Although warlike by nature, I was raised by an antiwar mother who preached (but sometimes did not practice) pacifism. Perhaps I inherited a dominant rage gene from my absent father, who served jail time as a war protestor even though he, too, had a violent personality. A child of contradiction, I saw nothing wrong in hating the idea of war while, at the same time, obsessively dressing up to play boy soldier.
The “interwar years”, a slight breathing space between the Flanders trenches and the beaches of Guadalcanal and Normandy, conditioned me to an ongoing war fever. You had to be a zombie not to be infected by newsreels and radio reports of the Japanese massacre of Nanjing, Mussolini’s air raids on Ethiopia, our “banana wars” in Central America and the Spanish civil war. My latent pacifism was no match for the gladiator drumbeats of blood. School teachers made us boys memorize Horace’s “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” – it’s great to die for your country.
I couldn’t wait to be called to “my” war against Hitler and Hirohito. Not even army duty as an infantry replacement cured me – though I’d been told, in ghoulish detail, of war’s reality by barracks buddies who were combat veterans of the 4th Infantry, which had landed at Utah Beach. Back on furlough, in my Chicago neighborhood, pals who had “been there” overwhelmingly agreed that being under fire was a nauseatingly terrifying experience. My friend “Bobby” had his hand blown away on D-Day-plus-Two, and to this day “Marvin” has not recovered from the Ardennes tree-bursts of German shrapnel. Windows all over Chicago’s west side had gold star flags put there by mothers who had lost sons in battle.
But it wasn’t until I emigrated to England that I felt the full emotional impact of the malign power behind those words we over-use on Veterans Day and Remembrance Sunday: fallen hero.
Hitchiking beyond the Wash or riding on the (then) fabulously cheap British Rail, in each and every town square I always found a first world war monument listing name, rank and unit, followed by shorter lists of the dead from 1939-45. Standing in the rain, gazing at the honor rolls of the Accrington Lads, Leeds Chums and Grimsby Pals – whole towns’ full of young men wiped out – a Great War generation, many still rotting in Passchendaele shellholes – I imagined blood rather than water dripping off the granite rifles and helmets and winged angels of the obelisks. Hearts as well as bodies go dead.
A generation of women had lost their sons, husbands, fathers and boyfriends in the muddy trenches and, with them, their own hopes. I kept meeting women – regiments of them – who never even got a chance to be wives. “Butcher” Field Marshal Haig ended those women’s lives, too, in his line-abreast “final pushes” against the German Machineengewehr at Ypres and the Somme that killed nearly 1 million men in a single battle.
Hanging around the northern coal mining villages, I also met men, in their late fifties and sixties who had been there. Outside Eastwood, Nottinghamshire – DH Lawrence’s birthplace – an elderly miner once picked me up and gave me a lift in his three-wheeler. He had been in the 45th Foot Sherwood Foresters in 1916. “Oh aye, hardly anyone from my lot got back. I was gassed. The mustard. Went back down to pit – imagine, with my lungs. You know they killed us all, even ones like me, who made it out, felt dead.”
There are American towns, too, like Bedford, Virginia and Brook Park, Ohio, where, in one war or another, lost most of their young men, sometimes in a single engagement. The physical and moral courage of these killed soldiers is astounding. To walk into a storm of enemy bullets or patrol a minefield, knowing the odds are against you… suspecting your generals are stupid or half-mad… sticking it out because of “unit cohesion” (brotherly love)… having the guts to get up out of a sheltering foxhole under tree-bursts in yet another blundering attack like the Ardennes. It’s enough to make you a pacifist, which I’m not.
On Veterans Day in the US (formerly Armistice Day), and on Remembrance Sunday in Britain, my respect for the soldiers’ pride and stoicism turns to rage at the (old-fashioned phrase) “merchants of death” who themselves never march to war, but see to it that the young and poor do. A few blocks from where I live, homeless, dazed Vietnam, Iraq and now Afghanistan vets sleep under the 405 Freeway, a stone’s throw from a vast VA military cemetery – the irony lost on no one. Except perhaps on Diane Feinstein, one of my two California senators, whose husband, Richard Blum, owns a controlling interest in two war-related companies, thriving in Iraq and Afghanistan, that directly profit from the invasions Feinstein voted for.
But there’s work to be done past the rage. Over 100 veterans kill themselves every week, the highest proportion being Iraq and Afghanistan combat GIs, aged 18-29. This “suicide surge” – denied by the Pentagon and Veterans Administration, but exposed again and again in the press – is the most poignant face of a deeper scandal, the “war on terror” that is destroying a generation of our best children. The harm that this “long war”, lasting 50 to 80 years – now embraced as official Pentagon doctrine – does to our young people, physically and mentally, should be recognized as a deadly infectious disease. It’s up to us civilians, whenever possible, to reach out to our sons and daughters in uniform. They are in mortal danger not only from Taliban bombs, but from indifference to the 1 per cent of the US population (a new low) on active or reserve duty. This cultural divide between us and them is a silent killer, more deadly than any military drone.
CLANCY SIGAL is a novelist and screenwriter in Los Angeles. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org