John Keegan, co-author of one of my favorite books, Soldiers: A History of Men in Battle, introduced me to the life of the average soldier throughout history. Ernie Pyle, in Brave Men, and John Hersey, in Into the Valley, along with Robert Leckie’s Helmet for My Pillow, recorded the lives of the everyday Marine or Dogface who fought through the Pacific and Europe. Bill Mauldin’s Willie and Joe from Up Front introduced me to the enlisted man’s poignant, black humor. Erich Mariah Remarque's powerful All Quiet on the Western Front brought home the horrors of combat on the western front. The list could go on ad infinitum.
Coupled with my father’s flashbacks, my neighbor’s uncontrollable outbursts from his head injury, and a friend’s reactions to the memories of jumping with the 82nd Airborne at Sicily, Normandy, and Arnhem, they gave me an insight into the shared experiences of soldiers, which have transcended the ages.
They all experienced gut wrenching fear, sleep deprivation, unimaginable horror, deep emotional isolation, hopelessness and life altering brushes with Death. Having been raised among veterans, having vicariously relived the nightmares, which haunted them until the day they died, I developed a genuine empathy for them and what they endured.
I understood why so many during Vietnam treated the veterans so disrespectfully, but I did not agree with them. Despite being “baby boomers,” they had no concept of what the average “grunt” had to do to survive; they had believed the old lie that wars were fought for noble and just causes. They had never seen live combat on TV; had no understanding that, in battle, men sometimes commit atrocities; men sometimes cower; sometimes resort to brutality; sometimes disobey orders; sometimes demonstrate unbelievable courage and compassion in a world gone insane.
Living among veterans and studying military history through their words, their pictures, their eyes has given me an appreciation of what they have and will endure. While I think we overcompensate for the sins of Nam by declaring everyone who serves a “hero,” I can understand why we do so. We ignored or denigrated the veterans of the Indian Wars, the Philippine Insurrection, and, in many cases, the men who served during the Great Depression and the Korean “Conflict.” What was the expression during the ‘30’s? A serviceman was a “bum who couldn’t get a job” anywhere else.
If anyone were to ask a decorated combat veteran about being a hero, he might get an unexpected response – a smack in the mouth; an expletive; a silent, cold stare- or a combination of the three. Audie Murphy, the most decorated soldier from World War II, typifies many of the award recipients. He gave his many of his medals away to the families of the men with whom he served. In his eyes, the heroes were those who did not come home. He, like so many combat veterans, like my father and my neighbors, lived with a nagging emptiness, a deep regret, which so many civilians cannot comprehend, that they had not died in the place of their friends. The closest thing to it that I have experienced it was hearing the doleful, banshee wail of a mother at her young daughter’s funeral. It is an experience I wish on no one.
My apologies for being so grim. I just had to talk about why I study military history, and why I concentrate so much on the front-line soldiers’ accounts. I cannot resurrect my father and reconcile with him. I cannot change how the War in the Pacific traumatized him. I cannot forget how his behavior affected me as an individual. I have forgiven but I cannot forget.
I can sympathetically and honestly preserve for posterity the memories and the recollections of those who, at the bidding of others of higher authority, struggled to survive in the Dantean world of combat. I need to understand, while not necessarily condoning, what they did. If anything, history has made me a bit cynical and it has made me realize that, while people will never really learn from it, they should.