Years ago, I wrote a story about a Billings man who had entered one of Nazi Germany’s concentration camps shortly after it had been liberated.
That prompted a well-known crank in Big Timber to call me and “argue” about whether the Holocaust had actually happened. I specifically said in my story (unavailable in the Gazette archives) that the soldier had entered a concentration camp, not technically one of the death camps, but that was beside the point. The crank didn’t need much pretext for expounding his silly views.
At one point in our conversation, I said, “Look, my Uncle Ed, my namesake, died in Belgium fighting those Nazis, and I don’t want to hear you dishonor his name with your shameful nonsense.”
Later that day, I suddenly felt guilty for having invoked my uncle, my father’s only sibling. I never met him, since he died 10 years before I was born, but my guilt had nothing to do with my ignorance of the man. The feeling of guilt hinged on my appropriation of his valor and his death to win an argument not worth having.
It cheapened my uncle and it cheapened the argument. I would give anything to know what my uncle thought of his own sacrifice, what he thought he was fighting for. If he was anything like my father, I don’t think it would have been for any high-minded reasons.
Everything I’ve ever read about the experience of combat tells me that soldiers ultimately fight because they want to protect the lives of the people closest to them in the fighting. It’s a survival extinct, but it’s also a way of whittling down high-minded conceptions to a human scale.
Sitting in the mud in a pouring rain, eating cold, wretched rations crawling with black flies, a band of elastic the only thing left of your underwear after weeks on the front lines, it’s hard to remember that you’re fighting to end tyranny or to uphold the ideals of democracy.
But that guy next to you, sharing your misery and seemingly the only person in the world who really understands what you’re going through? Yeah, you’d throw yourself on a grenade for him. Or so I’ve read in books. I could read every book on war ever written and I wouldn’t know the first damned thing about Uncle Ed. But I don’t think he gave his life so that I could trump a crank in a pointless argument.
I thought of my uncle again last week, on Veterans Day, when the hills (and Facebook) were alive with the sounds of praise for veterans past and present. It’s an awkward ritual, this setting aside of one day to honor people whose experiences we civilians can never adequately understand.
There is also a problem with the blanket bestowal of praise. The military isn’t much different from the population at large, especially when a draft is in effect. All sorts of brave, heroic souls are swept up in the draft—but also great numbers of ne’er-do-wells, schlubs and slackers. It almost makes more sense to thank the families of veterans, who can accept our gratitude without a twinge of guilt or moment of hesitation.
In May 2013 I covered one of the Honor Flights, when 84 World War II veterans were taken to see the war memorials and other sights in Washington, D.C. I didn’t feel it was necessary to deliberately honor them, as such, but by the end of the two-day tour it felt like a tremendous honor to have spent that time with them.
It was hard not to love them all. They had not only their status as veterans to recommend them. Most of them commanded respect simply for having lived so long.
On the plane, in the buses, sitting around a banquet hall at dinner, all these ancients seemed to shed the decades and become the teenagers or very young men they had been during World War II. There was the same excited bantering, the bursts of laughter and even the wolfish leers and suggestive comments aimed at some of the young female chaperones.
When our whirlwind tour of the capital took us to the recently opened World War II Memorial, all 84 vets lined up in the middle of the vast plaza for a photo. Many of them were in wheelchairs, some on oxygen, some badly stooped. I was standing roughly in the middle of the plaza, midway between the shrines at either end, one to those who served in the European Theater, the other to veterans of the Pacific.
Looking at that collection of old veterans, those representatives of all the thousands killed on battlefields and beachheads, all the tens of thousands who came home maimed, I thought of the things they had seen and done, the things they had been asked to do, in the name of their country.
I pictured them as 18- and 19-year-olds, plucked from small towns and farms and cities and funneled into the meat grinder of the biggest conflict in the history of the world. And suddenly I pictured my father, a submariner in the Pacific, and his brother Ed, killed in battle in Belgium.
I had been too busy even to think of them all day, but at that moment, perched between the monuments to both, I was overwhelmed. Somehow, in all the thinking I had ever done about those two brothers, I had never considered what it must have been like for my father to learn of the death of his only sibling, or what he thought of the world he came back to.
Luckily the group photo took a long time to set up. I had tears in my eyes and too much air in my lungs. I wouldn’t have been able to talk to any of those living vets for a few minutes.
In the rush of thoughts that overcame me on that plaza, I mostly just felt a terrible sadness for what my father and his brother had been asked to do. I felt sad for the living and the dead, for my father and Uncle Ed, for all those old boys gathered in one last platoon for a group picture.
And as I looked at them all laughing and talking and ribbing one another, I don’t think I ever wanted anyone to feel happiness as intensely as I wanted those old veterans to be happy. Was that gratitude? Respect? Admiration? I don’t know. It was all that and more, and not all of it could be explained, but it felt good.