I love listening to veterans talk about their experiences. Usually it’s the ones that don’t like to talk about it that have the most incredible tales. These stories aren’t really the har-har, slap-your-knee, ain’t-it-cool type things you usually get from anecdotes – they’re something different. You, the listener, are getting a glimpse of a place you probably will never go, assuming you’re reasonable lucky and live in a serviceable stable society. War isn’t noble or good or awesome or anything like that – I’m no jingoist – and the stories that come from it aren’t there to entertain. They exist, for me, as a fascinating window into a state of human existence beyond the scope of my experience or understanding. I crave them because I want to hear how regular people react to completely impossible, improbably scenarios. They’re hard things to understand sometimes, or sometimes they’re too easy so long as you don’t ask, but they draw you in anyway; they get you caught in their teeth and won’t let go. They stick with you forever.
Tim O’Brien, in his simply incredible collection of short stories The Things They Carried, has one story called “How to Tell a True War Story” that puts the trouble with war stories best:
You can tell a true war story by the questions you ask. Somebody tells a story, let’s say, and afterwards you ask, “Is it true?” and if the answer matters, you’re got your answer.
For example, we’ve all heard this one. Four guys go down a trail. A grenade sails out. One guy jumps on it and takes the blast and saves his three buddies.
Is it true?
The answer matters.
You’d feel cheated if it never happened. Without the grounding reality, it’s just a trite bit of puffery, pure Hollywood, untrue in the ways all such stories are untrue. Yet even if it did happen – and maybe it did, anything’s possible – even then you know it can’t be true, because a true war story does not depend upon that kind of truth. Happeningness is irrelevant. A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth.
The experience of war is a mess, from what I am given to understand. Tim O’Brien knows this better than most; I am willing to trust his word. He’s right about the question of truth, anyway – truth doesn’t depend on fact and never has. Those who compile their understanding of the world on the basis of fact alone are living half a life, are seeing half the world.
For this Veterans Day, I’ve got two war stories for you. The first is from my Great Uncle, now deceased, who was a tank commander in the US Army during World War 2. He drove a Sherman through Italy and, at one point, experienced 150 hours straight of combat. Straight – no breaks. A week of being shot at, shooting, being scared as hell, and barely sleeping. You don’t believe it, take it up with him. He didn’t talk about it much, but I do have this story:
Bro (my uncle’s name) and his crew never left the tank if they could avoid it. They slept in it, they ate in it, the lived in it – a rolling armored apartment with not much elbow room but lots of armor plating between them and any bullets heading their way. They were driving up through the Italian countryside – I don’t know where they were going or their precise mission, but it was close to the front – when they come upon a German motorcycle leaning against a tree. This was a sweet bike – brand new BMW, still shiny, no apparent damage. Yeah, sure, it’s just a motorcycle, but this is a tank full of teenagers and early twenty-somethings and this is a free BMW motorcycle. The Germans were running for the hills at this point, so they figured it was left behind.
Breaking with all tradition, they decide the bike is too valuable to leave behind for some infantryman or supply douchebag to snag as his own, so they all hop out of the tank and lift the thing up on the back and spend a minute or two tying the thing down. After they get it secure, they get back inside the tank.
The second the hatch closes, the whole tank shudders and the world roars as an enemy artillery shell hits the tree the motorcycle was leaning against. The tank is fine, the guys inside are fine, but the motorcycle was shredded to ribbons. Had they spent another ten seconds outside admiring the thing, they would all have been dead.
That’s it – that’s the story. My Uncle Bro went on to weather the whole war without sustaining injury until the very end, after V-E Day. His tank was being transported via train to where it would be loaded up and taken back to the States. True to form, he was sleeping inside. When the tank fell off the train, he bashed his head open on the metal bulwark inside and had to have a steel plate put in his skull.
What’s that all mean? No idea. Did it happen? Don’t really care. It sucks me in anyway. I think about it all the time – those guys peering out their hatch and through their little view-slits to take a gander and a gleaming BMW and risk their lives on it. I love it, and I know it’s true in all the ways that matter to me.
The other story is something different. Met an old guy at a party once – faint German accent, well dressed, said he was a dentist. Told me this story:
He was a soldier in the German army in World War 2, and he served on the Eastern Front. He was at Stalingrad and he related, with a kind of ghoulish grimace I can’t simulate or understand, how “when the Russians came, they came women first.” He said there were men who wouldn’t shoot the women, but the women had knives and cleavers and axes and clubs, and when they got to you, you died. “So,” he said, “I shot the women.”
One day he was firing his gun (I gathered from the description it was either an MP40 or Sturmgewehr or something) at a human wave coming at him, howling for blood. The air was so cold and the gun was so hot that his hands were numb so, when he heard the sharp crack, he expected to see that his gun had jammed. Instead, the bottom of the gun had been blown off by a stray bullet (or perhaps it was aimed – who knows). It’s path through the gun had taken off the bottom of his right hand – the last two fingers.
At this point in the story, the old man held up his mutilated hand – his evidence, his proof. He then added, “It was good that they shot off my fingers, because I was put on a plane to the rear for medical attention. It was the last plane out before the rest of the army was cut off.”
He showed me that grimace again and chuckled dryly. “Not many others made it out. Nobody I knew, anyway.”
After the war he came to America and spend decades not telling anyone about what he had done during the war. Then, one day, he decided he ought to talk about it. I don’t know if I believe him, but the story stuck with me anyway.
Where am I going with this? I’m not sure, except to say that we ought to remember that the veterans we welcome home bring with them a heavy burden of narrative. How to describe something so alien as war? Not many are equal to the task; still, if they should talk to you, it is the least you can do to listen.