“Their life consisted wholly and solely of war, for they were and always had been front-line infantrymen. They survived because the fates were kind to them, certainly—but also because they had become hard and immensely wise in animal-like ways of self-preservation.”—Ernie Pyle, World War II journalist, writing about what he saw at the front. Killed in action April 18, 1945.
I do not come from a family that talks much about its military service. My father was drafted in 1958, served his two-year-long tour, and then came back home to a job that had been held for him. This was during the Cold War, so he did not see action but he did see more of the world than he had up till then, or since. He served in the U.S. Army in Germany during the Cold War as a calculator tasked with determining missile flight paths. (I believe he worked with the Atlas missile, an early ICBM model.)
His older brother, my uncle Richard, was a lifelong Army man who served from the 1950s into the ’70s. Richard was a combat veteran, but he never spoke of his experiences in Vietnam with any family member; my understanding is he would go silent for long periods so his letters home were not sent from Vietnam or associated military mailboxes in order to protect his family from the fear that he was in a dangerous combat zone.
Their father, my grandfather, was too young to enlist for action in the First World War, and by December 7, 1941, he was the father of four young sons and nearly 40, so our country did not call on him.
His younger brother, my great-uncle Walter, fought with the 104th Infantry and died in action in France in 1944. (My dad has been producing a family history and I did not know this fact until recently. At the top of this article is a photo from Find A Grave.com of Walter Aldrich’s gravestone in Lorraine American Cemetery, near Metz, France, one of 10,000 Americans buried in that cemetery. It is the largest American World War II cemetery in Europe.)
The 104th Infantry Regiment, an element of the 26th Division, is one of the oldest in the country, having first been mustered in 1639 in Springfield, Massachusetts. This is the area of the country my part of the Aldrich family comes from. (It is a line that can be traced directly to the first Aldrich in America.) The 104th saw action at the Battle of Bunker Hill and at Gettysburg and is also known as the “Yankee” Division. Technical Sergeant Walter J. Aldrich, killed November 19, 1944, was awarded a Silver Star and a Purple Heart. (Here is a PDF of the division’s battle casualties. If you do not have Adobe Acrobat or if your browser does not open PDFs, do not click on it.)
According to an online history of the 26th Infantry “Yankee” Division: “On 15 November, after an intensive shelling, the Regiment took Marsal and Harracourt and assembled in the Foret de Bride et de Koecking to establish a defense along the Lindequin-Dieuze Road. In driving for the towns immediately east of the Foret de Bride et de Koecking to cut off railroad arteries that fed Metz, the Division ran up against a strong defensive position.” In some way, my great-uncle played a part in the fight for Metz, which the Allies re-took on November 17, and where he is buried.
My father wrote in his family history that Walter “enlisted in the Army on March 10, 1941. I remember Uncle Walter visiting us in South ‘Derry while wearing his uniform prior to being sent overseas. I wish now that when I was in the Army in 1958–1960 and stationed in Germany, I had known where he had been buried in France. I went to Paris, France, on a long weekend pass and would have gone to the cemetery to see his grave.” (My dad’s “South ‘Derry” is South Londonderry, Vermont, his hometown.)
There is a National Purple Heart Hall of Honor in New Windsor, NY, near where I live, but Walter Aldrich is not on their roster.
On my mother’s side of the family, my great-uncle Louis Miller also served in the Army in Europe in World War II, and he saw the concentration camps, a solemn thing for a American-born Jew to witness.
When I was 18 and struggling with the identity issues that all 18-year-old boys are supposed to struggle with, but a bit more loudly than the New England side of my family was accustomed to encountering, my uncle Richard had some advice: “Take one step forward and raise your right hand.” Military service was what I needed, he made clear in his loving but curt way, and he was the only family member, friend, or guidance counselor in my life to offer this advice. A couple decades later and a few mistakes along my way, I wonder if he might not have been correct, but only because I remember that at that time we were not at war.
* * * *
War is one of the least common shared experiences but is the one that writers and other artists most desire to capture in the moment, to make it seem a common shared experience. Many great works are the result of the attempt to make war real for those, like me, who have not and probably never will witness combat.
Each new generation at war masters new technologies for waging war and also new ways to describe it. The Civil War brought new fighting machines along with battlefield photography; the Second World War debuted mass anonymous bombing runs and heroic, large-scale battles—it wound up the war for novelists and filmmakers; the First World War was the war of chemical attacks, soul-crushingly slow trench warfare, and new mechanical technologies of death-creation sadly under-anticipated by those who were planning for yet another war fought in straight lines.
The First World War was the absurd war, fought for reasons so complicated and obscure to the common fighting man that on Christmas Day 1914, an unofficial truce was declared by the soldiers themselves on the battlefields of the Western Front, and there on the fields, carols were sung, holiday cards were exchanged between enemies, and the opposing sides conducted joint burials of the battlefield dead. The next day, the fighting resumed.
World War I was the war for poets.
Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est” (the title is a Latin phrase, “it is sweet and right”) is a poem that attempts to capture a small moment of death in the large landscape of a battlefield shrouded in mustard gas. It calls the Horatian declaration that closes the poem, “Dulce et decorum est/Pro patria mori” (“Sweet and right it is to die/for one’s country”), “the old Lie,” and right there the reason for the poet’s close study of a fellow soldier’s violent death is delivered. For Owen, there is no great message to be gleaned from recounting his comrade’s gurgling death other than the sad, empty absence of any message. You would not tell children eager for heroic tales, he concludes, you would not tell them of great glory, if you were to see and hear the “smothering dreams” of death that he has seen.
If any members of my family carried such “smothering dreams” in them from the military portions of their lives, they certainly did not attempt to convince any of us in the next generation of the beauty of “patria mori.” I suppose that that is an honorable silence. My uncle’s Vietnam combat stories were only for the ears of his VFW buddies and hunting partners.
Owen himself died in battle on November 4, 1918, one week before peace was declared on November 11. Absurdity.
So I honor those who served on this and each Memorial Day by reading a poem that reminds us of the absence of any heroic message in the gritty moment of war, a poem that some 99 years after it was composed probably better describes the unconventional battlefields seen in our current conflicts than can many works of journalism written from today’s battlefronts.
Dulce et Decorum Est—Wilfred Owen
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
* * * *
In America, Memorial Day salutes every American who died while serving in any of the U.S. Armed Forces.
Soldiers are sent to fight, and many of them die. Near me is a newly minted cemetery reserved for war veterans and their spouses; it is only a decade and a half old and more than 2000 graves are already filled, for two reasons: the first is an actuarial one, as the veterans from earlier conflicts are growing older and dying by the hundreds of old age each day. (Sixteen million Americans served in World War II and the average age of a WWII veteran in 2011 was 92. Thus several hundred U.S. WWII veterans die each day.)
The second reason saddens me, however, as I have been of voting age since 1986 and several official wars have been waged since then both by people whom I voted for and by those I voted against but who I did not do enough to stop. We are at war right now. Whether or not my country ought to be fighting, I hope that people who feel we ought to be fighting and people who feel otherwise can all agree that war is a saddening, maddening fact and needs to become a less common life experience.
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