I grew up in a Navy town; my father was a veteran of World War Two, a Marine. Most of his friends were veterans; my friends' fathers were veterans. They'd served in different theaters, different branches of the armed forces, different capacities. But they all had one thing in common:
They didn't talk about it much.
They supported the armed forces and America's armed interventions around the world. But they didn't have much to say about their own service, particularly if they saw action. My father served in the Marianas, the Marshall Islands, Pelilu, Iwo Jima. Didn't say a thing about any of it, except that he was shot in the leg.
As a boy, I didn't wonder about it. Fathers just -- didn't talk about the war When I grew older, my mother told me that for the first few years after the war my father often woke up shouting in the middle of the night. And in a cold sweat. He wouldn't tell her what he'd been dreaming. But I'm sure she understood that he had been through something terrible.
Years passed, many of them. The folks moved to a seniors community, and Dad died after a few years. Mom married a widower neighbor named Boyd.
Boyd was courtly, polite, and outspokenly pious. People's troubles would all be solved if they could just return to Jesus, as he had. He just didn't understand why they'd turn down the love of God
After we knew him a few years, it became clear that Boyd could also be unscrulpulous, bullying, and belligerent. He would override any agreement or promise if he felt like it. If you asked him how his actions jibed with his religious beliefs or previous promises, he'd say, "This has nothing to do with that." Boyd was a master of compartmentalization. He could honestly believe he'd given his soul to God while at the same time behaving unethically towards his fellow man.
But in the end he was also old and fragile -- well into his 90s when my mother went into the hospital for her final few weeks. I spent several days a week staying down in their town, to see Mom and also to mind Lloyd when my sister wasn't around. He wasn't bearing up all that well under the strain of dealing with my mother's illness, and the hours and hours in the hospital each day.
One night we got back to the house about midnight, and Boyd had a panic attack. He couldn't sleep; his blood pressure and heart rate were on the ceiling. So I sat up and talked with him into the early hours as he gradually calmed down. And for reasons I don't understand or remember, Boyd suddenly began talking about it: World War Two. He'd served.
He'd been captain of an anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) battery in Europe. His battalion had gone to France after D-Day, and in late autumn went to Belgium to take part in an operation called Antwerp X, later known as the Defense of Antwerp. (He didn't tell me all the details; I looked them up later.)
Antwerp was the Allies' port of entry for nearly all supplies and equipment for the invasion of Europe. The Germans, preparing for a winter offensive that would later be called the Battle of the Bulge, tried to shut Antwerp down or at least disrupt it. And they decided to do it with V-1 flying bombs.
The V-1 was a nasty piece of work: a cheap unmanned jet aircraft that carried one ton of high explosives. It launched from a ramp and went in an approximately straight line for a set distance -- up to 200 miles, depending on how the autopilot was set.
When it determined that it had gone the right distance, the V-1's primitive control systems put the craft into a steep dive. The V-1's bomb detonated on impact. On impact with anything that happened to be there: a school, a church, a hospital, shops. The German High Command didn't know precisely where a V-1 would end up, and they didn't care. The idea was to cause damage and spread terror.
Boyd's AAA battalion, and many others, formed a ring around the outskirts of Antwerp and shot down thousands of V-1s in late '44 and early '45. Hundreds got through and did a lot of damage. But it could have been worse. The official battalion histories you can read online praise the brave AAA men for their work in generalities: "harsh conditions," "difficult circumstances." But, all in all, a job well done.
That's not quite the way Boyd told it. The way Boyd told it, Antwerp X was all about collateral damage. Because you could shoot a V-1 and hit it. And you could hope it would explode in mid-air and rain down debris in small, harmless pieces. But most of the time, it didn't; you knocked off a wing, or the tail, or damaged the rudder. And then the V-1 went mad, screaming across the sky in an unpredictable death spiral as its autopilot fought vainly for control. And it would land and explode. Somewhere. Maybe in the field over there. Maybe in the river. Maybe on someone's house or in a nearby village. Maybe on you.
This was Belgium, densely populated. Any bomb you shot down was going to explode near an innocent person, and maybe kill them.
If you fired a gun numerous times a day and knew that every time you did so, a vengeful flying robot might swoop out of the sky and kill you or, worse, bystanders -- what would that do to you?
Boyd's unit cracked. Men deserted. The batallion commander went mad and had to be relieved.
One day a V-1 bomb Boyd's battery had shot down landed on the house of a young Belgian family that had befriended them. He grabbed a truck and some men and sped over to try to dig them out of the ruins. They found them all dead under the kitchen table.
"That just... about did it for me," Boyd told me. He said that by the time Antwerp-X finally ended, he had decided that war was "the worst thing there was," and he didn't want any part of it anymore.
And yet, here he was, sixty years later, cheering our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. One day he turned to me and said that he believed that the U.S. had a special place with God and a holy mission to fulfill in overseas wars. That's what they told him on Fox News and that's what, in the twilight of his life, he wanted to believe.
And to me, this is the true horror of war: that someone like Boyd can experience the sheer, senseless destruction it causes, and yet "compartmentalize:" believe that what was going on in Iraq and Afghanistan was somehow different and better than what he had seen with his own two eyes.
There are tens of millions of people like Boyd in this country, hundreds of millions or more around the world. And as long as they can keep their beliefs safe from the reality around them, we will always have war, and people willing to go to war. Or worse : send others to war while knowing how terrible it is with part of your mind. And refusing to make the connection.