Saturday, November 13, 2004

As Many Wars As People Who Were There

Like me, Alphawoman has posted an entry in honor of her father, another World War II verteran who is still around. She knows some things about her dad's war experiences, including a rather chilling one, but there's probably a lot more she doesn't know. I know very little about my own dad's experience, as I mentioned before. And I don't think I'm going to ask him a lot of questions about it.

Ruth in 1986I talked to him again tonight, for the second day in a row. My vague intention was to tell him, or at least Ruth, my stepmother, about the tribute entry I wrote, and solicit Ruth's input for adding to it. My mom has her own page on; why shouldn't I do the same for my dad, while he's still alive to be appreciated?

But when I talked to Ruth and Dad tonight, I pretty much chickened out on talking about this. I mentioned the blog entry to Ruth, and told her I'd like a picture of the two of them together, which is true. They've been married roughly as long as my dad was married to my mom, and much more happily. Ruth deserves to be part of this tribute page I want to put together.

Still, I didn't feel free to ask questions. What date were Dad and Ruth married? When did my dad join the service? Was he drafted, or did he enlist? What was his rank? How many missions was he in? How long was he in Stalag Luft 1? I've learned some things online about that place, including which barracks housed my dad. I even saw a picture on one of the Stalag Luft 1 web sites that may possibly be of my dad (left hand column, second row). But I can't ask him to check it out and let me know whether it's him. I mean, there's a reason he's never really talked about his P.O.W. experience to me, except to joke about not getting the Welcome to Stalag Luft 1 booklet we saw at the Pima Air and Space Museum. We used to watch Hogan's Heroes together when I was a kid. He liked the show, and I didn't even know at first that it had any relationship to his own life. Maybe the fantasy Stalag 13, with its bumbling Nazis and healthy Allied prisoners who never got shot, and who could escape any time they wanted, was more comforting than painful, twenty years after the darker reality. And I'm sure there are lots of vets who, like my dad, don't particularly want to discuss what their wars were really like for them.

my dad on his birthday, 1986Maybe it's not important that I know any more about my dad's war years (or my WAC grandmother's) than the people who were there have chosen to tell. I'm just now realizing that we can't know what our fathers went through in that war, maybe in any war. Someone on NPR said yesterday that in Vietnam, there were as many wars as there were soldiers - every one experienced it differently. It would be very different as seen from a plane or on the ground. A guy ten feet away might see different things, and remember different things, filtered through the experiences that came before or came after.  Alpha's dad was in the same war as mine, but their experiences were very different. How much more so would this be true for the lieutenant on a sub in the Pacific, a paratrooper on Normandy Beach, an ensign on a battleship, or a sergeant trainng recruits at Fort Drum or wherever?

And now we're in another war, less bloody than the big ones but also messy and difficult and morally questionable, especially compared to the one against Hitler. I'll never have a clue what it's like for the people from Davis-Monthan AFB now in Iraq, but I suspect that they all have different stories, different opinions, different dangers, and maybe different life expectancies. I can't imagine what life is like for Iraqi insurgents, detainees, civilians, children, or soldiers or police. Some of them tell their stories on NPR, on CNN, and other news outlets. Some will tell their stories only to family, or to no one at all.

But we can't really know what they experienced. Heck, they're still trying to hash out the causes of Gulf War Syndrome, which they're finally starting to admit is real after all. And that's a medical, physical thing. What about all the subjective effects of war? How can we hope to understand what people do in extreme circumstances, and why, and how they feel afterward?

Maybe what really matters, to all of us at home, those of us who never had to fight to the death for good, bad, or muddled causes, is that our loved ones come home safe, and have a decent life afterward. I want this for everyone's dad, mom, son, daughter, brother or sister. I want this for Americans and British, Afghanis and Iraqis, Palestinians and Israelis, and everyone else in this war-torn world. Most of all, I want us to learn the one thing about war that really matters: that people really shouldn't be killing each other at all. If we could only get everyone to agree that there is no Them, only Us, and that nobody deserves to die for living in the wrong place or having the wrong religion, everyone's loved ones could finally come home. But until that happens, if ever, people will continue to put on their uniforms, and endure unknown horrors for the sake of the people they leave behind.



alphawoman1 said...

What a thought provoking entry.  I have a lot of my Dad's stories in my head.  As he got older, he told more of them.  He would choke up telling them.  So much death.  He was a officer and was busted in rank for a reason I can not recall.  My Mother is still sharp as a tack, I could ask her for the stories.  That generation is so different from yours and mine, and the one that has followed.  They were so stoic.  I think your Dad would be honored to know you want to write about his experiences and thoughts.  

cneinhorn said...

I really enjoyed this, and those photos are great....a snippet of time captured forever...