Veterans Day in our town
“People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.”
My wife was reading my Veteran's Day article about USAF Lt. Col. (ret.) Nick Soulis' presentation at VCSU last Thursday.*
Wow!” she exclaimed, “He flew over the Himalayas? How many people were there to hear him?”
“Not many,” I replied, “about a dozen I think.”
She was dumbfounded. She had originally tipped me off about the presentation and was irritated she couldn't come herself.
She couldn't imagine why more students wouldn't want to hear what an old WWII pilot had to say about his war. But then, she's a soldiers daughter and was raised on war movies – often American ones at that. Her father is a retired Polish Army officer who loves American war movies.
I sometimes wonder if that's what we have in common. We come from different countries, different generations, and grew up speaking different languages. What we do have in common is a weird sense of humor, and the fact that we're both military brats.
My father retired a Captain in the Navy Medical Corps, her father a Major in the Secret Chancellery of the Polish Army. My mother was a Navy nurse, her grandmother was a member of the underground army during WWII. When they met for the first time, her father presented mine with a Polish officer's saber. So our children have grandfathers who were officers on opposite sides of the Cold War.
Everything changes in time.
Their military experiences were far different of course, and not entirely positive. My father retired at a time when our country was rent by a still-ongoing debate as to whether, and when we should send our military abroad, and shaken to the core by the revelations of the My Lai massacre.
Her country's military were acutely, humiliatingly, aware they were treated as the local auxiliaries of an occupying power. And the role of Polish forces in crushing the Czechoslovakian freedom movement in 1968 is deeply embarrassing to this day.
The legacy in both our countries, is an attitude towards the military in the present generation of young adults that ranges from indifferent to actively hostile. This is expressed, as I saw last Thursday, by a disinterest in military history and the reminiscences of old veterans who in their youth, saw the world descend into madness.
Valley City has a fortunate relationship with the military. Our experience is mostly with the citizen-soldiers of the local National Guard. These men and women are less transient than regular military, more rooted in our community, more settled. And after being sent half a world away, they return to us, not to a duty station among strangers.
Some of them have served in Iraq. Soon, some will go to Kosovo, and in the future perhaps to Afghanistan, if our new president follows through on his campaign promises. These are ancient lands, consumed by divisions older than the history of our nation, and a debate rages as to whether our involvement in their affairs will do them, or us, any lasting good.
The experience of the Second World War generation would seem to incline them one way, more recent experience another. The differences might tell us a lot about why, and if, and under what circumstances we should send our young men and women in harm's way, far away.
I confess to being deeply conflicted about where the Guard is sending our friends and neighbors. Iraq, Kosovo, Afghanistan. All three? None? Any one or two of them?
I don't know what the judgment of the next generation will be on any of these. But I strongly suggest when they are called on to reminisce about their war - listen.
* VCSU is Valley City State University, a small but quite well-regarded local university.
Mr. Soulis is an insurance agent in a neighboring town, and was invited by our local university to talk about his experiences as a B-29 pilot during WWII. Soulis flew out of India across "the hump" to bomb the Japanese in China, and later out of the island of Tinian to bomb the home islands of Japan.
What was startling to me, was his memories of the aftermath of the two atomic bombs.
After the Hiroshima bomb, they heard nothing from the Japanese government for two days. So they dropped the Nagasaki bomb.
Again, no communication.
Soulis actually flew another mission dropping incendiaries on Japanese cities days after Nagasaki.
He said, "Nobody wanted to get killed on the last day of the war."
After the mission he went to sleep and was woken up by somebody shouting, "The war's over! The war's over!"
His last mission in B-29s was to fly over the battleship Missouri as the Japanese envoys signed the articles of surrender.