Uncle Sandy's War: Part 4

by Andrew Himes

Part 4 of a 4-part story.

During the Soldiers' Heart retreat in Wheaton, one of the leaders asked all of us, veterans and civilians alike, to close our eyes for a moment and imagine a place we had been in our lives that felt completely safe and protected. I realized that such a place for me was Northside Park, and more generally, Wheaton, Illinois. It was here that I had once felt completely at peace and entirely protected. Wheaton was a town where, by the time I was eight years old, I had a paper route, all by myself, and I could ride my bicycle anywhere in town without permission and without any guardian or parent needing to know where I was at any moment. No one worried about me and no one needed to. Danger was far away, and the difficulties and responsibility of adulthood were outside my knowledge. I was a child living in a safe and protected shell, ignorant of war's trauma, and innocent of participation in the historical pattern of violent conflict among humans. Now, in 2007, I reflected that I was enabled to feel safe in part because others – veterans of war and volunteers for the military – had been motivated to provide that sense of safety and protection for me.

This contradiction for me is summed up in a book titled Worshipping the Myths of World War II, written by Edward Wood, a combat veteran of World War II. Wood, like my Uncle Sandy, was an 18-year-old thrown into battle in France after D-Day in June of 1944 with virtually no military training. Unlike my uncle, he was severely wounded -- within a few days of arriving in the midst of the war -- and he spent the rest of his life living with the consequences, with terrible physical pain and suffering as well as deep psychological injuries. Wood begins his book by acknowledging that he was haunted by an irresolvable conflict: "I knew on the one hand that the war had to be fought so as to preserve the nation and the democracy I so loved… On the other hand, to the flesh and heart of me, I knew the horror of that war: the stark terror of combat; the wounds that changed my life forever; childhood friends killed or badly maimed; battle fatigue; the murderous destruction of English, German, and Japanese cities from the air; the shock of atomic weaponry; and the death of millions of innocent civilians, mostly women and children, in the Holocaust and the war's other atrocities."

Wood writes that he was saddened, and then suddenly angry, as he watched the harsh reality of the war become softened, sweetened, by a set of myths. One of those myths was that WWII constituted a "good war" -- as if any war could be considered good regardless of whether it could be justified or defended as a way to deal with some terrible reality. And another myth was that great evil in the world invariably lies outside of us and our country, and war is the only means available to deal justly with that evil.

Only when I read Wood's book in the fall of 2007 did I understand how war had been framed for me, for my culture and my country, for all of my life. As a young protestor against the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 70s, it was beyond my comprehension how my parents and others of their generation could justify the war in Vietnam. The war was so evidently criminal in its consequences, so muddled in its professed morality. For me, the issue of the Vietnam War was a simple one. Its justification by people like Lyndon Baines Johnson, Richard Milhouse Nixon, and by my parents and grandparents, was fraudulent and hypocritical. I couldn't understand that Vietnam, for my parents, was a continuation of the moral crusade that had constituted World War II for them. It was a struggle against totalitarianism, against indecency, against mass murder and injustice. They were looking at reality through an entirely different filter than I had – the filter of a generational struggle first against Hitler and then what they viewed as an equally evil Stalin.

The moral struggle against evil that World War II represented came to color and characterize "war" for Americans, who in the wake of that war worshipped war itself, and began to believe in the application of military force as a solution to any complex problem in the world. Paradoxically, the victory of American-style democracy in World War Two was used to glorify and perpetuate the practice of war. It was used to justify the creation of the largest and most deadly permanent professional military force in the history of the world, and it supported myopia in our foreign policy.

We can only understand how Americans made the mistake of invading Iraq when we consider how we used our experience during World War II to frame and limit our wisdom and justify launching so many other wars since.

I have learned to regard my Uncle Sandy's service and sacrifice during World War II with gratitude and a degree of awe, just as I've learned to respect Dave's decision to go to war with his helicopter squadron in Iraq, even as I believe that the decision by Dave's commander-in-chief to launch the war was an enormous blunder, and our collective, national decision to support the invasion of Iraq was a sin of historic proportions, for which a commensurate repentance and restitution is required.