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Cruelty to a Rat
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We do not grieve sufficiently
(In response to a blog post, wherein the author remarked that World War II was many years before he was born, and seemed lost in the far distant past.)
Yes, the “war” was over 70 years ago. For me, the “war” started about a year and a half after I was born, when the bombs fell on Pearl Harbor and the nation was plunged into Hell. As a young boy, I knew the widows, the younger brothers and sisters, and grieving fathers and mothers of the boys older than I who left and never returned.
My own stepfather returned from the Aleutian Islands with lungs scarred by frostbite and a bitter attitude. Among his papers was a transcript of a young Japanese officer’s diary that I found one day. The memory of what I read in that diary haunts me; I was a teen when I read it. The notion of the “good guys” putting down the “bad guys” died in my mind that day. The young officer missed his wife, his children, his home, and the life he’d been forced to leave behind. He and his entire command died on those frozen wastes. My stepfather came home; somewhere in Japan a young widow and her children waited. If they still lived.
I and other boys of that age sat in stuffy classrooms, waiting for the Civil Defense sirens to blow; waiting for the order to “duck and cover” under our desks; waiting for the blinding flash, the explosive shower of glass from imploding windows and walls. Other times, we’d fill blank notebook pages with elaborate drawings of aerial combat scenes, the blazing trails of tracers from B-17 gun turrets streaking into the attacking German fighters. We all had visions of "war" burned into our consciousness from Saturday MovieTone newsreels and Life Magazine photo spreads.
Chain link fences screening military properties bore large yellow signs with stark black lettering: “Photography Forbidden.” Ration books and coupons were a daily fact of life. My parents planned everything around the fact of too few tires, too little gasoline, and short-listed grocery shopping.
We Saved the World for Democracy. The American Way of Life triumphed over all Enemies. It was glorious. Flags flew from every home, window, lampost, and public building. Veterans in proud dress uniforms marched in every hometown parade for every holiday.
The darkness came when shadows of mushroom clouds fell over the land, but we never fought another "war". Korea, where many more of my older friends died, was not a "war" but a “police action.” We learned to truly hate the brutal, Godless Communist yellow-faced horde that wire-tied the wrists of captured American soldiers behind their backs and shot them in the back of the head, leaving their corpses to lay in frozen roadside ditches. Our national sensibility was shocked by this inhuman disregard for the accepted rules of war. Who are these evil, Communist North Korean and Chinese troops? Why are we losing to them? We left Korea with a great national sense of disquiet, discomfort, and suppressed shame.
As a high school student I read magazine articles about the fall of the French in Dien Bien Phu, the humiliation, defeat, and blood-drenched disgrace of the French expulsion from their former colony. Later I struggled to understand why we, a nation with no former interest in that region, would draft more thousands of my older friends to take up rifles and grenades and leap into those blood-drenched ditches where so many French soldiers had died. Did we, in our “war” heritage of indomitable invincibility think it our mission to teach the village-dwelling, sandal-clad “insurgents” opposing Western democratic rule the error of their way?
Vietnam was far more painful and humiliating than Korea but we still suffer the illusions of the “war” that thrust America into world leadership. We do not suffer the lessons of history. We do not look back. Today we look into the Middle East, the South China Sea, the Caucasus, and still we have fought no "war". Thousands and thousands more have died, including many of my younger and older friends. I survived.
When the night is very still, and my mind wanders, I recall the words of that young Japanese officer who was ripped from his family, his loved ones, and sent to a frozen wasteland to spill his blood for honor, duty, and country. And I grieve for him.
We do not remember. We do not learn. We do not grieve sufficiently.