We watched birds on the beach this morning, but it is Veteran’s Day, so Gary and I talked about our dads’ military service.
Gary’s dad joined the Army during World War 2, but was mustered out as a result of a hernia. He joined again, this time the Army Air Force and spent the war in Texas working on planes.
My dad joined the Army too. He served in France and Germany, was present at liberation of a concentration camp in Germany, and met the King of England while on leave. He was injured and earned a Purple Heart. He almost never spoke of the war other than to joke about rations, about how the men used their gas masks to carry things and he hung his on the back of a Jeep and laughed watching them away.
He contended that men who bragged about their wartime experiences had not seen what he saw.
What is most memorable to me was asking my dad about how he got into the service. Was I an adolescent when I asked? Older?
He said he joined because he would have been drafted anyway. Everyone had to go, he said from his corner of the sofa in the living room.
My mother was in the kitchen, wiping counters, but she stopped and moved to the edge of the room. “Art, that is not true. You wouldn’t have been drafted,” she said. There was anger, bitterness in her voice. “No. You worked in a sheltered industry. You did not have to serve.” He’d been at McDonald-Douglas, building planes my father-in-law took care of a thousand miles away. My mother went on muttering about his disastrous first marriage, the damage his wartime experiences had done him. She did not mean the leg injury and hospitalization. She did not know about his addiction to pain killers, a detail he revealed to me and warned me not to tell my mother. “She doesn’t know.”
On that day, I stood in the dining room where I could see them both. I looked from one to the other, knowing each was telling their truth. My father was beginning his long debilitation RA. Perhaps I was already a teenager at the cusp of my political awareness when I would march against the current war in Vietnam. The war was a problem for many people because the reasons for our involvement were clearly excuses, with no end in sight.
My father was proud of his service in the Second World War. My mother’s sister joined the Marines right out of high school, even though they arrested her best friend simply for having parents born in Japan. People did what they had to.
Another thing my father said about his war was that people who criticized the capitulation of France in the Second World War did not understand how that country had suffered a couple of decades before. I studied history, so I thought I knew, but it would be many years before I fully understood what he meant. It was a novel, a French historical novel, that revealed the incredible suffering of the French during the Great War.
The United States came late into each of the wars, late into the Great War, the Second, and Vietnam. We were spared the worst of things in those World Wars, entered the next ones thinking we would again be the great rescuers we had been before. We were wrong about that.
We had entered into war with Spain under false pretenses. Mark Twain wrote as much in his bitter satire, “The War Prayer” which was so critical of the paradox of any war that it could not be published in his lifetime. American entry helped to end two World Wars, and but our interference has been making trouble for self-determination around the world before and since.
I feel no happiness on Veteran’s Day. It is not a day to be happy. I honor those who risked their lives in the belief that they were helping to preserve a safe place in the world. They did their best, and sometimes they died. Sometimes they even achieved peace. These days, I find it hard to see how that goal is being served.
I would like the world to be safe for everyone.