Veterans Day 2016

“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.)
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Veterans Day

“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.)
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‘Dulce et decorum est’: Veterans Day 2014

“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.

(This is a revision of a column I first wrote a year ago.)

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, 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.)

Purpleheart

Purple Heart

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.”

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 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 witnessing, 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 the way, I wonder if he might not have been correct, but only because I remember that at the time, we were not at war.

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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 new ways to describe it. The Civil War brought new fighting machines and battlefield photography; the Second World War debuted mass anonymous bombing runs and heroic, large-scale battles—it was 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.

World War I was the absurd war, fought for reasons so complicated and obscure to the common fighting man that for Christmas Day 1914, an unofficial truce was declared by the soldiers on the battlefields of the Western Front and there, on the fields, carols were sung, holiday cards were exchanged between enemies, and joint burials of the battlefield dead were conducted by the opposing sides. It was the war for poets.

Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est” (Latin for “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 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 on November 4, 1918, one week before peace was declared, on November 11. So I honor our patriots this Veterans Day by reading a poem that reminds us of the absence in the grit of war of any heroic message, a poem that some 96 years after it was composed probably better describes the unconventional battlefields seen in our current conflicts than many attempts today.

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.

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The WordPress Daily Prompt for November 10 asks, “Fill in the blank: ‘Life is too short to _____.’ Now, write a post telling us how you’ve come to that conclusion.”

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‘So it goes …’

Humans of New York, a website of photos and interviews with New Yorkers, was created and is operated by one young photographer who calls himself simply “Brandon.” It features Sidney Offit today.

Offit is a writer, nearly 90 years of age, who is better-known as a friend of the famous, a memoirist, and a curator of great writing—he helped found the National Book Critics Circle, which gives out one of the top-level book awards each year.

sidneyoffit

Sidney Offit

The caption to the photo at left reads: “Vonnegut said we live too long. He said: ‘You had your children. You wrote your book. Now don’t be greedy.’ Yet we all live with this fantasy of recuperation. We see an old photo of ourself, and we momentarily feel like that person again. We think: ‘I’m going to get back to that place.’ And we never get back there. But that desire gives us the ferocity to hold onto life no matter how bad it gets.”

Offit was great friends with Kurt Vonnegut for four decades. Vonnegut’s birthday is tomorrow, November 11. He would be 92. He lived to be 84 and he considered what he told Offit to be a sort of ideal, but it was one he fell short of again and again, as he published fiction past 75 and opinion pieces until the end.

The accidental beauty of a pacifist writer born on November 11, which is Armistice Day—Veterans Day in the U.S. since 1954—was not lost on the novelist.

In “Breakfast of Champions,” Vonnegut reflected on the coincidence:

So this book is a sidewalk strewn with junk, trash which I throw over my shoulders as I travel in time back to November eleventh, nineteen hundred and twenty-two.

I will come to a time in my backwards trip when November eleventh, accidentally my birthday, was a sacred day called Armistice Day. When I was a boy, and when Dwayne Hoover was a boy, all the people of all the nations which had fought in the First World War were silent during the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of Armistice Day, which was the eleventh day of the eleventh month.

Kurt-Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut, 1922–2007

It was during that minute in nineteen hundred and eighteen, that millions upon millions of human beings stopped butchering one another. I have talked to old men who were on battlefields during that minute. They have told me in one way or another that the sudden silence was the Voice of God. So we still have among us some men who can remember when God spoke clearly to mankind.

Armistice Day has become Veterans’ Day. Armistice Day was sacred. Veterans’ Day is not.

So I will throw Veterans’ Day over my shoulder. Armistice Day I will keep. I don’t want to throw away any sacred things.

What else is sacred? Oh, Romeo and Juliet, for instance.

And all music is.

The moment war ends is not a moment that ennobles the war effort that preceded it, or converts the two opposing sides into concrete moral certainties like right and wrong, but that one minute of peace is sacred. It may have been the only minute of serenity the world has known.

In Vonnegut’s work, remembering the past is sometimes the only way for a character to know that there even is a now. The past, the present, and the future may as well as be characters in his books. Three characters, each of whom considers the other two as being irritating and self-important.

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Here is a thought that I, Mark, visit and re-visit: I see an old photo of myself and I think I can return there. A previous year, another existence, is merely another place I have visited, lived in, breathed the air of. The 1990s are only as far away as a bus ticket whose price is a bit out of my reach; I think I can visit 1979 as easily as visit Phoenix if I would just save up for a couple months. I am going to see Vermont again, I am going to visit Iowa again; I have not seen the Pacific Ocean yet, but I know I will. Next year, maybe.

I know what the 1980s sounded like, what food tasted like then/there, just as I know what Cedar Rapids, Iowa, or Poughkeepsie, New York, sounds like. The ability to visit one (Poughkeepsie) but not the other (1983) offends me.

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Now is all we have and Vonnegut knew this, better than most. Reliving the firebombing of Dresden in February 1945 is fine, was necessary for him; coming to understand that February 1945 and November 1918 and November 2014 all co-exist in an eternal now is spiritual, somewhat; finding oneself frustrated at the expense of a bus ticket to 1983 is Hell in its exquisite pointlessness.

In one of his last interviews, recorded in October 2005, Vonnegut told public television’s David Brancaccio the point of it all. What life is too short and too long for.

He said that his wife asked him why he would go to the store for “an” envelope. Apparently he used to make his errands last all day: buy an envelope, bring it home, put the letter in it, bring it to the post office, and then treat the next letter with similar care. Vonnegut:

Oh, she says well, you’re not a poor man. You know, why don’t you go online and buy a hundred envelopes and put them in the closet? And so I pretend not to hear her. And go out to get an envelope because I’m going to have a hell of a good time in the process of buying one envelope.

I meet a lot of people. And, see some great looking babes. And a fire engine goes by. And I give them the thumbs up. And, and ask a woman what kind of dog that is. And, and I don’t know. The moral of the story is, is we’re here on Earth to fart around.

And, of course, the computers will do us out of that. And, what the computer people don’t realize, or they don’t care, is we’re dancing animals. You know, we love to move around. And, we’re not supposed to dance at all anymore.

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The WordPress Daily Prompt for November 10 asks, “Fill in the blank: ‘Life is too short to _____.’ Now, write a post telling us how you’ve come to that conclusion.”

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Please subscribe to The Gad About Town on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/thegadabouttown