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Sensitive Soldiers

By April 16, 2003 No Comments

My father served in the US Army during the Second World War and spent a good portion of his time in the desert area of North Africa. As a boy, growing up during the early 1950s, I learned about war and soldiering much the same way every other American boy did: by watching John Wayne and Audie Murphy movies in the theaters and on television. My father rarely, if ever, talked about his experiences as a soldier. He had a collection of “war memorabilia”–some German medals, a knife with a swastika on the handle (which I imagined that he took from the body of a dead Nazi–although he never said so), and his own bayonet knife: a huge, dull thing, so heavy that I couldn’t imagine how it could be used.

He kept this stuff in the bottom drawer of his workbench, in the basement of our little cape cod house. He also had a book, mostly a compilation of Bill Mauldin war cartoons, that could be found buried among the issues of Readers Digest on one of our living room end tables. I probably leafed through it half a dozen times during my boyhood, never reading anything more than the captions beneath the cartoons. Some time between my boyhood and teenage years it disappeared from that end table. I never missed it, and have never even thought about it until just now.

My mother told me more about my father’s experience as a soldier than he did. Like any faithful wife and mother she wanted her four boys to respect their father and so she didn’t dissuade us from imagining that he had been a valiant soldier, a hero, maybe even a quiet and gentle version of Audie Murphy. Of course we were taught that war was not a pleasant thing, but were led to believe that just as women had to bear the pain of childbirth, men had to bear the pain of being a soldier. We knew that our father had been awarded at least one, maybe two purple hearts–indicating that he had been wounded in action. But we never learned the details. My father had a sizable scar on the side of his neck. My brothers and I used to imagine that it came from a Nazi bayonet which he had wrestled from the enemy just in time. When asking him about that, he would just smile. I believe he once confessed that it was nothing more than the remnants of his encounter with a less than skillful doctor, when, as a boy, he had a cyst removed. We preferred the Nazi bayonet story.

One real injury that he carried with him the rest of his life was a deafness in one ear. Apparently–and we never learned the details–he was in the close vicinity of a shell or grenade when it exploded–close enough to damage his eardrum.

And then there was that other injury which, as kids, my brothers and I could never quite understand. During our childhood our father had twice been taken to the hospital–the Veterans Hospital in East Orange, New Jersey–because of a bleeding ulcer. It was a fairly serious ailment and each time he was hospitalized for what my memory tells me was a week or more. My mother told us that he developed that ulcer in the army. But that just didn’t make sense to us. We had seen soldiers on TV getting shot, getting blown up, and occasionally even getting gassed. But no soldier on TV ever got an ulcer.

So I spent my childhood like most American boys: playing with guns, and thinking that maybe someday, like my father, I would serve in the army–even though I knew my parent’s hope was that there would be no war when their four sons came of age.

Dennis M. was a classmate of mine in high school. A different set of experiences taught him about war and soldiers. His father was younger than mine and served in the army during the Korean conflict. His father was unlike mine in another way: he openly talked about his war experiences. In fact, one day in 1962 Dennis brought a stack of photographs to school. They were pictures that his father had brought home from Korea. I’ll never forget how I felt when after three or four other classmates of mine viewed them, they passed them to me. We were in biology class. My seat was in the row next to the windows. As I looked at those pictures I saw horror for the first time in my life. The photos showed the maimed and mutilated bodies of dead men and women, the mutilations making it obvious to even my innocent mind that these people had been tortured before they died. The realization hit me like a sledge hammer that I was not looking at TV actors or comic book animation. These were photos of real people–people who had once been alive like me, but now were dead–people whose death must have come as a relief from unimaginable torment. My fifteen-year-old psyche was not up to dealing with that. I handed the pictures back to Dennis and tried to calm my stomach, which was feeling sick in a way that I had never experienced before. Something deep inside me changed that day.

In 1964 I went away to college. Since I was the oldest son, and the first to leave home for more than one night, the three hour drive to Troy, New York was a family event of sorts. Arriving on campus I learned that freshmen had to make a choice right away as to whether we would enroll in physical education or ROTC. One or the other was required. In the hours remaining before my family left for home, my father gave me his advice. He urged me to sign up for ROTC–Army ROTC, naturally. He reasoned that regardless of whether or not there was a war, I would be drafted after college and have to serve two years anyway. So why not do it as a 2nd Lieutenant. His own experience as a private in the army told him that officers had it much easier. Well, I wasn’t very excited about taking gym class in college, so I took my father’s advice instead: I signed up for Army ROTC.

