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War Stories

My new client poked at the blurry photocopy with one elegant fingertip. “Look at that!” she said. Another poke. “I had no idea! He never mentioned any of these!” She seemed truly bewildered.​

Army discharge papers from the World War II era have a certain look. I could tell immediately what she was referring to, although I could barely read the typewritten text under “Medals.”

Her husband of many years had received a long string of honors. And she was bewildered because he had never mentioned them. She said he never talked about his years in the service at all.

I looked at his wartime portrait, instantly recognizable in its sepia glory: the sharp uniform, the confident smile, the cap worn at exactly the right angle. Midcentury America, shorthand version.

Perhaps the portrait seemed familiar because my father sat for a similar one when he entered the service—same uniform, same pose, same smile, same America. Another similarity: He never spoke about those years either.

Why is that such a familiar story? It’s tempting to fall back on the usual platitudes: The members of the Greatest Generation were strong, silent, modest types, not given to emoting or self-pity.

Contrast that with a memoir I edited recently, a much older one, whose author was a French teenager at the dawn of World War I. Although he tells his story with a light, almost comic verve, the memories of his training are harrowing. (Fortunately, the Armistice was declared before he ever saw battle.)

Those who fought in the Great War faced almost unimaginable conditions (trench warfare, chemical weapons, shell shock), and even the victors were devastated by the human cost. In the vast social upheaval that followed, novelists, poets, and memoirists (many amateur) poured out stories of every conceivable attitude and outlook.

The almost universally optimistic post-WWII mood was quite different. Telling your story—especially if your story were painful, or even ambiguous—might have been daunting in the conformist ’50s. Is it so surprising, then, that veterans of that era kept their memories to themselves?

In other words, maybe the Greatest Generation wasn’t a bunch of lantern-jawed tough guys. Maybe they just didn’t think the world was ready to hear what they had to say.

It’s my understanding that veterans today have more freedom and encouragement to record their memories. Warrior Writers, for example, is a national nonprofit that hosts workshops and retreats for veterans to explore their experiences through making art.

I wish my father had had that kind of opportunity. Medals are wonderful, of course, but I would happily trade them all in return for knowing his story.

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