Friday, November 11, 2005

The Veteran's Wish

You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you'll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.

[Siegfried Sassoon, veteran of WW I]

A generation later, young U.S. Marine privates sat amid a hell of mud and shit and maggots on Okinawa. Rain and artillery poured down, and they dared not sleep but in snatches for fear of Japanese infiltrators. In a landscape blasted featureless, they lit the terrain all night with phosphorous shells and stared at the rotting corpses in front of them, dead Marines and Japanese -- they had to memorize the position of each lest enemy infiltrators sneak close by freezing and pretending to be dead men when the shellbursts flashed. In the intervals of darkness, the exhausted men dreamed or hallucinated the corpses rose up, slogging stoop-shouldered and silently toward them, pleading for something.

There, in 1945, when mails reached them they read letters from their comrades who have finished their enlistments and gone home.

It was hard to believe that some of our old friends who had wanted so much to return home actually were writing us that they thought of volunteering again for overseas duty. (Some actually did.) They had had enough of war, but they had greater difficulty adjusting to civilians or to comfortable stateside military posts. We were unable to understand their attitudes until we ourselves returned home and tried to comprehend people who griped because America wasn't perfect, or their coffee wasn't hot enough, or they had to stand in line and wait for a train or bus.

Our buddies who had gone back had been greeted enthusiastically -- as those of us who survived were received later on. But the folks back home didn't, and in retrospect couldn't have been expected to, understand what we had experienced, what in our minds seemed to set us apart forever from anyone who hadn't been in combat. We didn't want to indulge in self-pity. We just wished that people back home could understand how lucky they were and stop complaining about trivial inconveniences.

[E.B. Sledge, "With the Old Breed at Peleliu and Okinawa]