My father and most of my uncles fought in World War II. I grew up in the shadow of the war. But it was not the romantic war of movies and books, although this romance infected me as it did all of the other farm kids in my town. It was the war of the emotionally and physically maimed. My father, who had been an army sergeant in North Africa, went to seminary after the war and became a Presbyterian minister. When he spoke about the war you could almost see him push his rifle away. He loathed the military and especially the lie that war is about glory and manhood and patriotism. When our family visited museums he steered us away from the ordered displays of weapons, the rows of muskets and artillery pieces, which gleamed from behind cases or roped-off areas.
He was an early opponent of the Vietnam War. During a Fourth of July parade in the farm town where I grew up he turned to me as the paunchy veterans walked past and said acidly, “Always remember, most of those guys were fixing the trucks in the rear.” He hated the VFW hall where these men went, mostly to drink. He found their periodic attempts to re-create the comradeship of war, something that of course could never be re-created, pathetic and sad. When I was about 12 in 1968 he told me that if I was drafted for the Vietnam War he would go to prison with me. To this day I have a vision of sitting in a jail cell with my dad.
But it was my Uncle Maurice I thought most about as I looked through the images in Agent Orange: “Collateral Damage” in Viet Nam, by the photographer Philip Jones Griffiths. Uncle Maurice was in the regular Army in 1939 in the South Pacific and fought there until he was wounded five years later by a mortar blast. He did not return home with my father’s resilience, although he shared my father’s anger and feeling of betrayal. His life was destroyed by the war. He refused to accept his medals, including his Purple Heart.
Maurice would sit around the stove in my grandmother’s home and shake as he struggled to ward off the periodic bouts of malaria. He did not talk about the war. And so he drank. He became an acute embarrassment to our family, who lived in a manse where there was no alcohol. He could not hold down a job. His marriage fell apart. Another uncle hired him to work in his lumber mill, but Maurice would show up late, often drunk, and then disappear on another binge. He finally drank himself to death in his trailer, but not before borrowing and selling the hunting rifle my grandfather had promised me. The money, I am sure, went for a few more bottles.
There was only one time he ever spoke to me about the war. It was at my grandmother’s kitchen table. He spoke in a flat monotone. His eyes seemed to be looking far away, far across the field outside the house and the warmth of the heavy porcelain stove, far across the snowy peaks, to a world that he could never hope to explain.
“We filled our canteens up in a stream once,” he said. “When we went around the bend there were twenty-five dead Japanese in the water.” Those who pay the price, those who are maimed forever by war, are shunted aside, crumpled up and thrown away. They are war’s refuse. We do not want to see them. We do not want to hear them. They are doomed, like wandering spirits, to float around the edges of our consciousness, ignored, even reviled. The message they bear from war is too painful for us to absorb. And so we turn our backs, just as society turned its back on my uncle, as it turns its back on all who come back and struggle with the horrors of wounds, physical and emotional.