Our fathers’ war

Ted Grimsrud—December 26, 2010 

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.

20 thoughts on “Our fathers’ war

  1. Ted, I’m glad to see this is up and running. The blogosphere needs another pacifist voice – especially at this level.

    I’m just now working my way through Ken Burns’ “The War”. I’m amazed at the vets – each one, almost without exception, describes the most difficult experiences with a forced smile on their faces. Almost as if they still believe they must just “grin and bear it”. Bizzare, yet very real.

    Side note – I’m glad you connected with Elaine and Ched while they were at EMU. They spoke very highly of meeting you.

    1. Thanks, Ben. I agree about “The War.” I think you make a perceptive comment. This is a war to be “celebrated,” period.

  2. Ted,

    I too wish you could talk with your father about his experience. Thanks so much for sharing your personal experience. And it is a mystery why some soldiers experience PTSD and some, at least observationaly, do not. By best friend’s father won the Silver Star in WWII in the Pacific for an act of bravery that did not involve killing–he rescued a number of drowing American soldiers by swimming them to safety one-by-one. However, he suffered mightily through the rest of his life (as did my friend and her family) for shooting a Japanese soldier face-to-face.

    I was particularly struck by your comment “that World War II was a moral disaster for our country (and certainly the rest of the world).” Indeed, WWII was a moral catastrophe, period. Yet to Americanize the immorality seems American-centric. Let us assume that America had not entered the war. Still, it was a moral catastrophe. Or that Britian and France and all the Allies had not entered the war. Still, moral catastrophe. Or that the Nazis had not invaded any other countries and plied their evil within German boundaries. Moral catastrophe. My point is that it did not take the American’s participation in the war to create the disaster; the catastrophic disaster was alread there. So the question becomes, what is the best way to limit the catastrophe? And, did the American’s participation in the war increase or decrease the disaster. I’m not an authority on the war, nor even on moral choices. But it does seem to me to be at least a credible-enough point for discussion that without American military involvement, the catastrophic disaster would have lasted longer and with more negative lasting impact than without the involvement. And, it could also be argued, I believe, that given these circumstances, not entering the war would have also been a moral catastrophe.

    1. Thanks, David. As always, you raise excellent challenges.

      First of all, I totally agree that we should not be “American-centric.” I will be addressing this concern in detail in my book. It will be a challenge to get the point across, because I am going to be focusing on America! But not because we were the center of the war (we weren’t) but because I am an American. And because much of the “moral catastrophe” insofar as it relates to the US has to do with what I call the “long shadow” of the war—the generations afterward that have seen devastating American actions such as the wars in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq that would never have happened apart from the impact of WWII on our country.

      And it is the focus on this long shadow that will be my concern in trying to make the case the WWII was a moral catastrophe for the US.

      Our challenge in facing of the evils of the Germans (especially, but also the Japanese) was to resist the evil without being ourselves transformed by it. And this was the moral appeal that our leaders made to get support for the war. But it didn’t happen.

      The years since 1945 have been a long, steady diminishing of the moral capital that the US might have had in successfully resisting the evils of the Axis powers.

      1. Ted,

        I appreciate the reason for focusing on America — you are an American, and you want to shed light on the long shadow cast by America’s involvement. But to focus on America’s involvement alone seems anti-historical, and perhaps even naive. The inter-connectability between countries, in what we are allowed to see and what is hidden (ref. recent Wikki leaks), makes your America-only focus bewildering to me. And, who’s to say that had America not entered the war, that the long shadow of, say, the Soviet Union, wouldn’t have been darker and longer? My point is that making moral causational arguments in historical reverse from a morally superior perch is often what pacifists like you and I do, which allows us the satisfaction of saying that if only America would have done this, then we wouldn’t have done that, which narrows the world into a false, pre-Newtonian universe. Who could say, for example, that had America resisted the evil of Germany and Japan in non-violent ways, still would not have cast a long, dark, and sustaining shadow over the world because of its moral pride?

  3. Ted: If I were to write the book it could be called “My Cousin’s War.” Most of my cousins were conscientious objectors like me so the cruelties of the war seemed distant. I had a cousin older than I who served for five years, as I recall, in the South Pacific. The unusual length of uninterrupted service was the result of an oversight by the Pentagon.

