Monday, August 16, 2010

Some Closure

I've written about my great-uncle Bill before. Last time I said this:
He was younger than I am now and, by all accounts, never really gave a shit about much. He could have stayed out of WWII (at least for another year or so) if he had stayed in school, but he simply didn't care. He dropped out and the army got him. He got sent out to the South Pacific and on his first mission, the ship got torpedoed. Supposedly he made it to shore with some of his unit, where he was promptly shot by a Japanese sniper and buried on the beach by his buddies.
For a long time Bill was listed as MIA, and so they kept hoping he was alive somewhere. My grandfather tried to enlist, thinking he'd go "find" his brother. Turns out flat footed, only surviving sons with dependents, Messiah complexes and who have trouble following orders and getting along with others aren't in much demand, even in war time. Zayde built Liberty Ships during the war instead, pretending like he was helping somehow.
Finally word came in that Bill was dead. His immigrant parents were crushed. They were Yiddish Communists, for crying out loud! I can't imagine what their thoughts about the whole mess were. My g.grandfather insisted on the body being sent back, even though his daughters begged him to let him stay in peace. Zaideh always got his way.
Bill's body came back- the day before his sister got married. Great-grandfather figured out a solution: no one told her. She got married and they held the body. The next morning, she went on her honeymoon and the rest of the family went to Staten Island for the funeral and 21-gun salute.
My great-grandmother never saw the body, so she always claimed that he wasn't really dead. Forty years later, she would still do this. It must have just killed them.
And even though they were Communists, they must have felt some attachment to America, otherwise they wouldn't have stayed. And I know they kept all of Bill's war stuff (I have his Purple Heart). So there's some feeling there.
But was Bill a patriot? Was the fact that his Mom became a Gold Star Mom, that she sacrificed a son, did that change her American-ness? (It doesn't seem to have changed her ideology- she was a raving Pinko all through the 50s and 60s, and apparently her kids were scared shitless in the McCarthy days that she was going to get them all deported.) I'm really not sure. What does seem clear is that Bill didn't die for a damn thing- he had no cause. It doesn't sound like he really had any ambitions at all, and that was part of why he didn't care when he got drafted. He was just a kid, and a nonentity at that. Which is what makes it all the more egregious when men like him are retconned to fit someone's idea of what a warrior, or a war hero, should be.
Bill got an American flag, but I don't think he died for it. He probably wasn't even fighting for it. He had just happened to wind up in a shitty situation and was dealing with it. And even though that might not be particularly romantic, I think it's a lot more honest than a lot of the language we get about war in this country.

It has been one of my long-term goals to find out more about this man. For a long time all I knew was his name, rank, branch of service, and where he died. It took five years to even get his service number. After that I wrote to the Military Branch of the National Archives. Good old family luck; his record had been incinerated in a fire.

And then I came across a web page discussing something called Individual Deceased Personnel Files. These are files for soldiers who have died overseas. I sent Bill's info in, and, surprise, surprise, got something back.

I had been dreaming of getting a little closer to him. Finding out something more that would make him live again. It gave me his birthday. It told me his unit. And it described his death, albeit briefly.

Bill died on Bougainville Island in the Solomon Islands (now part of New Guinea), somewhere few people have ever heard of, on the third day of a three week battle. While the battle has gone down in history as the romantic-sounding "Battle for Hill 260," the soldiers who fought it called it "The Battle of the Million-Dollar Tree." Yes, a single tree. A 150-foot banyan tree with an observation post on top that would give whoever controlled it a significant tactical advantage. The Americans established a base on the island and were slowly pushing in, the Japanese counter-attacked for the observation post. 98 Americans died during those three weeks in March. And at the end, this is what was left:

He was 19 years old. He was a brother, a son, a friend. And he died for a tree. Not for freedom, not to defend America or anything else. The commanders made a decision to hold the ridge, to fight for the observation post rather than risk the Japanese taking it or chopping it down, and 98 men died. And at the end of all that, the damn thing burned down anyway, thanks to American flamethrowers trying to repel the Japanese. How fitting. Other battles were fought on the island, but even after the Americans (and later, Australians) had virtual total control, the Japanese still held out, all the way until Japan's surrender.

It's hard to read about this and think that his death made much difference in the big picture. They didn't even hold the tree. All that comes across is a massive waste.

The records help clear up some matters, help clarify the stories. There was no bombed transport, though there may have been a sniper. He wasn't drafted, he volunteered. And the time period between him being listed as MIA and KIA was less than a month. It did, apparently, take five years to get his body repatriated, though. He was buried and re-buried five times between Bougainville and Staten Island. And he did show up, unannounced, the day before his sister's wedding. Just an extra twist of the knife for good measure.

I wonder whether Bill surviving the war would have changed things. What it might have done for my grandfather. What did losing his brother, his only brother, do to him as a young man of 24? Was that part of what helped push him over the edge? It's probably wishful thinking to imagine that having one more sibling around could have helped anchor him to reality and kept the demons of bipolar disorder away.

But I also have a brother. And though we're very different, and not necessarily close, I can't imagine what losing him would do to me.

It's hard to feel this way about someone important to your family. Part of me wonders if my inability to view Bill as a hero isn't disrespectful to him. But then I think about who he actually was, and how he actually died, and I can't admire him for that, only pity him.

There's a primal need, to memorialize people. To make the ordinary into heroes, and to craft stories that make sense of terrible things, particular war. And I won't deny that there is heroism in everyday acts. But to claim heroism where there is only dumb fortune, or even worse, misfortune, seems wrong. It seems false, dishonest. Raising Bill up as a hero when he was really just terribly, tragically, unlucky, seems to make his death all the more bitter, as if his life needs to be re-cast because it's not good enough. I'm not ashamed that he wasn't a hero-- he was a young man in a war zone. The point is that being in an extraordinary situation does not make one extraordinary. We focus on the extraordinary folks and ignore, minimize, or whitewash the ordinary ones.

Bill was not a hero. But he was probably trying to do his best. No more, no less. And, while more would be nice, I don't need more to give his death dignity. Maybe purpose is too far to go, but dignity, I can comprehend. If the conversation about soldiers, wounded, the dead, could shift from automatically claiming everyone involved in a war as a hero (which frames war exclusively in a simplistic good vs. evil, heroes vs. villains viewpoint), and trying to look at individuals from a perspective of respect and honesty, I think we might be able to get a little further in understanding what war is, and in bridging the gap between those who have been to war and those who haven't. I've read enough war memoirs, ranging from World War I to Vietnam to present-day, to understand that for lots of veterans, the only thing they hate more than being dismissed as heartless villains is to be idolized as glorious heroes. For many soldiers, war is not heroic, war is messy, random, and at times, painfully stupid. Calling the whole thing "heroic" is an easy way to avoid having to face the real tragedies and horrors that come with actually sending your sons and daughters to go kill other people's.

I don't want to speak for anyone else's family. But when we try to elevate, sanctify, or downright re-write something that has no inherent meaning, no purpose... I don't think that makes it any better. If anything, it just highlights how much of life and war doesn't match what we wish it did. All we're left with is the loss. Loss of the loved one, and loss of the meaning we wish we had.

Rest In Peace.

1 comment:

Joy said...

Very interesting. Thanks for the insightful post!