A week or so after posting my last blog, I learned that Frank Buckles, the last American Veteran of the First World War, had passed away at the age of 110. I was surprised to learn he’d also served in World War II and survived three and a half years in a Japanese P.O.W. camp. If there was ever a person who had seen and experienced the brutality and suffering of war in all its manifestations, it must have been Frank Buckles, I thought, a kid from Missouri who lied about his age and enlisted at the age of sixteen.
At the time, I was reading Tony Judt’s amazing book, Postwar, about the challenges faced by the Allies to piece together what remained of Europe after World War II. Undertaken amid the vast destruction and the chaos of displaced persons, where death, hunger, rape, and reprisal killings were common, the task was a daunting one. The scale of the devastation throughout the continent was unprecedented, and despite all the books I’ve read, the photographs and documentaries I’ve seen over the years, it’s difficult to truly grasp the widespread suffering and destruction detailed in the book. I’m not sure it’s possible, unless you were there.
While the work of historians like Judt are often engaged at the macro level, attempting to frame the past with notions of cause and effect, I’ve always been drawn to the individual perspective on war. While interested in examining the root causes—the hate, greed and divisiveness—which lead to conflicts, it’s the toll on the singular soldier that calls out to me. I’ve never experienced combat on the ground, but as the son of a Vietnam Vet and a C-130 pilot who’s delivered soldiers into war zones, I feel compelled to try and understand the plight of all those who’ve been asked to fight and kill for a nation, a cause, or a religion. I know, of course, that I’ll never be able to fully grasp the complexities of their struggles, but I feel it’s crucial to try. For me, examining war solely through the lens of historians is a disingenuous endeavor at best and far too limiting. While their work is important, in the end, it’s the individual experiences of war—the manifestations of those internal conflicts which reverberates through each soldier and across society in one way or another—whether we know it or not.
In my last post, I mentioned a letter my father had written to me—a first attempt to articulate his thoughts on paper about his experiences in Vietnam. “Not all prisoners of war were locked in cages or cells,” he wrote. “All soldiers who have been in combat know what I mean.” His reflections were a lament to the continual suffering that combat veterans endure throughout their lives—suffering that remains long after they lay their weapons down. From World War I to the present conflicts, he spoke of men he knew as a boy, men he worked and served with in Korea and Vietnam, and those younger men who have come back from the Middle East after multiple combat tours. His words were clear and simple, an implicit call for understanding—a need to recognize that the trauma of combat resonates with soldiers for the rest of their lives. I’ve asked him to write more.
Whenever I taught Hemingway’s, A Farewell To Arms, to third-class cadets (sophomores), I devoted a lesson to the writer’s experiences and the reality of combat. The cadets knew the statistics from Hemingway’s war—the number of American casualties, the basics of trench warfare, that Germany was the aggressor, and how technological developments led to the incredible death toll—8 million plus—and another 21 million wounded. But most of their knowledge ended there. I wanted them to understand the plight of the individual soldiers both during and after the war. One of the articles I had them read was from the Smithsonian, an essay about the masks of war and the accompanying video. It details the attempt to recreate the faces of soldiers who’d been horribly disfigured by shrapnel and machinegun fire—lost jaws, faces shredded away and empty sockets where eyes should be. In one British park where those who wore the masks would sit, benches were marked in blue to let locals know what to expect of the men sitting atop them. If there was any way to show the cadets the layered affects on the individual soldier—the loss of their former identity—it was through the story about masks. After all, without a face, who are we?
“He lay with his profile to me,” wrote Enid Bagnold, a volunteer nurse (and later the author of National Velvet), of a badly wounded patient. “Only he has no profile, as we know a man’s. Like an ape, he has only his bumpy forehead and his protruding lips—the nose, the left eye, gone.”
History, of course, has a way of boxing up the devastation of past wars into graphs and statistics, as if they will help us understand the complexities in some tangible way. For me, though, statistics are part of the arsenal of those who fight from a distance—those who’ve never endured combat, and yet are drawn to the concrete nature of numbers to define war. In teaching War Lit to senior cadets, the current wars regularly drifted into the class discussions. The statistical comparison to past wars would usually arise, and cadets would share their perspective on the conflicts. An economics major would see the wars as a percentage of GDP compared to WW II; a management major would quote the numbers of soldiers killed in comparison to Vietnam; or an aero major would highlight the use of precision bombing to contrast the minimal number of civilian casualties with past wars. And there were more, of course. It’s an easy trap to fall into, one in which I’d been caught years ago as a cadet in the 1980s, studying the Vietnam War. There was a push at the time to shift the narrative of that war, and I remember comparing American deaths (58,000+) to those of the 3+ million Vietnamese who died… didn’t that seem like a victory of sorts? And the Dominos never really fell that far beyond Vietnam, did they?
