Several months ago, I embarked upon a big project of trying to make some sense of the moral impact of World War II on the United States. I have done quite a bit of reading, speaking, and writing so far—aided by the blessing of a sabbatical from my teaching responsibilities at Eastern Mennonite University. This lecture especially summarizes some of what I have been thinking about. Here is the link to the rough drafts of the chapters to this book.
One theme has arisen for me that I did not anticipate when I started. That is thinking a lot more about my own father’s involvement in this war and how that involvement might have had an impact on our relationship. I was the fourth of my parents’ five children, but the first and only son. On the surface, I can think of several ways the war shaped my life—I was named after a friend of my dad’s who died in combat during the war, my parents met each other because of the war, and the new medical technology that saved my life when I was born (blood transfusions) would likely not have been available had it not been for the war.
Something I had not really thought about until I started on my project, though, was the trauma the war inflicted on those who fought in it. It makes a lot of sense to imagine the terrible trauma on the people in the many parts of the world who endured the fighting first hand, and the trauma for those societies that poured heart and soul into the fight and lost, and the trauma for the loved ones of the millions upon millions who lost their lives in the war (including about 400,000 American soldiers).
But what about the soldiers who fought on the winning side, who returned home physically whole to a country largely unscathed by the conflict, and who went on to live successful lives? That is, what about people like my father?
Just recently, mostly within the past ten years or so, we are seeing books written about the trauma that even the winners experienced due to World War II. One factor has been the heightened awareness of what has come to be called Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome—for Americans apparent in the shattered lives of many Vietnam and Gulf War veterans. A somewhat less discussed related condition is what some are calling Perpetrator Induced Traumatic Stress.
With these recent more widely available analytic tools, greater awareness is emerging about the difficult lives that many returning World War II vets experienced in the US. After I first started reading about this, I began talking with several of my friends whose fathers also fought in the war. It has been surprising and uncanny how common, even almost universal (though this is a very small sampling of WW II vets) has been the testimony of deeply troubled lives, not to mention a striking lack of communication.
The book that alerted me to this issue does not focus much on the experiences of returning vets, only one chapter out of ten. But the helpful discussion in Kenneth Rose, Myth and the Greatest Generation: A Social History of Americans in World War II (Routledge, 2008) did give me a sense of the magnitude of the problems. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers suffered psychiatric disorders in the last couple of years of the war and divorce rates at the end of the war skyrocketed—as did indicators of “juvenile delinquency.”
A second book, Thomas Childers, Soldier from the War Returning: The Greatest Generation’s Troubled Homecoming from World War II (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009), in a moving way focuses on only three returning vets in relating in intimate detail the disruptive traumas suffered by American World War II vets. This is a powerful and perceptive book written by the son of one of these three vets.
If the stories told in Childers’ book and the statistics given in Rose’s book rang deeply true in relation to the anecdotes I have gathered in talking with various friends (and remembering friends from my youth whose fathers fought in the war), they also made me think that my own father was spared much of this fallout. He fought in the South Pacific for three terrible years and surely experienced all kinds of trauma—he was wounded, suffered malaria, has his buddy Ted die, had many deprivations in terms of food and shelter, and—what I believe is generally the most traumatic aspect of war—killed enemy soldiers (even face to face).
However, in my experience of his life (he died in 1984 at age 67 from a brain aneurysm), he was not plagued by the dark side of his war experience. However, he never, ever talked about that experience to me. In this regard, he shared much in common with other vets I have heard about (and known).
A third book, Tom Mathews, Our Fathers’ War: Growing Up in the Shadow of the Greatest Generation (Broadway, 2005), focuses more on the relational complications typical of World War II vets and their sons—though, ultimately what the book is mostly about is Mathews own complicated relationship with his WW II vet father. Mathews does not raise nearly the same level of critical questions that Rose or Childers does, and his book does border a bit on self-indulgence (crossing the line at times, it seemed to me). But he tells an engaging story in portraying how he and his father finally found a sense of connection in their relationship—and his shorter accounts of various other fathers and sons are fascinating.
At one point, Mathews comes within an inch of redeeming his entire exercise and providing something much more profound than a tale of his own maturation. But he seems to miss his own powerful insight.
The book focuses on one basic question—why was it so difficult for World War II vets to talk with their sons about their war experience? This certainly is the biggest question I have about my own father now more than two and a half decades after his death. Mathews gives many accounts of this difficulty, from a variety of experiences. But he remains deeply puzzled by the problem.
Finally, after years of estrangement, Mathews initiates a trip to Italy with his octogenarian father to retrace his father’s footsteps during the war. They begin to make contact as the father can’t help but recount his experiences. Then things come to a head. The father starts talking about his hatred of the Germans he was fighting. And he talks about one close brush with death. “For a second the memory made him smile, but then another image welling up from the past blindsided him.” He stops. The son pushes him, several times.
“I tried to prompt him. ‘You had a code, didn’t you? All of you.’ ‘We didn’t want to be phony,’ he said. ‘None of us. No braggadocio. No false glory.’ He closed down. I pushed harder. ‘False glory?’ ‘It was private,’ he snapped. ‘We didn’t want to open it up.’ From his head to his feet, every part of him was wildly signaling to me to shut up, let it go. I leaned toward him. ‘What was private?’ His face, his neck, his shoulders, his chest—all of them tightened simultaneously, as if he were clenching his entire being into a fist. And then, from behind the armor, a spasm shook his whole body. The most terrible thing about this spasm was that it was silent. No cry, no wail of pain, just a horrifying dry heave, a convulsion. He looked up wildly. You could hear the armor clanging as it fell to the ground. ‘I killed a lot of people,’ he said in a strangled voice that turned to a sob. ‘Jesus Christ…I killed so many people'” (page 268).
This is a powerful moment, and an important point in Mathews’ story. The book is nearly over now. We read on to learn how the father and son do connect in new, powerful, and healing ways. But Mathews never returns to the content of what his father says. He doesn’t pursue the possibility that it is precisely this sob—”Jesus Christ…I killed so many people”—that provides the basic answer (at least for many) of why fathers could not talk about the war to their sons.
I cannot imagine, but at the same time deeply long for, such a conversation with my father. I believe more and more as I read and talk and listen that World War II was a moral disaster for our country (and certainly the rest of the world). It was a disaster on many levels, as I hope to show in the book I am writing. But surely one of the places where it was disastrous was in putting people such as Tom Mathews’ father (and my father) in the place where they became killers—and contradicting their basic humanity in so doing.
And that leads to the final, and absolutely crucial, question: What was the purpose of subjecting such young men to this life-shaping “perpetrator induced traumatic stress,” traumatic stress that in so many cases has rippled down through many generations? Tragically, the main purpose does not at all seem to have been making the world safe from tyranny, making the people of the world free from fear, empowering the people of the world toward self-determination. Much more, the purpose seems to have been making the world “safe” for empire, American style.