It’s Veterans Day – A Day for Reflection and Remembrance
November 11, 2019. One hundred and one years since the Armistice that made 11 a.m. of the eleventh day of the eleventh month a moment for reflection and remembrance. Inevitably on this day, the veterans who come first to my mind are my mother’s three brothers, who served overseas during World War II. (A fourth brother, the oldest also served stateside). A posting I saw on Twitter immediately after U.S. troops withdrew from northern Syria has haunted me since then. I cannot believe that the person who wrote it had a clue about the humanity as well as the valor of combat troops.
“I don’t give a !@#$ about the Syrians.” This was the parting shot in a Twitter posting that praised the US Military “best in the world,” cheered the removal of US forces from Syria, and suggested that the best use of our troops would be to protect us from Mexican cartels here at home (however, I don’t think they are actually here, as yet).
The guy who wrote this Tweet a couple of weeks ago was making it clear he did not care about the scores of Syrian Kurds slaughtered and the thousands that fled as US troops withdrew from the Turkish border.
This is the Tweet that set me to thinking. My knowledge of military matters is limited at best. Most of what I know is base on conversations with my mother’s three brothers—all World War II veterans, now no longer with us. There is no question that the United States decision to invade Iraq in 2003—our first pre-emptive war—has morphed into an “Endless War.”
In the lead-up to that fateful move, I was present, more than once when Uncle Joe (US Navy 1940-46) and Uncle John (US Army 1942-45) and Uncle Phil (US Army Air Forces 1942-1945) discussed the prospect war in Iraq. They were not in favor. These men had all seen War first-hand. They had witnessed the suffering and death of their comrades in arms, as well as the civilians in war zones. Having worked, and waited, and worried for their own war to be won, they well understood that the course of warfare is unpredictable. And that those who initiate war are often woefully disappointed when peremptory attacks ultimately result in shameful retreat and utter defeat. Think of Hitler. Think of Tito.
War is a haunting experience. Uncle Joe talked about his years in the Navy a lot. As a sailor on USS Wichita in the months before the US joined the War, he had seen shipwrecks up and down the US East Coast. German U-boats were sinking freighters bound for Britain at a horrifying rate. Joe described coming upon the wreckage of a ship that had just been hit. He would keep repeating over and over, “Poor bastards.” This was not the attitude of a man who didn’t give a !@$. Uncle John and Uncle Phil were more reticent about the War—perhaps because their experiences had been far more traumatic.
John fought with the 349th Infantry through three major battles of the Italian campaign: Rome-Arno, North Apennines, Po Valley. It wasn’t until his granddaughter gave the eulogy at Uncle John’s funeral that I learned he had been awarded three bronze stars. Nobody seems to know what he did to earn those stars. I do know that he was haunted by the memory of a young German soldier, “He was a kid just like I was; I didn’t want to shoot, but I knew that if I didn’t kill him, he would kill me.” These are not the words of a man who was oblivious to the humanity of his enemy. Surely, he was far more concerned about his Allies—members of the Italian Resistance. Nobody ever heard my Uncle John say “I don’t give a @#$” about the Italians.
Uncle Phil was a ball-turret gunner on a B-17. He was a member of the 385th Bomb Group that flew out of Great Ashfield, England. Phil was only 17 when he joined up; by War’s end he had flown seventeen missions over Germany. There was one very close call—an emergency landing. “We were fortunate to make it to Belgium—Allied territory.” As a very old man Phil sometimes fretted those bombing missions, my cousins told me. “I wonder how many people we killed,” he would say. Clearly, my Uncle Phil gave a !@#$ about the unavoidable casualties of war.
The Greatest Generation
The men who fought World War II are often called The Greatest Generation. And rightly so. They endured homesickness, hardship, and horrors we can only imagine. They fought for the best possible reasons. To protect their families and their homes. To defend freedom. And to stand by their Allies.