While educating students to see beyond metrics is a key reason for teaching War Literature, it wasn’t always part of the curriculum. In my first semester teaching at the Academy, I remember being confounded by a former colleague’s discussion of A
Farewell to Arms. In a presentation to new instructors, he highlighted the numbers killed in a battle from WW I and used it to dismiss the relatively few deaths in the early years of the Iraq War. I was new in the department back then, and didn’t challenge him, but in retrospect, I wish I had. The death of an old flying buddy of mine, Brian Downs, was still fresh in my mind at the time. He’d died in a plane crash in Iraq the year before, leaving a wife and three small children. Yes, he was one of those relatively few, but I couldn’t possibly minimize his death by comparing it to past wars. So, looking back, I wish I’d asked my former colleague if he had ever engaged in significant combat operations. I know the answer to the question, and I would have reminded him that no one who’s ever edured combat or has a friend die in a war sees the experiences or deaths in statistical terms.
Last week, as the spring weather arrived here in our German village, I took my children out on a walk through the forest and to the war memorial I’d written about in an earlier blog. The memorial used to be on my way to the coffee shop where I write, but since moving apartments, I hadn’t ventured past it in months. I wanted my children to see the monument, to let them experience a small town memorial, and show them how names of
the dead from World War I matched those of our closest friends in town. Inside, I was surprised to discover that two large metal plaques had been added since my last visit. They listed the casualties from World War II—something that had been conspicuously absent before. While my children looked for our friend’s name on the original plaques, I found myself doing the same on the new ones. “There’s five of them,” my ten-year old daughter said softly as she joined me on my own search. I’d already found them, though, three dead and one missing. “Were they related,” my son asked, as if grasping the reality of the wars for the first time. I found myself unable to answer the question as I tried to imagine who they were and what they looked like.
I took photos of the new plaques, and as we left the memorial, I noticed an old woman on one of the benches. I’d seen her before, sitting in the same spot, back in the fall when I would pause there to reflect and take in the view of the village below. I remember wondering if she was there to recall a person whose name was on the memorial—a husband, a lover, a childhood friend, or maybe a father or brother. If so, I thought, what images was she recalling from across the years, and what thoughts were moving through her mind. I’ll never know the answer, of course, but seeing her was a reminder of something that’s always fascinated me about Germany—how the past seems to be ever-present, waiting on the edge of conversations with an undeniable authority. It’s easy to understand why Germans today are so hesitant to commit their soldiers into combat. Sometimes I feel as if the ghosts of those who died and suffered in past wars are here on the continent, still with us, moving through the memories of all those who were touched in one way or another by war.
A few weeks after Frank Buckles passed away, the French government announced the death of Lazare Ponticelli, the last French Veteran of WW I. The two deaths prompted me to reflect on what those men had experienced on the fields of France so many years ago, and ultimately to write this post. President Nicolas Sarkozy announced the death of Ponticelli, expressing “infinite sadness.” I was struck by that phrase, wondering if he or anyone like him could possibly know what infinite sadness might mean or feel like. The deaths of the last two veterans from France and America led me to wonder if any German soldiers from WW I were still alive. A quick search on the Internet led me to Dr. Erich Kästner, the last veteran who passed away over two years ago. His death wasn’t remembered or highlighted in any special way at the time because, as reported in Der Spiegel, “World War I is seen as part of a historical line that led to World War II.” And who wants to celebrate that?
The day after visiting the memorial I had dinner with a friend and showed him the new photos. He was shocked at the sheer number of names on the plaques, something that hadn’t occurred to me. Considering the greater scale of devastation from the Second World War compared to the First, I’d accepted the disparity without much thought. His reaction made me pause and wonder why I hadn’t been more affected by the disparity between the two wars. Months ago, I’d taken the time to count the number of casualties from World War I, but hadn’t bothered to count those on the new plaque. There were simply more—a lot more. For him, though, they represented something personal—his father’s generation. These weren’t just numbers to him, but people whose lives had been lost and whose absence reverberated still through a community and a nation that has chosen to embrace pacifism.
My friend’s reaction to the photos made me consider if I’d missed out on an opportunity at the memorial. I hadn’t spoken to my children about the connections between wars and how the blood spilled in the trenches, the lingering animosity, mistrust and national pride gave rise to a second, more destructive one. If there was ever a time to use statistics, it was in that moment, I thought, a chance to see the power of numbers to drive home a point. They’d counted the missing and the dead who shared a common name with our friends—nine in total, but the more I thought about it, I realized that my children hadn’t seen the numbers the way I had. They didn’t have the historical context in which to compare and contrast one war against another. Instead, the solemn, reflective looks on their faces told me that they recognized how each name was once a living person—a young child like them, who’d run through fields and across playgrounds, dreaming of a life denied by war. No, I didn’t need to drive home the point of statistical differences. That lesson would come. They were seeing what many couldn’t or had forgotten, and what I had been trained and taught for years to look past.
