Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Greatest Generation

Not only was he the first Japanese soldier I had ever shot at, he was the only one I had seen at close quarters.  He was a robin-fat, moon-faced, roly-poly little man with his thick, stubby, trunklike legs sheathed in faded khaki puttees and the rest of him squeezed into a uniform that was much too tight.  Unlike me, he was wearing a tin hat, dressed to kill.  But I was quite safe from him.. His Arisaka rifle was strapped on in a sniper's harness, and though he had heard me, and was trying to turn toward me, the harness sling had him trapped.  He couldn't disentangle himself from it.  His eyes were rolling in panic.  Realizing that he couldn't extricate his arms and defend himself, he was backing toward a corner with a curious, crablike motion.
My first shot had missed him, embedding itself in the straw wall, but the second caught him dead-on in the femoral artery.  His left thigh blossomed, swiftly turning to mush.  A wave of blood gushed from the wound; then another boiled out, sheeting across his legs, pooling on the earthen floor.  Mutely he looked down at it.  He dipped a hand in it and listlessly smeared his cheek red.  His shoulders gave a little spasmodic jerk, as though someone had whacked him on the back; then he emitted a tremendous, raspy fart, slumped down, and died.  I kept firing, wasting government property. . . .
Jerking my head to shake off the stupor, I slipped a new, fully loaded magazine into the butt of my .45.  Then I began to tremble, and next to shake, all over.  I sobbed, in a voice still grainy with fear: "I'm sorry."  Then I threw up all over myself.  . . . At the same time I noticed another odor; I had urinated in my skivvies. . . . Then Barney burst in on me, his carbine at the ready, his face gray, as though he, not I, had just become a partner in the firm of death.  He ran over to the Nip's body, grabbed its stacking swivel - its neck - and let go, satisfied that it was a cadaver.  I marveled at his courage; I couldn't have taken a step toward that corner.  He approached me and then backed away, in revulsion, from my foul stench.  He said: "Slim, you stink."  I said nothing.  I knew I had become a thing of tears and twitchings and dirtied pants.  I remember wondering dumbly: Is this what they mean by "conspicuous gallantry"? - William Manchester, Goodbye Darkness, pp. 6-7
It was autumn, 1988.  I was working at the country club in my hometown for a season, trying to figure out my life.   While taking care of a set of clubs, I overheard a conversation among a foursome, local men my father's age.  They had been talking of their experiences in the service in what I grew up calling "the War", as if it had ever been the only such thing that occurred.  One of the men, a local real estate developer of some note, was talking about his time in the Navy, serving in the Pacific in the 1944 and 1945.  After a battle in which the Japanese sent wave after wave of planes to die in the face of the steel from our ships and planes, he spoke of a young man who had been in an anti-aircraft turret on board the same ship.  "It took an hour to pry his fingers off the gun.  He didn't say anything, ever, as far as I know."

Four years before, when I had just begun my endless search about which I wrote earlier this year, I read Godfrey Hodgson's America In Our Time, one of the best analyses of post-World War II America I have ever encountered.  A few years later I would read William Manchester's The Glory and The Dream, a magesterial attempt to tell 40 years of our national life, with the question implicit in the title always out in front.  From these in particular, although there are many, many others that tell much the same tale, I learned one indispensable fact: the millions of men who served in the military in the Second World War returned from their service, put on civilian clothes, and got busy creating safe lives and worlds.  They went to college on the GI Bill.  They married and their wives starting turning out babies in much the same way the factories to which they returned were turning out refrigerators and ovens and washing machines and cars.  They moved from the cities to new suburbs, settling for what amounted to barracks housing built on the cheap, designs and yard plans dictated from above with no room for deviation.  They became, as the title of one book noted, the men in gray flannel suits.

When the children of these veterans were called upon to go to their own war, the veterans of North Africa and Italy, of France and Germany, of Burma and China, of Guadalcanal and Tarawa insisted they go, just as they had.  There were too few stories, too few words of advice, too little information other than, "Answer the call.  We did."

Of course, the great silence that cast its shadow over the intervening years needed filling.  Societies dread vacuum.  While there were some stories and memoirs that attempted an honest description of war and its madness - The Naked and The Dead, which introduced the word "fug" to the English language because the publishers were wary of printing the actual dialogue too many soldiers and Marines used; Catch-22, describing perfectly the insanity of war as Yosarian struggles to come to terms with his own fear - the vast bulk of the empty space was filled by popular culture.  Films with the Second World War as their setting were huge, telling a generation of young people what war was like, sometimes featuring actors who became heroes to a generation of young boys eager to learn what their father's refused to tell them.

Sometime in the 1990's, Life magazine published a list of "American Heroes".  Lists like this are useful only as far as we get a sense of what our elite think we should think.  Among the top ten "American Heroes" was the actor John Wayne.  It would be a few years before I learned something about Wayne's life that I have cherished in all the years since.  The man who would make a career playing soldiers and sailors, pilots and Marines, killing Germans and Japanese and even in his later years Vietnamese, was so terrified of the prospect of serving in the military after Pearl Harbor, he urged and begged his mentor and friend John Ford to intervene to keep him from military service.  While Clark Gable and James Stewart and others volunteered, spending their war years in combat (Jimmy Stewart was so hurt in his soul by his years as a bomber pilot, he almost gave up acting), Wayne had every possible string pulled for him to keep him from ever wearing a uniform or seeing combat.  When the war was over, however, he thought nothing of putting on a fake uniform and firing blanks at hordes of extras who would pretend to die so Wayne's status as an "American Hero" would be assured.

