My dad was a lucky man. Born in 1903, he was just too young for service in World War I and a bit too old for the same in World War II. Not that he couldn’t have volunteered for the latter. He certainly could have, but decided not to.
Many years ago, he gave me some papers associated with what was then called the Selective Service. I never took a close look at them, until now.
There is his registration certificate from Feb. 14, 1942, issued by the Dade County local board. My parents were then living in Miami, Florida, which is in Dade County. “THE LAW REQUIRES YOU TO HAVE THIS CARD IN YOUR PERSONAL POSSESSION AT ALL TIMES,” it reads in bold capital letters.
I have before me, too, his report for a physical examination issued by the War Department, Headquarters of the Army Air Forces, Washington. But the document with the most meaning for the country and sentimental value for me is his Defense Council of Dade County identification card, complete with photo. On the back is a print of dad’s right index finger and his designated duty: Decontamination Squad, Transportation & Communication.
Shortly after I was born in 1944, my parents moved to Los Angeles, where dad began working in a defense plant. By the time I was of thinking age, the war was well and truly over, and dad was working as a lighting man at Warner Bros. Studios, a far cry from making airplane parts.
I didn’t think much of his opting out of service until years later, when I met my friend Richard S. at graduate school. This was in 1964, when young men our age were being drafted to fight in the war in Vietnam. Both Richard and I, as full-time students, were exempt from the draft.
“What are you going to do after graduate school?” I once asked him, as we were walking across Harvard Yard.
“I just want to bum around Europe for a while,” he answered.
“You can’t do that! You’ll lose your student deferment and you’ll be drafted for sure.”
He stopped smack in the middle of the Yard.
“I’m OK. I can’t be drafted. My dad was a pilot and he died on a bombing run over Germany. As the only son of a man who died in World War II, I’m exempt.”
All sorts of confusing thoughts raced through my mind. All of us were terrified of being sent to Vietnam to fight in a war we didn’t believe in. Was Richard “lucky?” Had my dad gone to war, I might not have been born. I felt sorry for my friend, who grew up without a father. Yet, he was free to do whatever he wanted after graduate school.
Less than three years later I was living in Japan. Here I met many people who had been forced to fight, often brutally, in a war that they did not necessarily support. Scores of younger Japanese whom I befriended had lost a father, uncle or brother in the war.
Richard’s dad was a hero. Richard proudly wore his dad’s leather flight jacket and ultracool sunglasses. For him these had very special meaning: Wearing them was a way of getting close to the father he never knew.
But the Japanese that I met were — and are — never allowed to display any sort of pride over having either served in their armed forces or over having lost a loved one. These luxuries are reserved for the victors.
Now, a mere five days before the 63rd anniversary of the end of World War II in the Pacific, these memories are preoccupying my thoughts. Making them all the more poignant is the fact that I just finished reading David Halberstam’s magnificent, harrowing account of the Korean War, “The Coldest Winter.”
The Korean War is a war that I do remember. My parents used to talk at the dinner table about the thousands of Korean orphans who were being adopted by Americans all over the country. Television news at the time was not geared to show footage from the war, but newsreels that preceded movies invariably depicted horrific battles in a landscape of treeless mountains.
Once the Americans and Allied forces — for this war was a U.N. police action — pushed North Korean and Chinese troops north of the 38th parallel, they should have left it at that. But, by the greatest folly in the career of the commanding general, Douglas MacArthur, the war was continued far to the north of the parallel, bringing death to thousands of U.N. (primarily American) soldiers and tens of thousands of Koreans and Chinese.
After the war, American Korean War veterans were largely forgotten, shoved away in Veterans Administration hospitals. Halberstam refers to the historical “black hole” that the entire war experience fell into.
American veterans from World War II may be honored and eulogized in every genre of factual and fictional recreation, but veterans of Korea, and later Vietnam, were not given their due. Those wars, particularly the latter, were not wholly just wars. Yet, rather than castigate and call to account the leaders, political and military, who prosecuted those wars, the country decided to sweep the issue of responsibility, as well as the question of honor for the servicemen who made a sacrifice, under the thick carpet of American pomp and self-righteousness.
Now, in 2008, the progression toward engineered oblivion for dead, injured and traumatized soldiers has been taken to a further extreme. On the anniversaries of the end of our awful wars, we should understand how very painful life was made for soldiers and their families. This should be done, moreover, regardless of who was right or wrong in the war. That part of the war is over with the armistice.
This being so, the failure of the Bush administration to openly honor the war dead and offer comprehensive, humane treatment to the survivors of the cruel and illegal war in Iraq constitutes, in my mind, the greatest self-condemnation of George W. Bush and his advisers. Their cynical neglect in this regard is a blatant sign of everything true patriotism is not.
That the president never attends soldiers’ funerals and avoids the issue of care demonstrates a deeply rooted callousness in the man. If forcing men and women into a war and refusing to honor and care for them is not the highest form of national treachery, then I don’t know what is.
My friend Richard was, of course, by no means lucky. When I think of him now, my eyes well with tears. I had a dad. I was the lucky one.
How will the families of soldiers who fought in Iraq feel years from now, when they look back at this? We can only hope that they — and history — will lay the responsibility for this travesty of dishonor where it belongs: on the shoulders of those who lead others to their death while denying the loved ones of those who fight the consolation and dignity that is their due.