Tuesday, November 17, 2009

War Stories part 1

There is a reason why many veterans do not talk about the war. This commonality used to baffle me as a child. I wanted to hear the war stories. I wanted to hear about the glories of battles fought and won. It seemed like high adventure to me then, but no more.

Recently the History Channel remastered some World War II footage. They put these videos into HD. It was a great labor to find these videos; they scoured the earth for them for two years in preparation for the making of this documentary. Most of the footage seems to have been taken by the soldiers themselves. I find it interesting that we are allowed to look at what they found interesting. Each commercial break is followed by a disclaimer warning that we are about to see graphic images that might be disturbing.

Though they are "digitally re-mastered," the videos are still a bit grainy, but they are often graphic none-the-less. Sometimes, the soldiers simply filmed the off-loading of tanks or the unopposed landing of tanks off of ships. But sometimes, they filmed the aftermath of battle.

The first shocking graphic is the picture of the dead soldier. Flies buzz around the bloated corpses of GI's and Japanese soldiers. Their bodies are entangled in heaps. Their eyes stare upward blankly. Their mouths hang open. The bodies are ghastly and sometimes nearly unrecognizable as they lie strewn about the fields. The viewer is exempted from the smell of rot, and the feeling of what it must have been like to have caused that mess of death.

The second shocking graphic is only for those that pay attention to the faces of the living. In the footage of the fighting for Guadalcanal, we get a look at the bright faces of the arriving re-enforcements. They look young, brave, and happy, ready and willing to take the fight to the enemy. As the little hand-held camera passes from the new arrivals to the veterans, the difference in demeanor is obvious. Instead of looking young and spry they seem distant and tired. They are a grim lot. Men accustomed to the fatigues of malnourishment and grief. They look at the new arrivals with what appears to be a sense of bitterness and sorrow. Bitter that they have lost something of what the new arrivals have, and sorry for the fact that those new boys will soon lose it as well.

Some of the documentary follows the inglorious job of the battlefield surgeons and nurses as they try to save the living and comfort the dying. One nurse recounts a particular young man looking up and saying, "How am I doing?" She bent down, kissed his forehead and said, "You're doing fine." He smiled and said, "Just checking." Then he died. She went out and wept privately. She said they always cried privately. "Never in front of the boys," she said, "Never in front of the boys."

The reason that many men say so little about battle and war is because it is sickening. Over the thrill of victory hovers the specter of loss and horror; the day of triumph is darkened by the memory of the long march through the Valley of the Shadow of Death.

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