    When he was allowed to come home he spent a week or so as a guest in the country home of his beloved Mennonite uncle and aunt. I don’t think he talked much of his combat experience, but I do remember that he told a member of the family that he saw a jungle river turn red by human blood.

    He was in our home during the battle of the bulge. I have a vivid memory of him sitting at our kitchen table with his hand on our small radio. As he listened to the news that came from the battle field the creases between his eyes deepened and turned red as he listened, wordlessly, intently. I did not ask questions.

    Maybe forty years later at a pot luck at one of our Florida church plants I happened to be at a table with veterans of WWII. The conversation drifted to their combat memories. They talked of the different sounds made by various bullets and missles that passed nearby them. One of them, a retired minister, told of wading ashore in France on D Day with men dying all around him. He told of a friend at his side whose head was blown off. I was humbled to be trusted to listen to these memories. These men knew who I was and of my beliefs, but they knew, too, that I would not condemn them. I sat silent as they talked.

    This series of stories will end with this one. I was once seated on a bus beside a veteran of the Vietnam war. He cried as he told me he had killed a small Vietnamese boy who was approaching his company. He thought he may have been carrying a bomb, and so he killed him. The memory plagued him.

    I think this side of war must be told.

    1. I appreciate your story, Martin. Your cousin and my father could have crossed paths—my dad was also in the South Pacific for several years.

      I agree that “this side of war must be told.” That is why I’m grateful for the books I mention in my post. They are much more realistic than “The Greatest Generation” materials.

  4. I grew up as a Mennonite son of the local Mennonite pastor in grade school during WWII. I felt very isolated, different from my patriotic co-students. I had a few Mennonite friends.
    I think the connection with soldiers was patriotism, pride of country. A democracy, or any country with some choice for citizens, must build on a sense of patriotism, of our nation, to be able to sustain itself. Although this sense is manipulated by those in power to serve the needs of empire, patriotism, and a sense of our country is critical to national survival. Iraq and Afganistan serve as examples of trying to build a government without a sense of “our” nation.
    While enumerating the moral cost of the war, don’t ignore the cost of anarchy, of not sense of “our” nation.
    Jesus came to build a new kingdom. His Spirit is with us to build a new body of Christ that has its own sense of “our” body/nation. Yet, as you have said elsewhere God’s Nation is built by non-violence not by force of violence.
    Yet as you look at veterans of WWII, don’t forget to honor their willingness to sacrifice even their lives for “our” nation, their buddies in the war, their families, their neighbors. At that level, the empire building is a very limited part of their motivation.
    God bless you as you explore this instance of Hell on earth.

    1. Good thoughts, Al. Thanks for sharing them.

      I agree about the appeal of patriotism. I’d also add that there is a strong appeal to moral ideals. People in general will not support or participate in war unless they think it is seeking to achieve a moral good. I focus in my book on the appeal made by Roosevelt and Churchill to powerful moral ideals in making the case for the necessity of this war.

      Now, on the one hand, as I read more I learn more about how those ideals tended not to be very operational for soldiers after they got on the battlefield. Still, they were crucial in getting the soldiers there, I think. And, I think all of us should try to keep those ideals in mind when we reflect on what actually happened with the war and its aftermath. The ideals provide criteria for evaluating the actual legacy of the war.

      I do have great respect for the soldiers who risked (and all too often gave) their lives for their country and for the moral ideals that drew them into the war. I discuss this more in the introductory chapter to the book. (I plan to post a rough draft of this chapter later today.)

      And, I agree that “the cost of anarchy” (if by that you mean, at least in part, the unresisted of the Germans and Japanese of ca. 1940) would have been terrible. My concern, though, is that the way we resisted “anarchy” (or tyranny) sacrificed too many of the bases for humane living in our world. The main lesson of World War II is that we must find alternative ways to resist anarchy (tyranny).

