“They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die.”
— from ‘The Things They Carried’ by Tim O’Brien.
The D-Day landings shown in ‘Saving Private Ryan’ are often cited as gripping realism including the heavy waterlogged packs that often dragged bleeding men to their watery doom even before they hit the beach. It’s an amazing sequence as we follow Tom Hanks’s ‘Captain Miller’ from Omaha Beach to his inland death. What is not, and probably cannot be shown in a movie, is the previous emotional baggage that so many men carried with them into combat. Most of the soldiers in the film, as in the real war, clearly were young men of workingclass origin humping not only entrenching tools and weapons but the psychic burden of the Great Depression in which they grew up.
Today we glibly speak of “The Thirties” or “The Depression” as distant categories like the 17th century Thirty Years War or the Black Plague. Yet that bruising time, 1929-1941, is near enough to us for millions of Americans to still be alive as scarred veterans of what probably is the country’s greatest trauma of the 20th century. The boys who later became the “Greatest Generation” that fought World War Two were the ones who somehow survived the man-made smashup.
I’m one of them but was lucky enough to be just a few days too young for D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge for which I was trained. My neighbourhood pal, “Aaron”, was not so lucky to be sent to front line infantry. We’d grown up bonded as corner rat boys, as the local grandmothers called us. We were dismally average academically and athletically, neither of us “sensitive” or “artistic”, except for Aaron’s sole passion in playing the clarinet in the high school symphony. Tootling Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto on his pawnshop-bought instrument, he fantasized the impossible, a career on the concert stage as a classical musician. In a way, it was what he lived for.
Back then, most of us boys lived in stuffy one rooms sometimes sharing a bed with one or two others, the alleys stank of garbage, and in the back room there was often a wife or grandmother, the true Depression victims, sitting in the dark in a kind of depressive shock. But we children, knowing no better, sloughed off much of their pain or deafened ourselves with denial.
On D-Day-plus-one Aaron had the playing fingers of his right hand shot off in a skirmish, and that was the end of that. He came back from the war seemingly unaffected by his wound, got a job with the government, married – and ended in a mental instititution. ‘Private Ryan’ couldn’t take time to tell us about people like Aaron or delve into the ‘back story’ of the plebian characters like Horvath, Mellish and Caparzo in Hanks’s Second Ranger Battalion. But most of them would have suffered a penetrating injury long before coming into the army. We couldn’t talk about it because there wasn’t then, and isn’t even now, a vocabulary to cover the PTSD from an economic collapse.
In America the Depression ? no jobs, no money, foreclosures and evictions – lasted at least a dozen years, from the late ‘roaring’ Twenties until Pearl Harbor (when my mother finally found factory work sewing army uniforms); in Britain, even longer. Schools closed, kids were malnourished, you scrounged or you starved, pellagra was rife in rural areas and TB in the cities. Thousands of families ? like the Joads in John Ford’s ‘Grapes of Wrath’ ? and hundreds of thousands of young people ? as in Wellman’s ‘Wild Boys of the Road’ and Scorcese’s ‘Boxcar Bertha’ ? roamed the country in jalopies and boxcars looking for work, food, mercy.
The war came as a blessing to many such families including mine.
Suddenly, in the army, what Mrs Roosevelt called her “lost generation” of Depression kids, had enough to eat, clothes that were replaced when torn free of charge, a bed to sleep, a job with a Military Occupation Specialty number (mine was 745). The jeering phrase GIs used with one another, “Ya found a home in the army!”, was more than half true.
Even before generals like George Patton molded his draftees into soldiers, the Great Depression drilled us in a different sort of courage, cowardice and stoicism. You shrug off what’s happening around you, keep your mouth shut, move ahead one step at a time, don’t ask questions or make waves, just do it, and keep repeating the proto-infantryman’s mantra, “Better you than me”.
For the men in the unit I later joined, the Fourth Division, scaling the heights of Normandy’s Point du Hoc cliffs under intense fire was a nasty but logical extension of what they’d experienced as “economic casualties” back home. My boyhood friend, Jack, who spent 112 days in frontline combat with the 103d in wartime Europe, said it best. “They call us guys the Greatest Generation. So much crap. Your mother and mine spent more time on a combat line than any soldier, only it was an undeclared war in our homes. You and me, too, we’ve been at war all our lives.”
Now we’re back in an undeclared Depression (euphemisms: “slowdown”, “rough patch”, “recession” etc.) that isn’t getting better. A whole new generation of young men and women, especially from the deindustrialized, unemployed towns, enlist for war service because there’s so little alternative. Who knows? If they don’t get killed or suffer an IED-made TBI (traumatic brain injury), they may ? as I did ? find a better life in the military.
Only a cosmic nutcase would suggest that depressions are created to make human cannon fodder for war.
Clancy Sigal is a novelist and screenwriter in Los Angeles. He can be reached at email@example.com