Editor’s Note: I reprint this essay every Memorial Day. I sometimes feel that I should write something new each year for this special day that Americans celebrate so gleefully. But there are few human customs more perennial and more celebrated than war. The best and the worst of it are nothing new.
By Don Pelton
Despite reaching my formative young adulthood during the anti-war 1960s, and despite my minor experience with something remotely similar to combat – in the National Guard at the Watts riots in August of 1965, and at Berkeley’s People’s Park in May of 1969 – it occurred to me sometime in the early 1990s that I knew almost nothing about the “Good War” that our father’s fought, which left us with a world mostly free.
I studied American history in college, and read good histories such as William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, but aside from reading Shirer’s reporting from Berlin in the early years of the war, I had never listened to the voices of those who experienced the frontlines of World War II (and Korea soon after) first-hand.
So I began to read many personal accounts of those wars, and the harrowing reports that haunt me still are – particularly – E.B. Sledge’s With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa ((http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/With_the_Old_Breed)), Farley Mowat’s And No Birds Sang ((http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Farley_Mowat#War_service)), and a report I’ll never forget, by U.S. Army historian S.L.A. Marshall in a collection I can no longer locate, about the hand-to-hand combat of an American squad against some Chinese infantry during the Korean War.
This effort to study war by reading first-hand accounts and by viewing documentaries and films on the subject serves as my poor but only possible substitute for the actual experience of combat. Every citizen who understands that some wars are unavoidable and necessary owes this same effort – to understand what combat really is – to those whom he may ask to risk their lives.
E.B. Sledge described the horror on the island of Peleliu in the Pacific, digging in to fight the Japanese, who were holed-up in caves. By the time he arrived on that island there had already been so much close fighting that he could find no place to sink his spade to dig a foxhole where there weren’t chunks of human flesh mixed up like rotting compost in the loose soil. If that isn’t a description of Hell, I don’t know what is.
Farley Mowat spoke of his upbringing in a patriotic Canadian family, and how the old stories of war filled him with a keen desire to find glory in combat, but not necessarily in the infantry (where he ended up). He finally found combat in the campaign to force the Nazis out of Italy. His vivid description of the savagery of war includes the awful poetic detail of his title, “… and no birds sang.”
S.L.A. Marshall told the story of an American squad that attacked a hill held by the Chinese in Korea, and despite heavy losses – with only three surviving the fight – they prevailed, killing all of the enemy. But the hand-to-hand combat with bayonets had so unleashed the blood-lust of the Americans that – with no more enemies to kill – they went on and slaughtered a small herd of horses that the Chinese had corralled there.
The power of this account – and the sadness of it – is in the awful realization that each of us is capable of such blood lust, given the same circumstance.
I take it as axiomatic that in war, all sides lose some portion of their humanity.
It also seems to be axiomatic that those who are least experienced in war are often the most gung-ho to start it, and those who are most experienced are most reluctant to undertake it lightly.
Then there’s the lethal shallowness of a man who experienced combat, but whose motives for taking us to war – when he became president – may have included personal insecurity. There have been plausible suggestions that George Herbert Walker Bush undertook the invasion of Panama in part to solve the problem of his “wimp image.”
As citizens, we must weigh the inevitable horror of war against the justness — or unjustness — of waging it. Anything less is a betrayal of those whom we claim to hold dear.
We honor the sacrifice of our fallen soldiers and remember them on days like this not because war is always glorious and just, but precisely because – whether just or unjust, whether noble or ignoble — it is always Hell, and we have asked them to go into Hell for our sake.
The following column by Howard Zinn from 1976 is completely in accord with what I wrote above. Here’s his intro to a reprinting of it in The Zinn Reader years later:
Memorial Day will be celebrated … by the usual betrayal of the dead, by the hypocritical patriotism of the politicians and contractors preparing for more wars, more graves to receive more flowers on future Memorial Days. The memory of the dead deserves a different dedication. To peace, to defiance of governments.
In 1974, I was invited by Tom Winship, the editor of the Boston Globe, who had been bold enough in 1971 to print part of the top secret Pentagon Papers on the history of the Vietnam War, to write a bi-weekly column for the op-ed page of the newspaper. I did that for about a year and a half. The column below appeared June 2, 1976, in connection with that year’s Memorial Day. After it appeared, my column was canceled.