  5. Thanks for this blog, Ted. I look forward to your coming book, having really appreciated your “Theology as if Jesus Mattered” and given copies to the pastors of my church (Disciples of Christ). Regarding the topic at hand, I haven’t yet read it but it comes highly recommended Jean Rodenbough’s “Rachel’s Children: Surviving the Second World War.” Reviews on amazon.com indicate it is very relevant to the discussion you have engaged here. As you have sometimes contributed to Mennolink discussions, Ted, you may recognize Jean as a frequent participant, a Presbyterian minister.

    1. I appreciate the mention of Jean’s book, Phyllis. I remember her from MennoLink. I didn’t know of the book but it looks like something that would contribute to what I’m working on.

  6. This is a response to David Myers (under #2 above).

    David—the charges of being “anti-historical” and “naive” seem a bit harsh. I definitely don’t want to isolate the American part of World War II from the rest of the war. Part of what I want to say is that we actually played a relatively minor role in defeating Germany (for example, fully 80% of the German military deaths came in the battle between Germany and the Soviet Union). So it won’t be an “America only” focus.

    I also am irritated with the dismissive phrase, “morally superior perch.” I can’t really defend myself against that. But that kind of comment can undercut any attempt to think morally about events, leaving us at the mercy of those who continue to justify violence upon violence.

    However, as you will see if you read the rough drafts of the chapters as I post them over the next couple of weeks, I am not arguing from an explicitly pacifist viewpoint. What I am trying to do is to take the moral values used by Roosevelt, et al, to justify going to war as the criteria for the moral evaluation. I’ll be interested if you find this approach useful.

    1. Ted,

      My comments were unnecessarily provocative, which seems to have served no purpose other than to provoke, and that was not my intent, only. And, they were made prematurely without the benefit of reading the rough drafts of the chapters. I look forward to reading, learning, and responding.

      I do want to respond to the “morally superior perch” issue. I should not have included you among the guilty, and I apologize for doing so. At times I have felt morally superior to those who were not pacifists, so I should have limited the accusation to myself. I have felt most convicted of this pride after speaking with soldiers and their families, listening to their sufferings AND to their resolve to answer the call to warfare again, if that is what their country calls for. These blood sacrifices, regardless of their moral and practical efficacy, are mostly foreign to us Mennonites in the last 40 years. And, regardless of the god for whom the blood is spilt, it is holy ground. As with all such ground, there are rites and rituals that, I believe, must be empathetically experienced so that any alternative we might offer is done so with genuine humility. I have never known you not to do so.


  7. Ted, Thanks for inviting others to dialog with you as you do this important work. As you wrote about the effect of the war on our fathers, a thought came to me. Our fathers’ fathers were largely survivors of the horrors of World War I. I wonder if the generational proximity of these two wars had a kind of compounding effect? It seems that while quite a bit has been written about the horrifying effects of WWI battlefields on the participants, less has been written about the enduring effects in the lives of those who survived and raised families after the war.

    1. Great to hear from you Norm! I definitely believe WWI and WWII belong together. Probably, in time, they will be seen as two parts of a single conflict.

      However, I am not sure how traumatic WWI was for Americans. We only entered that war near the end (it began in 1914 and we only joined in 1917), so not that many Americans had combat experience there. But certainly for Europeans, WWI was extraordinarily traumatic and no doubt the return to the deep trauma just one generation later had to have been devastating.

      An interesting book, James Sheehan, Where Have All the Soldiers Gone?, shows how the combination of those two wars has shaped present-day Europe toward a decidedly anti-militaristic ethos (much more than ever before).

  8. I have stories from the German side. I will touch on just a few. (I see that my post is quite long – this is a subject that really gets me going!)

    I was an 18 year old exchange student to Germany for a year in 1969-1970, where I lived with a German family. My ‘German father’ had been a young German soldier fighting on the Eastern Front against Russia. On four different occasions, bullets passed through his body – but no bone or organ was ever hit, so he was patched up and sent back to the front line again each time. Finally, late in the war, shrapnel went through his helmet into his skull, leaving a hole which can still be felt today. This took him out of the war and saved his life, because his company was surrounded and completely destroyed during the retreat from Russia.

    He is 91 years old, lives with his 89 year wife of 66 years, gardens, exercises for an hour each morning, and continues to drive his Mercedes. I am in regular contact via email, phone, and a number of visits.

