It’s that time of year, when we acknowledge our veterans. In my case, I have one in my family. My dad, he served in World War II. Back when I was a kid, I often asked him to tell me his war stories. He had a lot of them.
Yet, there was one type of story, which he never spoke of: facing the enemy. For a while, I figured it meant he never did. After all, he didn’t serve in the frontline. So, not fighting some Germans was perfectly reasonable. I also noticed something else about my dad. He never encouraged my friends and me to play war.
Back when I was a kid, the mid 1960s to 1970s, many kids played cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians, yes, I know, not politically correct, and war. As for my friends and I, we never much cared for cowboys. I guess once the space race was on, cowboys were out and it was aliens and astronauts all the way. Yet, there was also war. My friends and I would all be good side, the Allies, and the Germans were just invisible imaginary characters. We’d set up a base camp in the backyard or the park, or usually down in the cellar. Then we’d come up with some mission or battle plan to carry out.
Then, one night, the reason became clear. I don’t know how we got on the subject, but my dad started telling me a story from the war, and this one involved an encounter he had with some German soldiers. He and his men killed those soldiers, and the act scarred my dad for life. It wasn’t that he was a CO, that is, a Conscientious Objector, or something like that; it was HOW they did it. My dad and his comrades had trained to fight, to battle the enemy and to kill when necessary. The thing was this battle was no battle at all. My dad killed one German with a tire iron, young “soldier” not old enough to have graduated High School and then he and his men slaughtered the rest of the German unit. A unit made up of old men.
This battle was a massacre, plain and simple, and it tore at my dad’s soul. By the end of him telling me the story, he was in tears, sitting at the kitchen table sobbing. My dad, being a stoic old New Englander was not prone to getting emotional. This was a very powerful moment for him. I wept with him and tried to comfort him, but that didn’t help. When he looked at me, all he saw was the face of his victim, that German boy he’d murdered all those years before. Through his tears, he spoke of how my friends and I played at war, but had no idea what it was really like.
These days, we often think of our recent vets, when we talk about dealing with the stress of combat. When it comes to World War II vets, we mostly ignored them. After all, many people consider that war to be the last just war, the last noble war. The men who served in it had no moral ambiguity, and thus they had no stresses like the vets from Viet Nam and other recent wars.
Well, I can tell you, I know of at least one vet who had some stresses from that war, and they haunted him to the day he died. On this Memorial Day, my thoughts were of him, and I only hope that he received forgiveness, finally.
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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