In the Ranks of Death You Will Find Them*
“The voice on the other end of the radio said: ‘There are two people digging by the side of the road.’ Can we shoot them?”
“ ‘Take a shot,’ I responded. The men fell dead.”
Marine Captain Timothy Kudo, writing on February 2015 in the New York Times, begins his essay with the above narrative. He is a trained warrior, serving in Afghanistan, a responsible officer and a reflective man. He has just ordered the killing of two suspected Taliban fighters. Capt. Kudo himself does not moralize; rather he tries to grasp the meaning of his circumstances. He titles his essay, “How We Learned to Kill.”
He concludes: “Despite the rhetoric I internalized from the newspapers back home about why we were in Afghanistan, I ended up fighting for different reasons once I got on the ground – a mix of loyalty to my marines, habit and the urge to survive.”
I was a boy when WWII was declared. This was long before 9/11 when the illusion of America’s invulnerability and invincibility was alive and well. Growing up in safety around New York Harbor during the war was a lark. Seeing all the military personnel and material passing through the metropolitan area going as to war dazzled me. Soldiers, sailors and marines came and went through New York regularly while waiting to embark on their destination for the European theater of war. I even saw a surfaced U.S. sub motoring in the harbor, its sailors topside, waving to passengers on the ferry. The excitement around the city was palpable. My father was called up in 1942. He served two years as an officer in the Dental Corps. I was proud and I idolized him when I first saw him in uniform – the “pinks and greens” as officers’ uniforms were then called – with the gold bars of the second lieutenant on the shoulders. He seemed godlike to me – my father, my own hero.
He left in 1943 and was billeted in London when the Nazi V2 rocket bombs were being launched against the British. Then he was shipped to France and Belgium and finally arrived in Aachen shortly after the allied firebombing had decimated the city. Upon returning home, my father talked little about what it was like, but I heard enough of the sanitized tales of life at the front for me to continue glamorizing the adventure of the war and it’s victorious troops in Europe. How different it was for me, a boy safely ensconced in America’s stateside, to imagine what this war was like. For Europeans and soldiers, it was not about imagining – it was about surviving.
My father told tales of swapping cigarettes for watches and Lugers with Nazi officers and he sent me a German soldier’s tunic and a box filled with the various military decorations Nazi soldiers were awarded. He also sent a German helmet and a bayonet, its blade hued a deep blue. It looked brand new, unused.
Long after he died, I recalled a story he told about being among the first allied troops going into Aachen after they decimated the city with firebombing. Civilians, he said, most of whom were old men, women or children, lived under disabled tanks and military vehicles. Most were in rags and they pleaded for food and water as their homes and possessions had gone up in flames. It was a miracle my father commented pensively, that anyone could have survived the firestorms that followed protracted bombings. He had a very different expression on his face as he said it. He never made reference to his assignment in Aachen again.
I know now the suffering he’d seen in the war destroyed him. At first, his homecoming was glorious, a relief, festive. There were lots of parties. It was not until my own mid-life that I realized that he’d begun exhibiting all the signs of what today we know as PTSD: heavy drinking, volatile temper and moods that descended on him in which he appeared so remote and troubled that it frightened me. Just as “all the lights were going on again all over the world,” my father shot himself in the cellar of our home. My world went dark for many years. My hero was gone.
Is warfare any different today? Somewhat, I think.
WWII combatants, already traumatized, had the additional burden of being reckoned “cowards” when they showed signs of breaking down under stress. America, and perhaps other countries, now openly acknowledges the physical, spiritual and psychological damage to soldiers exposed to relentless brutality. There’s help available. Today, although violent conflict has hardly ceased, it does not involve the millions and millions of people slaughtered that our Civil War, The Great War and WWII had. The violence now is more pocketed, sadistic, mindless, targeting civilians at markets, at funerals and weddings, and children at schools, worshipers at mosques, the very places people congregate only to live their lives and celebrate the rites of passage. Nothing seems sacred in these ugly excursions, but the relentless exercise of violence.
I see the Viet Nam Memorial representing a significant (and hopeful) shift in the way America is beginning to see its wars. This memorial doesn’t lionize victory, or even commend heroism; it is set below ground, the way graves are, and the names of all who have fallen are inscribed on its walls, which always remain in shadows.
It’s a war memorial that’s prophetic, not celebratory. I find that hopeful.
*From the Irish ballad, The Minstrel Boy to War has Gone
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.