For me, it took the death of an old flying buddy in Iraq to remind me that each soldier’s passing reverberates through every person who ever knew him or her. It’s an easy thing to forget, though, when you’ve been trained to deal with death by using acronyms and numbers. In the Air Force, the abbreviation, HR, stands for Human Remains, and it’s the term I used as both a pilot and an airlift planner to describe specific cargo—the body parts collected and deposited in silver boxes for the final trip home. It’s not a man, woman, son, father, daughter or even a body being loaded onto airplanes—it’s an HR—one of many routine terms used to distance and deny us an emotional connection to the realities of combat. While I understand the military necessity to use terms of this nature, I also understand that the role of art and literature is to free us from the constraints of routine thoughts and to remind us of what we’re all taught to forget. While some might consider these two notions to be contradictory—the inherent conflict between art and war—I would argue that without both perspectives, it’s too easy to distance ourselves from the realities and repercussions of war on the individual and society as a whole.
Last spring, near the end of the semester, I showed the cadets a slideshow by the brilliant war photographer, Ashley Gilbertson. Entitled, The Shrine Down The Hall, I didn’t tell the cadets what it was about. I let the slideshow speak for itself. Instead of depicting graphic images from the war zones, each photo is of a fallen soldier’s childhood room, kept as a shrine by their parents. Considering that the dead soldiers were often the same age or younger than the cadets in my class, the photos resonated in a way that few images had all semester long. The absence of boys and girls from those well-kept rooms, filled with stuffed animals, posters, and old trophies have a profound silence all their own. Whenever I look at Gilbertson’s photos, it’s as if I’m there, able to see the faces of parents as the open a door and contemplate the emptiness inside.
But what about the majority of Americans who aren’t exposed to war literature or acquainted with the small percentage of citizens who’ve borne the brunt and suffering of war over the past decade? Without a connection—a person or a face to represent the suffering and the toll of combat—can they see beyond the numbers? Have we as a society been taught to simply support the troops without really understanding their plight or what “support” might ultimately entail? Is it merely a coincidence that photographers were denied the right to take pictures of caskets returning home from war or that the news coverage from Iraq was often sanitized into statistical analysis? Without the images of war, how are they to see the toll on the individuals who fight on their behalf? Last fall, on a trip to New York to see Ground Zero, I toured the city streets and attended the small museum outside the construction zone. I was struck by the stark images inside—photos of the utter destruction and a wall of faces—pictures of those who were lost when the towers came crashing down. It’s difficult to let go of those faces once you see them, and I can’t help wonder why we’re meant see and remember one set of photos and not the other?
Every morning at the Army hospital in Germany where I attend physical therapy, the buses arrive, filled with the wounded soldiers from Afghanistan and Iraq. I see them, the scarred, empty faces of men without arms and legs, freshly bandaged wounds, and missing hands and fingers—clear reminders of the severity of wounds from these wars. And those are the wounds I can see—the external ones which demand our immediate attention. Inside the walls, soldiers are treated and stabilized at the trauma center before being sent home to start new lives. Drawn from across our nation, often from poor and underprivileged segments of society, I wonder if they will disappear into the vast American mosaic of patchwork towns and cities, cared for by wives or parents, or will they end up on the streets, in the homeless shelters or Veteran’s hospitals across our country. How many of them will live past the age of 100, like the last veterans of World War I, and share their stories with future generations? What will our nation see of them in the years to come?
I’ll close this post with a final reflection on a memorial I visited this past winter in Chamonix, France. Built to honor the fallen soldiers from World War I, additional plaques were added to list the casualties from WW II and the Algerian conflict. The statue atop it, like many of that era, is of a soldier striding earnestly, as is if he’s marching off to save Heaven itself. Seeing this photograph made me reflect once more on President Sarkozy’s expression of “infinite sadness” at the death of France’s last WW I veteran. Beyond articulating the simple statement that war is sad— infinitely so—or that he feels an intense sadness for those who suffered, I’m not sure I understand what he was trying to impart. His words, of course, can’t help but fall short. It’s the statement of a politician, after all, attempting to frame, in simple terms, the suffering of 8 million men who died for nothing. And, like statistics, acronyms and memorials themselves, attempts by those who’ve never endured combat almost always fail to express the suffering wrought by war. In the end, it is the stories of the soldiers and victims that impart true understanding—the artistic and literary expressions of their experiences and suffering on the personal level which resonate and work to dismantle the artifices of war.
Maybe Frank Buckles, Lazare Ponticelli, or Erich Kästner understood what infinite sadness was, or the men who sat on blue benches, hiding their scarred faces behind copper masks, or the veterans who fill the homeless shelters across America, the men my father wrote about, the old woman resting in the park, the wounded who pass through Germany on their way home, or the parents of those young soldiers who’ll never return home. These are the faces of war, imparting their implicit stories to us all, each reverberating through the past and present to help us see beyond the names inscribed on brass plaques. If there is anyone who could possibly understand what infinite sadness is, it must be them… I know I don’t.
Until Next Time,
J. A. Moad II