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Friday, November 12, 2010  

A Beautiful Day in Chicago
Suburban Diarist

My maternal grandfather was a World War II veteran. There's nothing unusual in that for a person of my generation. I've known plenty of veterans, of various wars and roles. But when the year rolls around to our ritual remembrance of those who have served and sacrificed, his is the face that floats before my eyes.

He was shot down twice, once over the Aleutians where he fell broken into the sea. The crewmate he stuffed into a chute was the only other survivor from that B-17 and his own chute was too big for him. "Everything went black," I remember him saying about the deployment. He woke up in a Navy hospital. After a long recovery, he was sent west, only to be shot down again on his forty-seventh mission. He flew with a bombardier from Chicago on that mission (or perhaps another), and I remember him saying that the bombardier said over the radio, "It's a beautiful day in..." as his life was ended by a piece of flak. "He was going to say 'Chicago,'" my grandfather said. He fell in Austria and was taken prisoner in the Stalag Luft IV camp. "For you, the war is over," his German captor had been coached to say. The joke--if that's the right word--was on him, as my grandfather was a fluent German speaker and thus marked for an early escape attempt. Which he made in due time in the bottom of a garbage truck.

The months that followed saw cold, hunger, narrow escapes, dangerous special operations, and finally a terrifying reunion with suspicious Allied forces in April 1945. It was those months that left him with nightmares that never went away. When he prepared his own obituary in 2002, he left out any mention of his escape and his operations behind enemy lines.

I was always proud of my grandfather for his service and his Purple Hearts. I only grew to love him, however, at the end of his life. He was, to put it gently, a difficult man. In fact, I've never known anyone so angry. It took some years and some understanding of what he'd been through to see that his wounds had not all healed. My late grandmother is reported to have said that he was not the same man after the war.

I miss the grandfather I knew far, far more than my sixteen-year-old self could have anticipated--who then knew only his war record and his familial failings. But my heart breaks for that man I never knew, the man who went off to the Good War and never really came back.

Tonight I saw and ad for a video game that showed people in their everyday work clothes fighting a pitched battle, complete with RPGs and helicopters and machine guns. "There's a soldier inside all of us," the ad said. I've seen it once before, and both times I've felt a visceral disgust at it. There is, indeed, a soldier inside all of us. I hope I would be one if it were required of me, and beyond that it is well attested that combat is thrilling and even addictive. But video games don't leave players with nightmares. Real-life bullets tear through real-life flesh and end real lives in real places. And to take life--and see lives taken around you, the lives of people you care about--is something that stays with you. And it reverberates through every life you touch from that day forward.

It's a good thing that America deeply and unreservedly admires those we ask to kill and die on our behalf. But every Veterans' Day should be an opportunity not merely to celebrate and mourn, but to ask ourselves what price we are willing to have our countrymen pay for the things we tell them to accomplish. And more importantly, to ask ourselves how this price may reasonably be avoided both now and in the future. For the rest of my lifetime there will be men and women waking up in the middle of the night and walking among us with the wounds of the wars we authorize. The costs, psychological and fiscal, of whatever it is that we're doing in Afghanistan will be paid for a long, long time to come.

My grandfather saw a whole lot of beautiful days after that fateful one over Austria ("I'm still looking at green grass," he used to tell me; "a lot of my friends are looking at roots"). If France and the UK had not been so punitive at Versailles, perhaps he would have enjoyed them more. And perhaps that young man would have lived long enough to enjoy today's lovely Chicago autumn, in which we who have benefited from their trials and sacrifice wander so heedlessly.

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posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 12:43 AM
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