Thomas Childers: A Father’s Day meditation on the invisible costs of war - and their family legacy

Roundup: Talking About History

[Thomas Childers is the Sheldon and Lucy Hackney Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania. His latest book is “Soldier from the War Returning: The Greatest Generation’s Troubled Homecoming from World War II” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). ]

My father Tom Childers and Willis Allen, my best friend Gary’s father, were veterans of the Second World War, prototypes of what we have come to call “the Greatest Generation.” Raised in modest circumstances during the Great Depression, with little in the way of social or economic advantages, they fought and survived the war, returned home, had families, and built successful careers. They prospered, joined social clubs, watched their sons play Little League, took their families on vacations to Florida. They were model veterans, model family men.

But for Tom and Willis and many other men who returned from World War II, there was another, more complex and unsettling reality that lurked below the glossy surface of the Greatest Generation storyline. The men and women of that generation deserve all the testimonials they receive, but the uncomplicated, reassuring portrayal of their experiences found in Tom Brokaw’s best-selling book and in our public discourse has become more than a tribute to a passing generation; it has become our public memory of “the good war” and its aftermath. Indeed, it has been repeated so often in public commemorations that it has become almost an incantation, more liturgical than historical.

I thought of Willis and Tom earlier this month as I watched dignitaries and aged veterans gather in Normandy to commemorate the fateful D-Day landings of June 6, 1944. Never mentioned in such ceremonies or in the vast media attention devoted to the “Greatest Generation” is another battle our fathers waged. That battle was not fought in the fields of Europe or the jungles of the South Pacific but in towns and cities all across America, sometimes in highly public spaces - hospitals and courtrooms - but more often in parlors, kitchens, and bedrooms. As many veterans and their families would discover, the last daunting challenge of the war, for those fortunate enough to survive it, was attempting to resume a life interrupted and forever changed by war.

At night, when I slept over at Gary’s house, we would sometimes be awakened in the dead hours before dawn by shouting - his father Willis, in a towering rage, howling, slamming his wheelchair into the walls, pounding on the locked bedroom door where Gary’s mother had taken refuge. Terrified, we would jump out of our beds and slide a bureau against the bedroom door. Sometimes we would climb out of the window into the dewy grass and wait until the bellowing subsided. A patrol car might arrive, red light flashing, and there would be muffled words in the driveway. Lights went on in the houses across the street. The Allens’ troubled household had become a neighborhood spectacle.

Although long forgotten or ignored, many of the profoundly disturbing social and personal problems arising from the wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan - homelessness, unemployment, shattered personal relationships, substance abuse, and severe psychological disorders - were glaringly present in the aftermath of World War II....

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