These days there are many who speak of the glory of war and battle. Most are people who have never seen a battlefield. I’ve heard the term “chicken hawk” used to describe such people. This refers to those who are “hawks” and yet have never fought in a war. It always seems that those are the people most ready to turn to war as a means of solving a problem.
Well, my dad fought in World War II. He saw no glory or nobility to it. Over the years, he told me all of his war stories and one always stuck in his throat. It was the night he truly saw the face of his enemy.
By the fall of 1944, dad was leading his unit, a convoy of supply trucks, up the “boot” of Italy, just north of Rome. One night he and his men bivouacked down to rest – without building any fires. The men grumbled at that, but understood the need. A short time after a dinner of cold c-rations, one of his men spotted lights off in the distance, to the north! That meant locals, either that is, Italians, or enemy troops. Either way, my dad had to do something.
Ordering his men to arm themselves, he led them out into the darkness. Leaving them guarding the southern flank, he slipped into the enemy camp and found that it was in fact a German company; the men were in underground bunkers and he could hear their voices. As it was a very cold night, the Germans had left but a single sentry, and he was trying to warm himself by a small fire, the very fire whose light my dad and his men had seen.
Slipping into the back of a truck, my dad looked for something to use as a weapon. He couldn’t shoot the sentry with his sidearm – the sound would alert the others. As it happened, there was a tire iron in the truck – so he grabbed that and crouched down in the back. When the guard walked around to check the area, my dad just waited until his back was turned, and then he struck.
He heard the most horrible crack. He blinked as his face splattered with blood. The sentry stumbled and staggered. My dad struck repeatedly! He soon had more than mere blood on his face and the sentry lay motionless on the ground. Hopping from the truck, my dad grabbed the sentry by the collar and dragged him out of sight of the entrances to the bunkers. It was only then that he was able to roll the soldier over and get a good look at him. There, bathed in the firelight, my dad beheld the face of his enemy and it wounded him to his soul.
The enemy was little more than a child.
As it was nearing the end of the war, the Germans were calling on all “able-bodied men” to fight. This meant old men and teenagers thrown into the fray. This “soldier” couldn’t have been more than fifteen. His shirt was too big, his pants ill fitting and his boots mismatched. Yes, the Germans were truly short on supplies and resources.
A burning acid sensation gnawed at my dad’s throat; he was close to puking. He fell to his knees and wept, and prayed. This was not what he had trained for, this was not what he’d expected; this was not war. This was murder, and he could never forgive himself for the act. He prayed, but not for himself, he expected no atonement, no forgiveness for this savage act. No, he prayed for the child whose life he had cut short.
Then, slipping off his jacket, he covered his victim. Then, because he knew he was still a soldier, still in command, he had to act like a commander. He made his way back to his men and led the attack on the remaining Germans. They threw incendiary flares into the bunkers and then shot the soldiers as they ran out. As my dad had expected, they were all old men except the commander. Once the battle was over, several of my dad’s men asked where his jacket had gone.
He never told them.
So now, whenever I hear some politician or pundit beat their chest and speak of the need for a glorious war, I think of my dad. I can’t help but think that only those who have never been in battle, never seen the face of the enemy, that can relish sending young men to fight, kill and die.
Combining the gimlet-eye, of Philip Roth, with the precisive mind of Lionel Trilling, AJ Robinson writes about what goes bump in the mind, of 21st century adults. Raised in Boston, with summers on Martha's Vineyard, AJ now lives in Florida. Most of the time he writes, but sometimes he works at Disney World to renew his fantasies and get a few dollars more. AJ writes, with insight and passion, about his family and his dog. His liberal, note the small "l," sensibilities often lead to bouts of righteous indignation, well focused and true.
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