Yesterday I posted a video of the Pogues doing “And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda,” and I set out the lyrics in their entirety, because it’s a song that seems so appropriate for Veterans Day. But I may have conveyed the impression that I’m not in favor of the holiday itself, or of honoring veterans, because the song takes a very harsh look at war and at the veteran’s experience, including these lines:
And the young people ask, “What are they marching for?”
And I ask myself the same question
In fact, though, I’m quite in favor of recognizing what veterans have done – and, yes, of honoring them – so long as we’re willing to stare the harsh reality of war and of our own martial history right in the face, unblinkingly, acknowledging both the incredible sacrifices made by people in uniform and the overwhelming horror and futility of war itself.
I thought about this again today when Lizz Winstead posted a picture on Twitter of her father, a World War II and Korean War veteran, and I responded with the picture set out above: My dad in the Army in 1943. A mutual friend commented that they had a sort of worldly-wise look about them, which, I think, is true, but they were, in fact, very young men at the time.
Which reminds me of the opening chapter of Kurt Vonnegut’s brilliant World War II novel, Slaughterhouse Five, a book he subtitled “The Children’s Crusade.” That opening chapter is quite remarkable, because in it, Vonnegut explains what he was attempting to do, and, in a sense, failed to do, when he sat down to chronicle his experiences as an American prisoner of war in Dresden when the Allies mistakenly firebombed the city to dust. If you don’t know, the firebombing of Dresden caused more civilian casualties than either of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and, like those cities, Dresden really had no military or strategic importance. So it’s easy to understand why, after that, Vonnegut questioned whether war could ever be justified.
In any event, in that opening chapter Vonnegut describes going to visit Bernard V. O’Hare, an Army buddy who had also been a POW in Dresden during the bombing, to discuss their experiences while he, Vonnegut, was in the process of writing his war novel. And as they’re talking, O’Hare’s wife, Mary, becomes increasingly agitated, finally interrupting their conversation:
Then she turned to me, to let me know how angry she was, and that the anger was for me. She had been talking to herself, so what she said was a fragment of a much larger conversation. “You were just babies then!” she said.
“What?” I said.
“You were just babies in the war – like the ones upstairs!”
I nodded that this was true. We had been foolish virgins in the war, right at the end of childhood.
“But you’re not going to write it that way, are you.” This wasn’t a question. It was an accusation.
“I – I don’t know,” I said.
“Well I know,” she said. “You’ll pretend you were men instead of babies, and you’ll be played in the movies by Frank Sinatra and John Wayne or some of those other glamorous, war-loving, dirty old men. And war will look just wonderful, so we’ll have a lot more of them. And they’ll be fought by babies like the babies upstairs.”
So then I understood. It was war that made her angry. She didn’t want her babies or anybody else’s babies killed in war. And she thought wars were partly encouraged by books and movies.
Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five, pp. 18-19.
He goes on to promise Mary that he won’t romanticize the war, and explains that he’ll call it “The Children’s Crusade” in recognition that that’s what they were, essentially: Just kids.
And that exchange reminds me so much of how my father talked about the war, on those rare occasions he did talk about the war: That it was obscenely awful, not the subject of b-movies or comic books or television miniseries. Throughout their four-plus months in combat, the men in my father’s unit were alternately terrified and bored to death, and every single one of them, to a man, wanted nothing more than to go home.
It’s not that the war wasn’t heroic, or even that they weren’t heroic. There’s an awful lot of heroism involved in risking your own life to stop one of the few genuinely existential threats the United States has ever faced. On a battlefield, anyway. But as my dad described it, when he could bring himself to describe it, to the individual soldier the experience very often had less to do with the larger struggle, heroic or not, and much more to do with the need to get through this day, right here … and to keep on getting through each day, until it was finally over and you could go home.
Vonnegut ends the opening chapter of Slaughterhouse Five this way, an odd way to introduce one of the greatest American novels of the past century:
People aren’t supposed to look back. I’m certainly not going to do it any more.
I’ve finished my war book now. The next one I write is going to be fun.
This one is a failure, and had to be, since it was written by a pillar of salt. It begins like this:
Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.
It ends like this:
(Id., p. 28.)
I can imagine someone who’s been through that kind of horror might say that: People aren’t supposed to look back. But I think we are supposed to look back, and, in any case, I don’t think people will ever stop looking back; not, at least, at things that shaped the world and the people in it for decades to come.
I think people are supposed to look back, but they’re supposed to look at it hard, without flinching, without romanticizing it or filling in the blanks with bits and pieces of movies and books they’ve read. They’re supposed to look at it just as it is, with all the horrific reality of it, and not look away until it actually sinks in.