I ask myself the question every year on Veterans Day. What does it mean to me that my father had been a soldier in World War II? It is a day of reflection for me. But really, I ask the question not only on that day, but on Memorial Day and many other days in between I think. I ask what that experience did to him and what it did in turn, to us, his family. With over 2 million having served in the most recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, so many more peoples’ fathers will have been soldiers in the coming years, and now mothers too.
What it meant for me growing up was reflected in what we didn’t do, and what we did do.
What we didn’t do: go to parades and go shopping.
No, parades were not for us when I was growing up on those government holidays. If a parade was even mentioned in my house, it led to a long discussion about the people who survived the World War II in our community and why, and those who didn’t—a very long list—and how. No shopping was planned at special sales organized to take advantage of the free time. Shopping on these days was seen as a kind of obscenity.
What we did do: reflect, and listen to my father’s stories—some true and some hypothetical.
We got to hear what he thought about Veterans Day, Memorial Day, war, death, and the experiences of being a soldier and being the brother of a soldier killed in the war. We got to listen to how it felt to be the surviving son in a family who lost a son in the war. When we were very young, we might ask if he had actually killed a person, and that question would always remain unanswered. He would say, “You can’t kill a stranger, someone you don’t know, whose family you don’t know”. I never quite understood what that meant. Some days, adding a wrapper of horror to the day off from public school, we got to hear what it was like for him in the army, walking through the cities of Japan just after the US dropped the atomic bombs there. So for me, these special government holidays were heavy, oppressive days of trying to understand the world through his lens, focused by his pain and his remorse.
This is one of his stories heard when I was a child.
Dad: Sometimes truth isn’t so important, not like friendship, or loyalty.
Mom: But you shouldn’t lie.
Mom: All the time. The children are listening to you, please. I don’t want them to lie.
Dad: So what do you do, if you are in a room in your house during an occupation? In the corner of the room is a pile of blankets. Under the blankets is a man hiding from soldiers. The soldiers come stomping through your house with their guns and bayonets out, and they ask you if you have seen a man. What do you say?
Mom: Not a fair question.
Dad: Do you tell the truth? Do you lie? Do you say, well sir, yes, right there under that pile of blankets is a man?
The children (us): Laughter.
Mom, angry: Please.
Dad: Let’s say that you tell the truth. And then what do the soldiers do next? They go over to the pile of blankets and kill the man. They shoot the pile of blankets and they run their bayonets through it. That’s what happens.
Mom: Really, you don’t have to describe things like that.
Dad. I’m just saying, sometimes telling the truth isn’t that important. Sometimes you have to not speak at all. And sometimes you have to lie. Sometimes, telling a lie is the right thing to do. You might have to protect someone one day.
Mom: Great, in front of the children. Wonderful. You shouldn’t lie, in most circumstances they are likely to be in.
Dad: It could happen. A person has to think about the consequence, that’s all I’m saying, the consequence of the words. It’s not so important that it be true, or that you shouldn’t lie. I’ll tell you what you shouldn’t do. You shouldn’t kill. And you shouldn’t get someone else killed either.
The children (us): Speechless.
He may have gotten this story from experience; he may have gotten it from another storyteller as he was very fond of reading stories and retelling them. His stories burned in my memory but they also taught me to question what was right, and to think about how each of us were connected to those around us by each thing we said and did. I miss his storytelling, but I do repeat many of the stories in my head.
A little history with that memory:
“Whereas the 11th of November 1918, marked the cessation of the most destructive, sanguinary, and far reaching war in human annals and the
resumption by the people of the United States of peaceful relations with other
nations, which we hope may never again be severed, and
Whereas it is fitting that the recurring anniversary of this date should be commemorated with thanksgiving and prayer and exercises designed to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations; and
Whereas the legislatures of twenty-seven of our States have already declared November 11 to be a legal holiday: Therefore be it Resolved by the Senate (the House of Representatives concurring), that the President of the United States is requested to issue a proclamation calling upon the officials to display the flag of the United States on all Government buildings on November 11 and inviting the people of the United States to observe the day in schools and churches, or other suitable places, with appropriate ceremonies of friendly relations with all other peoples.
An Act (52 Stat. 351; 5 U. S. Code, Sec. 87a) approved May 13, 1938, made the 11th of November in each year a legal holiday.”
I especially like the part about “friendly relations with all other peoples”. If I had to answer–and the answer is always evolving—of what it means to me that my father had been a soldier, it is that I want to avoid violence and war. I want friendly relations with people. He taught me that I have to be responsible for what I say and do, and consider the effect on the lives of people all around me. That’s it, because he was a soldier, I became obsessed with moral responsibility.