My father was a tank driver in WWII. He and his unit were part of the Normandy invasion, crossing the channel the day after D-Day, which is why I'm posting this today rather than yesterday. He went on to fight under Patton in the European theatre, including the Battle of the Bulge, and spent a long time in a hospital in Belgium for injuries suffered in a jeep accident. Obviously he survived and came home to marry my mother and become the father of a baby girl a few years later.
To this day, my dad won't talk about the war. He is a peace-loving, tender-hearted person who didn't even like to fish when I was growing up. He has never considered himself a hero. Earlier this year, he was invited to take part in an Honor Flight to Washington D.C. to see the various war memorials. It was an emotional day for him, mostly because he was surprised and moved by the outpouring of gratitude for his service by the people who attend and support these events for veterans, but it didn't seem to change his attitude at all. He went to war as a naive minister's kid from a small town in upstate New York and came home having seen things -- from deaths of comrades at close hand to the liberation of a concentration camp -- that no one should ever have to experience. I don't want to put words in his mouth, but I think he would sum it up by saying "War is hell; we did what we had to do and I'm one of the lucky ones who came home."
Being sixty years old myself and seeing how -- no matter what the rhetoric -- no war is ever the one to end all others, I'verealized more and more that the story that becomes "history" is quite different from reality, and depends entirely on which side you are on. I mistrust any glorification of war; all you have to do is read Herodotus or Thucydides, or the Bible for that matter, to see how long that narrative has been embraced.
Is there such a thing as a just war? Watching the excellent BBC series "Foyle's War" last winter, which presents the war from the British perspective, made me ponder that question even more than before because it showed how much pacifism and conscientious objection actually existed, and also how much controversy there was about "appeasement" vs. fighting -- a story we don't hear much in the U.S. From my own visits to Britain, it's been clear to me how much the American effort mattered then and still matters now. Europe under Hitler would have been a terrible thing, and who knows what would have happened in the Pacific, Africa, and elsewhere? What did happen - the dropping of the atomic bomb, the dividing of eastern and western Europe, the partitioning of the Middle East and the establishment of Israel, the Cold War, the legacy of Stalin and spread of communism, the rise of America as a superpower, and so many other post-war effects - have also had huge impacts not only on subsequent political history but millions and millions of individual lives, both for good and for ill. It's not simple.
So for me, it's a sober time, and I resist the tendency toward glorification and celebration. Of course I am very proud of my father but his own humility and reticence about WWII, and his increasingly dubious view of subsequent wars and political events, were the greater legacy he gave me. I've never been able to watch movies about the Normandy invasion, and looking at photographs like these always makes me cry. For me it's personal: someone I love was there, in that nightmare, in the waves and the blood and the noise. He lived to come home and make me and bring me up with a tender love that never contained violence, hate, or fear, while other young fathers and fathers-to-be, on all sides, not to mention mothers and children, have died and continue to die because of the ambitions and delusions of political and religious leaders who skillfully exploit a population's tribal instincts, fears, and hatreds, or coerce them by force and threat to gain power and wealth for a few. Once the megolomaniacs have gained power, the choices are extremely limited. That is how it was, and how it has always been; we seem unable to learn.