It wasn't just popular culture that grew fat on American victory in the Second World War.  Policy planners were no less susceptible to hubris.  When the first American troops landed in Korea in 1950, most were garrison troops, stationed in occupied Japan.  Few had seen combat in the Second World War, but, flush with American superiority and given the weapons their older brothers had used to defeat the two greatest military forces ever amassed, they were confident of easy victory.  As John Toland reminds readers in his In Mortal Combat,  one of the first signs of trouble was the utter uselessness of WWII-vintage anti-tank weaponry.  The North Koreans were using the latest Soviet-built tanks (and if there was one thing Soviet industry was good at producing, it was their tanks).  The charges being used by the Americans were quite literally bouncing off the thick-skinned tanks as they rolled over the American troops.  In the course of the war, American troops were nearly pushed off the peninsula completely; then, the First Marine Division suffered its worst defeat in history, having to march the length of the peninsula during a typical, brutal Korean winter while legendary Marine Col. Lewis "Chesty" Puller tried to keep up morale telling them they weren't retreating but advancing to the rear.

I got thinking about all this when I read Charles Durning's obituary in The New York Times.
Mr. Durning was also remembered for his combat service, which he avoided discussing publicly until later in life. He spoke at memorial ceremonies in Washington, and in 2008 France awarded him the National Order of the Legion of Honor.
In the Parade interview, he recalled the hand-to-hand combat. “I was crossing a field somewhere in Belgium,” he said. “A German soldier ran toward me carrying a bayonet. He couldn’t have been more than 14 or 15. I didn’t see a soldier. I saw a boy. Even though he was coming at me, I couldn’t shoot.”
They grappled, he recounted later — he was stabbed seven or eight times — until finally he grasped a rock and made it a weapon. After killing the youth, he said, he held him in his arms and wept.
That's just part of Durning's incredible story.  Not just of his service during the Second World War; reading his obituary, I realized what a remarkable man we have lost, a man out of time, whose whole life seems to echo "America" as I read it.

All the same, it is the whole "he avoided discussing publicly" that troubles me.  I can, I suppose, understand not wanting to talk about beating a 15-year-old kid to death, regardless of the circumstances.  Yet there is much more.  Durning survived, not once but twice, German ambushes that left much the rest of his comrades dead.  Like my oldest brother-in-law's father, Durning was in the first wave that landed in Normandy in June, 1944.  Unlike Rudy, Durning made it off the beach (my brother-in-law's father was so severely wounded,  like far too many he was left almost too long, festering in the rain among the dead; he was saved, however, and is still alive, God bless him).  The millions of soldiers, Marines, sailors, and airmen who returned from around the world need not have ripped open barely-healed wounds; they could, however, have reminded a victorious nation that victory came with a cost.  Not just the hundreds of thousands of dead Americans; the nearly 50 million dead around the globe, from the deserts of Africa and Mongolia through the jungles of the Pacific and Burma to the frozen waters off Murmansk and, of course, Flander's fields once again watered by the blood of too many young men.  We could have heard that, far from being something done with ease and without a care, William Manchester's story of his first confirmed kill in the Pacific could have reminded us the terrible moral cost that accompanies even the necessary taking of another human being's life.

Those whom Tom Brokaw mistakenly labeled The Greatest Generation, gave us war in Korea.  We sent troops to Indonesia and the Dominican Republic.  We almost blew up the world over Cuba.  Tens of thousands of American men and women died in the swamps and jungles of southeast Asia.  Ronald Reagan dragged outdated battleships out of mothballs to make the hills of Lebanon shake one last time from an American naval broadside.  Still, Americans died there, too.  Far from living the lessons taught by the acres of manicured cemeteries, The Greatest Generation thought its victory vaccinated it from failure in its plans.  Too many men and women, in too many places were forced to pay too high a price for our Greatest Generation's fundamental failure, not just of leadership, but of simple moral imagination.

Through it all, we started to hear stories that war, far from glorious, was horror beyond imagining.  We began to hear, over and over again, that only the dead are our heroes.  We began to learn that the enemy is too often viewed as a comrade, a fellow soldier doing his duty even as he lay dead at our feet.  Not someone to be hated or feared, the enemy is just another soldier, trapped in the brutality and insanity and horror of war.

We are, however, living in a different time.  We are slowly - far too slowly - emerging from over a decade of our own wars.  While our troops and veterans receive increasingly better care, we still read far too often of suicides and addiction, of domestic violence and depression, of the nightmares that bring on screaming fits and violence.  In an age when communication is almost instantaneous and our therapeutic culture demands sharing as much information as possible, we are learning from a new Greatest Generation that war is not a time and place of glory and heroes.  It is misery beyond reckoning, endless fear punctuated by seconds of sheer terror, followed by grief.  From the wounds our young men and women returning from our too-long wars of choice, we may yet learn that we should never again send our young men and women through the human meat grinder that is war; the price we pay for their sacrifices is so high, and we continually fail to make due the bill they present to us.  Perhaps now, as we begin the process of drawing down our combat forces in Afghanistan, we can listen for the stories our soldiers and sailors, our pilots and Marines tell us and give them the greatest honor any nation ever gave those who gave up so much: Vow to find a way to keep their sons and daughters from ever having to experience what they will carry with them.

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