Monday, September 24, 2007

War Stories

Here is a scene that won’t be part of Ken Burns’ new series about World War II on PBS this week.

In 1945, a 20-year-old foot soldier arrives at General Patton’s Third Army in France. Before being sent to a rifle company, he is assigned to stay up every night and on the battalion’s only typewriter, which is not available during the day, copy officers’ notes about suspected SIWs, Self-Inflicted Wounds.

Night after night, under a Coleman lantern hissing yellow light with sounds of battle in the background, he taps out stories in quadruplicate about young men who have maimed themselves out of fear and fatigue, offering up some body part to save the rest--shooting an arm or leg, slashing a thigh, dislocating a shoulder or wrenching a knee in some improbable fall.

Fighting a war, the stories reveal, is like everything else that is important in life, a matter of showing up, doing what has to be done and not running away, and there is a thin line between those who can do it and those who can’t.

Later on and further away, there will be talk of heroes and greatest generations and abstractions about defending ideals. For those who fight wars, it’s as simple as being there and staying.

The more complicated questions have to be answered by those who send and keep them there.


Unknown said...

Have you written your service memoir?

Anonymous said...

While that one particular scene may not be played out in Ken Burns' series "The War," I do give Mr. Burns full marks for his attempt not to glorify and simply rehash the same old heroes and legends feel of historical memories and texts. It is a great boon to all of us who watch to have these stories told of, and by, the common man from the small town and also those who were waiting at home. I've found that his series thus far has really given me a closer and more clear understanding of the struggles these men faced, physically and emotionally. But I also do not mistakenly believe that I do understand because only those who fought will ever be able to truly do that.

My grandfather fought on the USS Alabama and he passed of a heart attack long before I ever had a chance to be old enough to have a conversation with him. My great uncle served on the USS General John Pope and he, too, passed before I could speak with him about it.

I may not feel the ultimate effects of that war, or any war, but I do believe the words of Robert E. Lee when he said that "It is good that war is so terrible or we should become too fond of it."

And my respect for all those who don the uniform and fight both the enemy on the field and the fear and doubt within themselves is boundless. I say kudos to Ken Burns for attempting to bring us a closer look at the more personal stories and shows us the less glorious face of war.

Anonymous said...


The little boy upon the road,
His head bashed in the cobble,
Remains an image, and a goad
That it is worth the trouble

To strive against all forms of war--
My brethren did excite them
To rapturous folly, while the whore
May not so well requite them.

So she has urged them on to fight:
Today, as calcified
The soul is witness, but new light
Remembers what has died.

Now, nevermore will I forget
That sight that I have seen,
Macabre, red, and oozing yet
The bursting brains between.

It was engaged a kind of lark
As adventitious sold us,
But when the night has gotten dark
My memories but hold thus.

Sweet precious joy, the tarnished dream
Revokes, and I this load
Carry, as traipsing by my team
The dead child on the road.