    During my exchange year, I did not ask questions about the war. At first this was due to my language limitations and my lack of knowledge of 20th Century European history (oh that I had taken that GC Alan Kreider ‘History of Western Civilization’ course before that year!), but I later also realized the hesitancy about speaking of the war.

    Early in the Spring of 2002, airline tickets were dirt cheap, so my brother and I flew to Zurich, then drove up to the Black Forest to visit Vati and Mutti. During one of our discussions we got into WWII. After talking for 30 minutes, Vati stated that he had just now talked more about the war than he ever had in his life. He showed us pictures of bodies in ditches which he had taken with his little brownie camera, then cried. Vati also stated that his own children don’t believe that their parents didn’t know what was happening to the Jews. (Even I have mixed feelings about that – the fact that the Jews were being exterminated wasn’t advertised, but the general population certainly was aware that the Jews were being moved, were disappearing. Maybe people chose not to know.)

    At about that time as a Christmas gift to my German parents, I memorized, in German, ‘Die Drei Dunklen Koenige’ (The Three Dark Kings) by Wolfgang Borchert. As a response to that, Vati wrote the following story from WWII. He named it ‘Die Acht Hellen Koenige’ (The Eight Shining Kings), and said that it was their first encounter with Americans. Here is my translation of that story:

    It is dark outside. In the living room the oven casts wholesome warmth, and the two candles on the Christmas tree smell like Christmas. We are happy, actually very happy over our current good fortune, because the war has already been over for seven months, we have been married for 18 months, we have a very pretty 2 bedroom apartment, and we have a priceless jewel: our nine month old Ursula.

    We’ve survived six years of war better than many others. The French, Yugoslavian, and Russian war movements that sent me to the Caucasians are history, and I am at home. Fortune was good to me, because after my third injury, I was considered to be unable to fight anymore, and was sent back from the front. I could start with my studies and also begin a family.

    Our lives lie in front of us, and we were still young! Only seldom are we really having problems: we have only the to survive the present. This is easier for us than for many others, because Grandpa’s greenhouses have lots of vegetables for our needs. We switch between potatoes and vegetables, and back to potatoes – what luck!

    The lights on the Christmas tree gradually go out. We need to get on the road, because we want to spend Christmas Eve with parents and siblings in Mergelstetten. It is already almost dark and we have a good hour to go. The streets are empty, the house windows are barely lit, and the streetlights are casting very little light, because electricity is being very strongly rationed.

    In the center of Heidenheim is Eugen Jaeckle Square. No one except ourselves appears to be underway, but suddenly eight uniformed American soldiers appear. They are coming directly across the square toward us. We have heard of bad experiences with the occupation soldiers. Also, I have still not been released from the German army, therefore I am still a soldier, and all German soldiers are being sent to France to do forced labor.

    The eight soldiers stand in front of us. The first reaches out his hand to my wife with a small packet. She steps back in fear. Then it is offered to me, and I also step back in fear. Then the unexpected happens: a small miracle. Eight times we hear ‘Chocolate for the baby’, eight times a chocolate bar is carefully laid into the baby carriage, and eight times we hear ‘Merry Christmas’, before the Uniforms disappear into the darkness.

    Happy to have survived the danger, and happier still to have experienced a Christmas miracle, we continue on our way and celebrate Christmas Eve with our family.

    1. Some additional thoughts regarding pacifism: Without being aware of actual statistics, but based on my own experience in relating to them, I would guess that many Germans of my age (the children of the WWII generation) are pacifists. I don’t think that this has so much to do with the teachings of Jesus as with the national awareness of what Germany did during the first half of last century.

      1. This makes sense. However, from the book by James Sheehan, Where Have All the Soldiers Gone: The Transformation of Modern Europe, it would appear that many our age in the “victorious” countries are also near pacifists now. It was the experience of war in general, not only the evils of Germany, that seem to have led to this.

    2. Thanks, Jim. I am especially struck with your encounter with Vati in 2002. It is interesting that his 30 minutes with you (the most he ever talked about the war) was more than I ever got from my dad. That makes me think there may be something kind of universal for many soldiers.

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