Tuesday, May 31, 2011

War and memory

From James D. Hornfischer's reflections on interviewing veterans of World War II:
.... About 1.8 million World War II veterans remain alive today. That's less than half the number of 2003. When these voices go silent, those of us who write about the war will lose the benefit of living engagement. We will work as our Civil War colleagues do: from documents and recordings and nothing else. What will be gone when these are the sole primary sources is not the facts themselves but the spark that can bring them to life. Diaries and oral history transcripts can let us know a man's thoughts and deeds. But truth is also revealed through tone, emotion and context—and it can be plumbed responsively in real time to discover what was most important.

For those of us who have never served in uniform, it's easy to see World War II as a grand, sweeping drama, featuring actors large and small driven by a sense of overriding mission, all sins and failings vindicated by victory. Yet for the veterans I meet, the war is often about something else entirely. Any talk of it brings them back to a single, pervasive memory sequence: a moment of impossible decision or helplessness when, through their action or inaction, they believe, a comrade paid the eternal price. They can't talk about the war without reliving their powerlessness to influence its predations, without revealing how it changed them. ....

Those veterans who stand away from the crowd or shun the opportunity to speak are of special interest to me. The distance in their eyes shows that they're still in the grip of what they've seen. While talking to them can be like trying to squeeze water from a stone, if you stay with it you can tap something deeply revealing. "The thing that comes out of it is, if you survive, there's a purpose," Bud Comet told me. "You see why you survived. I feel like maybe God had other purposes for me." There was nothing trite in the manner of his expression. This was the considered conclusion of years, the product of the horror of survival at sea. .... [more]
Today I started to re-read the first volume of Bruce Catton's The Army of the Potomac. In the 1962 preface he remembered Civil War veterans he encountered in his boyhood:
...[O]nce, ages ago, they had been everywhere and had seen everything, and nothing that happened to them thereafter meant anything much. All that was real had taken place when they were young; everything after that had simply been a process of waiting for death, which did not frighten them much—they had seen it inflicted in the worst possible way on boys who had not bargained for it, and they had enough of the old-fashioned religion to believe without any question that when they passed over they would simply be rejoining men and ways of living which they had known long ago.

.... A generation grew up in the shadow of a war which, because of its distance, somehow had lost all resemblance to everyday reality. To a generation which knew the war only by hearsay, it seemed that these aged veterans had been privileged to know the greatest experience a man could have. We saw the Civil War, in other words, through the distorting haze of endless Decoration Day reminiscences; to us it was a romantic business because all we ever got a look at was the legend built up through fifty years of peace.

We do learn as we grow older, and eventually I realized that this picture was somewhat out of focus. War, obviously, is the least romantic of all of man's activities, and it contains elements which the veterans do not describe to children.  ....

Yet, in an odd way, the old veterans did leave one correct impression: the notion that as young men they had been caught up by something ever so much larger than themselves and that the war in which they fought did settle something for us—or, incredibly, started something which we ourselves have got to finish. It was not only the biggest experience in their own lives; it was in a way the biggest experience in our life as a nation, and it deserves all of the study it is getting. ....
A Memorial Day Look at the World War II Generation - WSJ.com, Bruce Catton, Mr. Lincoln's Army, 1962.