren’t important: they can keep you from getting shot, for instance). And it was a hard year. That year changed his life. He went to war. He lost half his hearing when someone shot a .45 near his ear in a tunnel; he’d had his jaw broken by a bullet; he still has bits of shrapnel working their way out of his chest from a grenade wound he took to the ankle. He still won’t sit with his back to a door. And for years, he could only allow bits and pieces of that year to surface. He’d talk about it, but only in fragments. Some of it he barely talked about at all.
There are happier stories, like the time they mistook a pig for VietCong and wound up having roast pig for breakfast. And crazy stories like the Ammunition Santa Claus.
She recounts the time when the Moving Vietnam Memorial visited. Her dad couldn’t face it; he sent her to get rubbings. She recognized names from the stories.
War doesn’t stop with the generations that live in it. The survivors go on to raise another generation. It’s all too easy to remember the stories and miss the lessons of course.
War is crazy; it is crazy-making. It drains reason out of what passes for civilization. The stories matter. They let us know about courage, who have never been there. And yes, many wars should not ever have happened. The stories punch holes in the fantasy that it’s all some kind of glorious video game. If we’re going to do this to human beings, let’s be damn, damn sure there’s a real reason.
Let’s keep an eye out for those reasons and head them off at the pass before they ever become a cause for war. We need to learn to think ahead, past the current tension and most importantly of all, see the humanity we have in common with our enemies. It is exactly that humanity – or at least the realization of it – that war must first destroy.
I have a crazy theory that if we work harder at seeing the humanity in our enemies, it will be easier for them to see it, in us.
- Les Jenkins’ Thoughts on Memorial Day: “Sometimes it’s a necessary evil, but too often it’s not and we should beware anyone who talks of going to war in a cavalier manner as though it’ll be cheap and easy and painless. It’s never any of those things. I hold onto an optimism that humanity may someday be able to reach a point where they can work out their differences without having to kill each other in the process, be we’ve still got way too far to go before we’ll see that day.”
- Cujo359 Memorial Day 2011, beginning with an areal view of the section of Arlington cemetery set aside for soldiers of the Iraq and Afghanistan war…