The first semester wasn’t bad at all. Twice a week, at 8:00 in the morning, we had class at the local armory. Class amounted to indoor target practice with 22-calibre rifles. It was fun–just like when my friend Alan C. and I used to play with his BB-gun in the basement of his house. Later in the semester they let us shoot 22-calibre pistols. That was harder, but still fun. What I didn’t like about ROTC was the marching drills every Tuesday afternoon. Dressed in heavy wool uniforms, we would have to stand in formation and then march around the parking lot for three hours. But I was picked to carry the American flag (someone must have liked my all-American-boy looks), so at least in the beginning I felt pretty good about it.

During the second semester things began to change. But then a lot of things changed for me during that first year in college. For one thing I discovered that I wasn’t as smart or as well educated as I thought I was. I struggled with my classes. I began to see myself and my classmates as so many puppets going through motions, doing what we were supposed to do. The words of Macbeth, which we read in freshman English, haunted me:

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

And then is heard no more; it is a tale

told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.

But I had been brought up as a Christian. And when Shakespeare could give me no solace, I turned for the first time in my life seriously to read the Bible. Late at night in my dormitory room a light within me began to flicker as I read the Sermon on the Mount and the book of Ecclesiastes. Ecclesiastes taught me that Macbeth was on to something. Life “is a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” if you anchor your hope in the loose-packed sands of our temporal existence. “Meaningless, meaningless,” said the writer of Ecclesiastes, “All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.” Turning to the Sermon on the Mount I read, “Seek first the Kingdom of God and righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

But Jesus said many other things as well in that Sermon on the Mount. Among them were these revolutionary thoughts:

You have heard it said, Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth. But I tell you, Do not resist an
evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.

You have heard that it was said, Love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.

That began to raise questions in my mind regarding what I was doing in ROTC. Then two events occurred which helped me answer those questions. During one ROTC lecture, we were introduced to a high ranking officer. He was young, tough looking, and had just come back from the simmering conflict in Vietnam. He lectured us for about 30 minutes. One thing he said has stuck with me to this day. Recalling his experiences in Vietnam, he told us that when in combat, you have no time to make judgments. You simply act. He told us that we had to be trained to survive. And survival means–and this is the part I distinctly remember–survival means that if a women or a child approaches you that you think may be the enemy, you blow them away with your M-16. No time for sentiment, no time for judgment; it’s either you or them, kill or be killed. That seemed horribly incompatible with the Sermon on the Mount.

Then one Saturday we graduated from 22’s to M-1’s. The M-1 is the rifle used in the Second World War and the Korean Conflict. We learned to take it apart, clean it, put it back together again, and finally, to shoot it. You can’t have indoor target practice with an M-1. It’s simply too powerful. So out in a large field we had our first experience shooting with it. With the first shot I thought my arm would fall off at the shoulder. I couldn’t imagine how it could be very accurate since it kicked so hard when you fired it. But the worst thing about it was the deafening sound. It made the loudest noise I had ever heard. That night when I went back to my dormitory, my ears continued to ring like they had never rung before. It was hours before the ringing subsided. And with that ring there arose, in the pit of my stomach, the sensation which I had not felt since Dennis M. had showed me those gruesome pictures back in high school. I felt sick.

A number of years ago my father died after struggling for six months with cancer. When helping my mother go through his papers, I discovered his army discharge. I was surprised to learn that he had been discharged on medical grounds. It was then I learned for sure that my father was not anything like even a mild-mannered John Wayne or Audie Murphy. No, I learned instead that he was a sensitive man who did what he thought he should do in 1942, but then recoiled in horror at the barbarity of the situation in which he found himself. He grew up in a generation that looked down on that kind of sensitivity as a form of weakness; and that was probably one of the reasons why he never told my brothers and I much about his war experiences. But what others might have called weakness I now see as a kind of strength–an indicator of a residual humanity that holds fast, even when our circumstances and neighbors turn to savagery. And I’m thankful to have inherited at least a small portion of it.

Earlier on that same day my three brothers and I were seated in the office of the local funeral director where we were making the arrangements for our father’s memorial service. The funeral director was telling us that since my father was a veteran he was eligible for certain honors in connection with his burial–something about a flag, and some other things. Neither my brothers nor I could imagine how an association with the military could be honoring to him at that point.

Some people when they contemplate the current war think of all the young soldiers who are doing what our culture has brought them up to believe is the right thing to do, and who will suffer terribly for it. I think of my father; and of those words from the prophet Isaiah, which promise that one day we will see things more clearly:

He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.
Charles C. Adams is professor of engineering and dean of natural sciences at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa