It was over a nine-hour drive south to Montpelier, France to visit my brother-in-law and his wife in their new apartment. It rained much of the way, and I kept thinking about how I could fit in a trip to the WW II American Cemetery in the time we had there. It only looked to be a hundred and fifty miles away or so on the map.
En route, I saw a couple signs for Verdun. Of course, simply the name, Verdun, evokes the insanity of WW I and I tried to picture what kind of memorial could possibly recognize the million-plus men and boys who died there. I’ve added it to my list of places to see in the year ahead.
In short, the trip to the Rhone Cemetery in France didn’t happen. It was too long of a drive in the midst of the August tourist season. So, no blog information from the cemetery, instead I spent time with the extended family, drinking wine, playing games, reading, and eating French food at the in-law’s chateau. Not such a bad thing, after all, and a needed respite after my twenty years in the Air Force.
Back in Germany, on a walk through our village, I noticed a modest war memorial in a small park. It was tucked in between two old houses on a patch of land overlooking the village. My curiosity drew me in. The words “Unsern Kriegsopfern” are written in iron letters on the stone monument. Translated, it means “Our War Victims”. The years of the two World Wars are listed below the title, but only the names of those from the First World War are displayed on the pillars inside—fifty-three dead and missing from this small village (current population is approximately 4100 with an estimate of about 1600 at the outset of WW I). There’s no display of those who died in World War II, though, and I found the absence of names to be odd. After several discussions with a few German friends, I failed to find a definitive answer as to why the dead from World War II aren’t there.
By the time I left the memorial, I realized that there was a time when I would have said (and did say) that the Germans who died in World War I deserved what they got. Germany is, after all, considered by many to be the aggressor in that war alongside Austria-Hungary. But that was before I would study the literature of war and challenge those simple assumptions and ideas I’d been taught since I was a boy. As a cadet and junior officer I’d come to accept the notion that the young men who died fighting against America were part of a greater evil and deserved death. That was years ago, though, long before I would realize that the young soldiers are exactly what the memorial says, “victims” of war. Young men manipulated by the illusion of a God on their side, a flag to carry, a shared past, revenge, or of fear concocted by politicians and an aristocracy who see war as a game to be played out for their own selfish ends.
As I write, I’m still wondering why the “victims” of World War II are conspicuously absent from the monument to the dead and missing? Maybe there is no clear answer, or maybe it’s because the definition of victims in that horrific war was considered too broad, cutting across all veins of society, and sparing few. There wasn’t enough space on this modest monument to list all the “victims” of that war. More than anything else, it’s become easier for me over the years to understand why Germany tend to be a nation that recoils from the thought of war.
It’s clear to more than ever why an old German woman in the spring of 2003 asked me to tell George Bush not to invade Iraq. She, like her whole generation and the children of those who took part in World War II, understand the legacy and the repercussions of war in a way that most Americans can’t. Had Germany’s cities been decimated in World War I or had the ghosts of those whose names are inscribed on the pillars been able to speak, then maybe things would have been different. Just maybe there would have been no need for the years 1939-1945 to be a part of the memorial at all.
Until next time,
James A. Moad II