I just finished reading Paul Fussell’s masterly study of the First World War and its impact on literature, The Great War and Modern Memory. Near the end he writes about “the ritual of military memory,” and it’s a section that really hit home for me as a chronicler of veterans’ stories.
Fussell, a World War II vet who was badly wounded in Europe, says vets have vivid memories of their brushes with death and feel a powerful, ritual obligation to revisit old battlefields in their minds. It is, Fussell says, a “lunacy of voluntary torment.”
I see it all the time.
It’s mostly evident in World War II vets, who are now in their 80s and beyond. Recently, the wife of a submariner I’d done a story on touched on that. Hank Kudzik had dodged death repeatedly beneath the waves and experienced heart-rending losses in the Pacific. His wife, Jackie, told me: “He never used to talk about this, but now it’s always on his mind. He can’t talk about it enough.”
Several years ago I showed up late for a banquet of the Military Order of the Purple Heart outside Allentown, Pennsylvania where I write a series War Stories: In Their Own Words for the newspaper, The Morning Call. There was only one seat left. I sat down next to a pleasant vet I didn’t know. His name was Charlie Toth, and he said he’d been a Marine on Saipan and Iwo Jima and how terrible the fighting was. I asked him if he’d like to talk about his experiences for publication. He gave a firm “no.”
I said, “If you change your mind, please call me,” and gave him my card. I didn’t expect to hear from him.
Within two weeks, Charlie called and said he would talk to me. Our first day together, we sat at the dining room table in his home, and he spoke of the Marines in the island fighting and the accomplishments of his unit. I listened politely for a while and asked a few questions but had to stop him. “Charlie, if this is going to work, I need you to talk about what you experienced. The people who read this story will want to know about you, about what happened to you.”
He just stared at me, then said:
“If I started telling you what I have seen, I would never sleep again.”
That became the first line of Charlie’s haunting story about facing fanatical Japanese in battle and barely escaping with his life. Here’s the link to the story, which ran in The Morning Call on Memorial Day 2006:
Initially reluctant, Charlie had come around to speaking from his heart – even saying he had confessed to his Catholic priest after he got home from the war:
“Father, I was away almost four years. I think I have committed every crime that’s known to the human race.”
“Son,” he said, “I know. You’re forgiven. Your country forgives you. You’ve done your job. You’re home.”
But I didn’t feel forgiven.
It is one thing for a vet to revisit battlefields in his memory, and quite another to do it for a few hundred thousand readers. Still, in my interviews for War Stories: In Their Own Words, I have seen that veterans like Charlie Toth who tell their stories for publication find some relief in it. It’s more than establishing a record that will live long after they’re gone. It’s a way of unburdening themselves, of conveying their sacrifices so that others might understand.
Yes, it might be voluntary torment, as Fussell puts it, but it’s not all lunacy.