Rec­og­nize the bru­tal truth in sto­ries of war

San Antonio Express-News - - OTHER VIEWS - By Tom Palaima Tom Palaima is the Arm­strong Cen­ten­nial Pro­fes­sor of Clas­sics at the Univer­sity of Texas at Austin and aca­demic ad­viser to the vet­er­ans-run NEH-Aquila The­atre Project “The War­rior Cho­rus,” war­rior­cho­rus.org/blog/.

For as long as there have been wars — which in hu­man his­tory is for­ever — there have been sto­ries about war.

They stretch back to Homer’s riv­et­ing epic songs of the bat­tle­field — the “Iliad” — and of re­turn­ing home from it — the “Odyssey.” They come for­ward in truly sen­si­tive films like Richard Lin­klater’s “Last Flag Fly­ing” and Ri­cardo Ainslie’s “The Mark of War,” and wide-rang­ing books like Larry Tri­tle’s and Ja­son Warren’s “The Many Faces of War,” of­fi­cially be­ing re­leased this Vet­er­ans Day.

We should ap­proach Vet­er­ans Day with rev­er­ence, a sense of irony and even be­wil­der­ment. Af­ter all, on the orig­i­nal Ar­mistice Day, Nov. 11, 1918, civ­i­lized Euro­peans, Amer­i­cans and Turks de­cided that 21 mil­lion ca­su­al­ties was enough.

This Vet­er­ans Day, we should pay at­ten­tion to the sto­ries old and young war­riors tell us about their time in ser­vice and try to fig­ure out what points their sto­ries are mak­ing, what the ser­vice we al­ways thank them for was, and what pur­pose it served.

We will find as one com­mon take­away that many ser­vice mem­bers and vet­er­ans tell sto­ries to try to fig­ure out them­selves what it all meant and means. Why did so many men and women suf­fer and die? Why did some make it home and so many oth­ers did not? Why do they still think about, in some cases per­sis­tently, the things they did and the things that were done to them and their friends, and even their once-upon-a-time en­e­mies?

There are so many sto­ries of war that there is a whole schol­arly and pop­u­lar in­dus­try of stud­ies of these sto­ries. I have taught honors and grad­u­ate cour­ses about war sto­ries for more than 25 years. They are an in­ex­haustible well.

One great study is by Samuel Hynes, “The Sol­diers’ Tale” (1997). Hynes flew in com­bat as a Ma­rine pi­lot at Ok­i­nawa, the last of the truly hellish fight­ing by Amer­i­can troops in am­phibi­ous land­ings dur­ing World War II. For 20 months, is­land by is­land across the Pa­cific, dug-in Ja­panese sol­diers swore to die fight­ing and did. The fight­ing at Ok­i­nawa went on for 80 days, April through June 1945. It ex­ceeded pre­dic­tions by mil­i­tary plan­ners that it would be “hor­ren­dous — worse than Iwo Jima.”

If you want good war sto­ries, a place to start is with Eu­gene Sledge’s “With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Ok­i­nawa.” Sledge was there in the fight­ing, and he at­tests that it was an “en­vi­ron­ment so de­grad­ing I be­lieved we had been flung into hell’s own cesspool.” More than 150,000 ca­su­al­ties, Amer­i­can and Ja­panese, on a small is­land will pro­duce the ef­fect de­scribed by a U.S. Ma­rine sergeant us­ing Sledge’s metaphor, “You could smell the front long be­fore you saw it; it was one vast cesspool.”

Hynes says that his book re­ally be­gan at Ok­i­nawa, when “I saw that war was not what I had ex­pected.”

The sto­ries vet­er­ans of war tell have no magic. Shake­speare scholar Alvin Ker­nan, who served as a bom­bardier in the Pa­cific in World War II and wrote his mem­oir, told it like it is when cri­tiquing Hynes’ book in 1997: “They al­ways say there won’t be an­other war, but there al­ways is.” We seem now to have reached the point with what war cor­re­spon­dent Dex­ter Filkins calls our “for­ever war” on ter­ror, where we don’t even pre­tend there won’t be an­other war.

So, we had bet­ter read and lis­ten to and watch and hear what those who fight in our name are telling us, un­ro­man­ti­cally, re­mov­ing any stars still left in our eyes, or never plac­ing them there to be­gin with.

Here is one story from war to pon­der on Vet­er­ans Day:

Dur­ing World War I, 23,000 Aus­tralian sol­diers died hor­ri­bly dur­ing the Bat­tle of the Somme. One his­tory states that “some in­tel­li­gent men de­vel­oped a bit­ter con­vic­tion that they were be­ing use­lessly sac­ri­ficed.”

One of them even be­lieved in magic: “For Christ’s sake,” he wrote, “write a book on the life of an in­fantry­man and by do­ing so you will quickly pre­vent these shock­ing tragedies.”

Many, many such books were pub­lished in the past cen­tury. To­day?

As­so­ci­ated Press file photo

A U.S. Ma­rine from the 6th Ma­rine Divi­sion charges for­ward through Ja­panese ma­chine-gun fire on Ok­i­nawa on April 12, 1945. Many ser­vice mem­bers and vet­er­ans tell their sto­ries to try to fig­ure out what it all meant — and what it still means.

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