Monday, November 11, 2013

Be Cautious Glorifying Warfare

It feels a little Fight Club-esque when I read tweets about the glory that is warfare. We do live in a feminized society with few outlets for positive expressions of masculinity. Violence is avoided at all costs by polite people, and many men have never been in a fight in their life. Guns made warfare impersonal, harrumph harrumph, what of days of yore with hand to hand combat!?!?!? I see the substance there. Honor is gone from Western Civilization. The memory of the cost of society is foggy. There is a pile of bones, ancient and recent, that you stand on just to enjoy said civilization. There was something that probably united bands of men who fought together. The necessity of having to rely on a showdown or fight probably glued communities together. Societies would value genetically less precious men and all men who contribute to the community since you may need any man in a scrape. Fighting was probably a great informal rite of passage even as humanity developed. Just don't glorify warfare without discussing the downside.

I'm not talking about people not coming back, people leaving limbs behind or being shell shocked. I have three friends who served in Iraq/Afghanistan. One came back perfectly fine, joking about the post-battle stress counseling he was forced to go through, while another had night terrors for months but settled back into society fine, and the third came back in a box with body parts missing. I don't need you to even mention those outcomes. Just ask me how you deal with normal wartime service decades later.

I had one grandfather who served in an armored division, manning a machine gun on a tank in WW2. My son is named after him. He told me few stories as a kid, but as I grew old enough per his standards to understand, he told me more. His WW2 experience is a movie. One story wasn't a glorious one. It wasn't funny like building a snowman with the princes of Belgium. It wasn't tough. It didn't involve him stealing a Jeep with a friend and driving to Berlin because the Nazis had surrendered and they heard the Soviets were in Berlin. It wasn't about a Nazi shooting all his ammo from a machine gun nest but then surrendering when he ran out of ammo and smiling with his hands up for 5 seconds before an American shot him to death because the German was smiling about killing a few of the GI's buddies. This story was different.

It's after D-Day but before the Battle of the Bulge. They entered a small town in France, and the tank group stopped and a few men did a sweep on foot. No one was on the streets despite other towns welcoming Allies. They hear a bang. Not a gun, just a bang. They slowly creep towards the sound. As they get closer to the source, they hear kids crying. They start coming up to kids crying and holding their hands by the school. The bang is from inside. The kids say men are inside. The GIs move into the school, and come upon two German soldiers. One is holding kids for their turn and the other is slamming a steel door on different kids' hands, breaking hands of small children. The Germans freeze. The GI says for him to stop in German. Nazi slams the door on the kids hands. He grabs the kid and sets him up again. The GIs tell him stop. He grabs the door as if to slam it again, and then takes a bullet in his forehead from my grandfather's rifle. The other German soldier lets go of the kids he was holding and follows them out of the school. When the GIs get out of the school, crying Frenchies are grabbing their kids and others are just standing in a line. The GIs had a quick talk about what to do with the remaining German (imagine 18-25 year old Americans deciding your fate), and decided to leave him with the French. My grandfather said that he could hear that second German screaming as they walked back to their tanks.

He told me that story roughly sixty years after it happened. Sixty years of being told he fought the good war against the evil Nazis. He had processed his experience. He had shared many stories. That was one of the final new ones he told me. What were the last words to it? With was a mix of uncertainty, sadness, fear and even a bit of pleading, "Will I get to heaven after what I did to those men?" My grandfather had very pale blue eyes. When he asked that question, his stare was unsettling. Every veterans' day, I thank the vets in my life and think about my grandfather's question. I'll never have an answer for him.

1 comment:

Toddy Cat said...

Your Grandfather has nothing to be ashamed of or concerned about. The man he killed was in the process of crippling children, and was willing to risk his life to continue doing it. As for what happened to the other German, the French are morally responsible. But it speaks well of your Grandfather as a man that he takes the killing of another human being so seriously, even one acting in a manifestly evil manner.