They didn’t see eye to eye then. Today they agree: “Nothing will change until we force it to. Maybe the only answer is revolution.”
Lifelong differences between fathers and sons, our actions, politics and philosophies, are like a weather buoy on our country. My father’s and my arguments, frustrations, disagreements and ultimate reconciliation, agreements and mutual respect have rung through our decades like the tides and shoals, storms and calms of our nation and collective history. As Abraham Lincoln said, “You cannot escape history.”
My father just turned 87. He served two years in the U.S. Army. Stationed stateside upon the end of World War II, he broke up drunken brawls and guarded prisoners of war whom, he said, “. . . were happy to be out of danger and over here.”
I did not serve in the military and protested the Vietnam War. I have spent most of my career as a psychotherapist striving to heal the shattering and pain of war trauma in our troops, veterans and their families.
My father has had nothing to do with the military since his discharge in 1947. I have worked with our military and veterans for over 35 years, beginning shortly after the end of the Vietnam War.
In many ways my father was typical of his generation. He did his service, joined his immigrant parents in a struggling family business, then spent his working years at many service jobs, sometimes three at a time, to keep our family fed and housed. He never drank because of what he had seen alcohol do to good men while an MP. He was workaholic, exhausted and silent except when his anger at life exploded and he took it out on my brothers and me.
My father shared almost nothing of his own military history until about four years ago when I worked with our chaplains and wounded warriors on Ft. Knox. Dad had been stationed there in 1946. It was as if an electrode had been plunged into his brain. “Are my wooden barracks still there?” “Are the cold showers?” “What do the parade grounds look like now?” “I bought my first pipe at the Ft. Knox PX and still have it. Do you think their Patton Museum might want it?”
Our first conversation about my work there was a torrent of questions and memories flooding out of his usually closed lips. It lasted over an hour—the longest phone conversation I had ever had with him. Service at Ft. Knox brought my father and I together like nothing in our previous lives.
This stands in sharp contrast to our discussions about war and service that had characterized my coming of age years during the Vietnam War. I was in high school. We were standing in our kitchen in Queens. That day’s front page of the Long Island Press featured a headshot of a young sailor in dress whites. Originally from our neighborhood, he was now dead in Vietnam. I told my parents I was going to protest the war.
“No, you’re not!” my father barked.
“Yes, I am,” I retorted. “Look what’s happening!” I shook the newspaper.
“Your grandparents escaped Russia and Poland. This is the only safe place left on earth. Our country is right whether it’s right or wrong. Every man does what his government tells him without questioning. It is the only way we can have a safe haven.”
I waved the paper at him. “In a year or two this could be me,” I said.
“Shut up. Keep your head down. Wait til it’s over,” he answered.
My mother echoed, “The war will be over before you graduate college.”
It wasn’t. I protested. They remained angry. As in millions of homes, we continued to fight over that war through its entire duration.
Twenty years later, I was teaching a college class on “Literature of the Vietnam War,” reading such early classics as Dispatches, Home From the War, Bloods. My father attended a class. In the midst of discussions, one student suddenly turned to him and asked, “So what did the World War II veteran think of his protestor son?” My father looked down and said, “I was against him then. But he was right.”
Since Ft. Knox and the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, my father and I talk often. He listens with deep interest to my stories. He shares memories as they surface as never before—escorting a prisoner, he dropped his gun and the prisoner bent down and handed it back to him; an anti-Semitic soldier against whom one of his Dixie bunkies fought to silence his virulence; finagling an overnight leave so he could attend his sister’s wedding and propose to my mother.
Though we had seemingly irreconcilable differences over the Vietnam War, our new wars and the endless global war are bringing our philosophies and histories together. I recently shared with him the heart-breaking disillusionment many of our modern troops feel over civilian casualties, the rules of engagement, Iraq being the wrong war with no WMDs and not responsible for 9/11, the nerve-frying impact of multiple deployments. My father responded, “There are no more noble causes. I don’t think nobility is possible in our world any longer.”
“Dad, we finally agree. What can we do?”
He had ordered me not to protest and blanched at the Beatles and Jefferson
Airplane songs of insurrection. From his wheelchair in old age he declared, “Maybe nothing will change until we force it to. Maybe the only answer is revolution.”
I carry my father’s World War II Bible. Designed to fit in a serviceman’s breast pocket, it was reputedly responsible for saving some lives not only by its inspiration but because it might stop spent bullets or shrapnel. The World War II Bible opens with a brief inspirational statement by Commander-in-chief Franklin Roosevelt. More notable is the brief Afterword by Major General William Arnold, U.S. Army Chief of Chaplains from 1937-1945. Arnold closes with, “A soldier who knows the Word of God and honestly tries to observe God’s laws is a man of power and influence among his fellows and exalts his military service to the high level of religious faith, courage and loyalty.”
My father and I both strove to live up to those words—he by doing what he was taught is right, me by questioning much of it and finding alternative service. Now, as we honor the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War—April 30, 2015 marks the official date—and grieve and contemplate our new and endless wars, we have arrived at similar conclusions.
My father wanted to believe and exalt, but at the end of life his heart is broken. My soldiers and veterans want to exalt their service in Iraq, Afghanistan, and secret places all over the globe. But we are in the midst of endless waste and carnage, lies, obfuscations and spin, hatred and demonization of others, uncountable civilian deaths, intolerable multiple deployments for the few who serve while most escape untouched.
This seems to characterize military service and warfare since my father’s war, through my own, and into the coming generation of great-grandchildren. We ask, in the name of all that is sacred, how do we exalt over this? On this 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War we should all pause to reflect upon the impact of war and military service, not only on our veterans and their families, but on every one of us.