Did you watch the Ken Burns film series on PBS called “The War”? If not, probably you should. This series doesn’t glorify war, or glamorize it, or paint our soldiers as angels and the soldiers on the opposite side as devils. It doesn’t pretend that war is good for children or other living things. Nor does it concentrate on strategy or tactics, such topics having been covered often and sometimes excellently in the past half century. (I think, for instance, of the films called “Victory at Sea.”) Instead, “The War” concentrates on the human side, civilian as well as military, of a society at war.
I have heard that some people decided not to watch it because they disapprove of war. But it seems to me that if that generation could go through it, we can go through watching it.
It makes painful watching.
I began reading about the war while I was still in my early teens, as the first spate of histories were coming out. After so much reading, I would have thought that all I could learn at this point would be detail. But until I watched an ex-fighter pilot named Quentin Aanenson talk about his experiences, I never fully understood that the boys who had to fight were scarred not just by what had happened to them, but by what they had had to do.
Here is a transparently good and thoughtful man, trained to kill, and doing it day after day, but deeply troubled by it, not only at the time but in all the years since. Beginning on D-Day, for months he flew close support, bombing and strafing, doing the job he had been trained to do. It sickened him even at the time, but he knew his duty, and went on doing it. And what else could he have done? What else should he have done?
It’s all well and good to be against war, but when I was in college back in 1966, in the early days of our second undeclared war (Korea having been the first), I remember somebody saying “war never solves anything.” I shot back, “well, it fixed Hitler’s clock pretty good.” I wasn’t issuing a statement approving war, merely recognizing that sometimes wars do solve things. I had read many of the histories of the war that were coming out in the late 1950s, and I knew that World War II could not be dismissed as stupid or pointless or insane in the way that we are tempted to dismiss, for instance, World War I. The world would be a very different place if Hitler had won, or the Japanese. They had to be stopped.
War is terrible but sometimes it cannot be avoided, people being what they still are. After all these years, I cannot see what else we could have done but fight and win, any more than Aanenson could see what else he could do but fight to end the war as soon as possible. Germany and Japan were each the epitome of racism and tyranny. It was a strange design of fate that they could only be defeated by the deeply racist United States and the thoroughly tyrannical Soviet Union. Regardless, it was important to the world, to our future, that those societies be blotted out, and new ones constructed on different principles.
It was done, but the victory didn’t come free. Years after returning from the war, Aanenson, for example, continued to have nightmares, part of the unacknowledged, unnoticed aftermath suffered in silence by millions of returned combat veterans. What he had done troubled him as much in retrospect as it had at the time. His sacrifice on behalf of his country included years of danger and hardship, but perhaps the largest sacrifice he laid on the altar of freedom was his innocence.
War costs soldiers their innocence. I don’t know that I had ever thought of that before. After the soldier comes home, he has to live with what he has done, and perhaps only the most callous can do so untroubled.
It seems to me that our society is in Aanenson’s position, only worse, in that our continuing sacrifice of innocence – and of innocents – no longer serves freedom but, if anything, helps destroy it. VE Day and VJ Day, and the long terrible cold war that followed, tempted some of our leaders to think that America could reshape the world to its own image. Among the costs of that delusion must be included serious, perhaps eventually fatal, damage to America’s freedom. In other words, we are still paying the price of winning the war. Worse, we may have reversed positions.
Like our soldiers, we have lost our innocence. It might be said of America, as Jesus said of individuals, what does it profit to gain the whole world and lose your soul? We haven’t gained the world, but we are certainly in danger of losing our soul.