Friday, November 13, 2009

Another Veterans Day

More memories of a vanished former soldier ...

As I've said before, my thoughts on Veterans Day often turn to my father, who served in World War II. What I'm remembering this year is how little he ever spoke about the war. Like many vets from that era, when he came home he seemed determined to close the door on the ugly past. His intention was to protect his family from the horrors he had seen by keeping them to himself, and his hopes were for a peaceful future where his son would never have to go to war.

I can only imagine the distress he must have felt when the Cold War with the Soviet Union immediately emerged from the ashes of the hot one fought with Germany and Japan. He'd only been home for a few years and had just started a family when the Korean War broke out. For several years he lived with the idea that he might be called back into active service if things got bad enough -- and they seemed to be getting pretty bad.

Then the rest transpired … the H-bomb surpassed the A-bomb by a factor of a thousand … the Rosenbergs were executed for nuclear espionage … Joe McCarthy got everyone looking for Communists … Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles shortened the early warning of nuclear war from hours to minutes … Civil Defense put air-raid sirens everywhere and tested them each Sunday, religiously … bomb testing put radioactive fallout into the air and the milk consumed by a generation of children, even in mothers’ milk … American and Russian tanks faced off in Berlin … the Wall went up … and the whole thing nearly blew up around us when the Russians put nuclear missiles in Cuba, just a few hundred miles from our Miami home, and we found ourselves surrounded by an army preparing to invade the island.

Through it all my Dad never wavered from his conviction that war was a bad idea and had to be put to an end. Each new crisis in current events only stregthened his belief in the senselessness of armed conflict, the idiocy of politicians who relied upon it, the crime that it was to send young men out to kill and be killed. The prospect of nuclear holocost made the whole picture abundantly clear – the history of warfare led inevitable to the final cataclysm that would destroy all of humankind.

The final insult to him was to find yet another war, the one in Vietnam, emerging just in time to lay claim to the life of his only son. So you will understand why he supported me when I claimed exemption from the draft as a conscientious objector. For me, I felt I was only following what he had taught me. When I was a child playing with toy soldiers he had said, “If you want to make them look realistic you should have them all lying in a puddle of blood.” I had heard him reading an anti-war poem to my mother in which he described seeing a tank back up over the head of a soldier who was hiding behind it, crushing it like an egg. And I remembered how the poem ended, with its bitter admonition:

Drape the hallowed bunting on the poor deluded slob’s eternal bed … 
Safe old men, cheer them on, tear in eye, drink in hand.

So Dad wrote me a letter to present to the draft board, along with the ones from my school principal and a minister. He came with me on the day of my hearing, and had to cool his heels in the waiting room until I was done. The board declined to see him or listen to him, and I’m sorry, because when we left he told me through clenched teeth, “I was ready to give them such a piece of my mind.”

I would love to have seen that.

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