Luther Spoehr: Review of Thomas Childers’s Soldier From the War Returning: The Greatest Generation’s Troubled Homecoming from World War II (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009).
“Making it matter” is an equally worthy and essential goal. When teachers present students with historical problems, questions, and answers, the latter are likely--and right--to ask, “So what? Why should I care?” Teachers need to respond, not necessarily by linking the past to obvious and immediate concerns about policy or politics, but by addressing larger questions of meaning and significance important to all of us. Questions such as, “How does the experience of war affect the lives of those who fight it, their families, their friends, and their society?”
The same mandates apply to historical narrative, and Thomas Childers, a historian at the University of Pennsylvania, more than meets them. “Soldier from the War Returning” (a quotation adapted from A.E. Housman’s “A Shropshire Lad”) is the third book that Childers has written to, in his words, “illuminate the events, emotions, and experiences of the Second World War through the lives of the human beings caught up in them, to allow readers not only to observe and analyze but also to feel something of the turmoil—the exultation, the fear, the agony—of those epochal years.” His first book, “Wings of Morning” (1995) was, as the words of its subtitle indicate, “The Story of the Last American Bomber Shot Down over Germany in World War II.” His second, “In the Shadows of War” (2004), was about (again, the informative subtitle), “An American Pilot’s Odyssey Through Occupied France and the Camps of Nazi Germany.”
In all three, Childers focuses on a few “ordinary” people swept into the chaos of World War II and takes full advantage of the fact that, although readers know how the war turns out, they don’t know just what happened to these particular people. He is a master storyteller, with an artist’s eye for detail and a historian’s regard for evidence. If he sometimes relies on plausibility—how sure can we be of what was going through a man’s mind at a critical moment?—he never relies on it too much.
“Wings of Morning” was, among other things, a mystery story about the author’s search to find out what how his Uncle Howard (whom he never met) had died when his B-24 was shot down in the spring of 1945. Childers’ ability to recreate the world of his uncle and the other crew members, from basic training to the final, fatal mission, was extraordinary; his writing was deeply felt, vivid, precise, and controlled. In “Soldier from the War Returning,” he manages much the same feat, despite the fact that his narrative has a much longer arc—extending to the present day—and that he has a personal connection to two of the three men he writes about. One of them, indeed, is his late father.
Childers also wants to “make it matter.” He wants to correct the impression, by now commonplace, that the GIs of World War II generally “readjusted” quickly, that their return to civilian life, unlike that of veterans of more recent wars, was virtually seamless. He quotes at length from Tom Brokaw’s best-selling “The Greatest Generation”: “When the war was over, the men and women who had been involved…joined in joyous and short-lived celebrations, then immediately began the task of rebuilding their lives and the world they wanted…[They were] battle-scarred and exhausted, but oh so happy and relieved to be home. The war had taught them what mattered most in the lives they wanted now to settle down and live.”
Not exactly. Childers’s survey of postwar society shows that immediately after the war, people neither expected nor saw quick “readjustment.” Postwar popular culture—whether represented by crude tabloid headlines such as “Will Your Boy Be a Killer When He Returns?” or relatively sophisticated movies such as the ironically-titled “The Best Years of Our Lives”—showed, as Childers says, “more shades of mood and meaning, more sorrow and strain and anger added to the mix of relief and celebration” than Brokaw and other celebrants of “the Greatest Generation” depict.
There was reason for concern. Childers notes that “by July 1943 the U.S. Army was discharging ten thousand men each month for psychiatric reasons, and the numbers increased as the war dragged on.” If people spoke of such things at all, they spoke of “shell shock” or “battle fatigue”; military medicos spoke of “psychoneurosis”; today we would call it “post-traumatic stress disorder.” Whatever it was called, it involved “depression, recurring nightmares, survivor guilt, outbursts of rage (most frequently directed at family members), ‘exaggerated startle responses,’ and anxiety reactions.” The most common advice about “treatment,” both from others and themselves: try to forget the war, move beyond it, put it in the past. The typical war vet didn’t want to talk about it. But that didn’t make it go away.
Of Childers’s three soldiers, Willis Allen suffered the most grievous physical wounds: the “lucky” survivor of an artillery barrage in Italy that wiped out the rest of his companions, he lost both legs, but, after strenuous physical rehabilitation and some false starts, he seemed to have built a stable civilian life, complete with job and family. Michael Gold, a navigator whose B-17 was shot down, spent 15 freezing, starving months as a POW in Stalag Luft I, but apparently put his privations behind him and became a successful obstetrician-gynecologist. Tom Childers helped provide ground support for the air war at a base in England. Like most men in the military, he wasn’t in combat. But he saw “his share of the war’s daily horrors: tattered planes staggering back, Plexiglas shattered and streaked with blood, scraps of tissue, and fragments of bone; headless bodies taken from flak-riddled planes, men fried to a cinder or frozen or suffocated, blue with anoxia when their oxygen masks froze. ‘I’ve seen things over here that I hope never to see again and I wish I could forget,’ he wrote in August 1944. ‘I think being here has aged me five years.’” Certainly being there changed him. At his funeral in 1994, his widow, Mildred, sounded a familiar refrain: “You know, he was never the same after the war.”
By then, of course, the war was a half-century in the past. One might argue that during that time other things, other events, must have had equally crucial impact. But Childers has the evidence he needs to identify the war as the defining trauma that shaped the rest of their lives. When Michael Gold eats his meals so aggressively that his children don’t want to sit next to him, we know why. Childers recalls the familiar line from Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.”
The last third of the book, in which Childers describes how experiences long repressed bobbed explosively to the surface of each man’s life, is less consistently gripping than the earlier parts, mainly because the details of its domestic dramas and breakups are familiar from a million other narratives. That it succeeds as well as it does is tribute to Childers’s ability to make the reader care about his subjects—to make their lives real. In doing so, he restores a third dimension to “the greatest generation.” By giving them back their vulnerability, frailty, fears, and failures, and honoring the bravery of their long struggles against their personal demons, he mercifully removes them from the pedestal where they were placed a few decades ago. It turns out they have more in common with the soldiers of Vietnam and Iraq and other wars than we knew. And that’s a good thing to know. Welcome home.
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Jules R. Benjamin - 7/26/2009
We might as well add all the veterans to all the killed and wounded, military and civilian whose lives have been forced through the dark tunnel of war. Yes, they came home. But given this kind of accounting, how can we continue tp be war lovers? It does not seem to matter if our "boys" are saving the world or bringing more misery to it. Either way we lose, they lose. It does not seem to matter if they conduct themselves as heroes or murderers. We betray them; they lie to us. As the body count rises, we never stop looking for the "good" war. Now that we have decided that WWII was the genuine article I doubt that much can be done to discover the truths about it. At least when we lose we are moved to learn why. Victory teaches us nothing.
Gregory Canellis - 7/23/2009
Nice review, but the boring teacher referrence in the beginning should have been red-penned out. And, as my professor used to say: "review the book you're reviewing!" In other words, too much emphasis on Childer's previous works.
Tim Matthewson - 7/20/2009
Is it possible to live up to the claim of being the greatest generation? I doubt it. Childers notes that “by July 1943 the U.S. Army was discharging ten thousand men each month for psychiatric reasons, and the numbers increased as the war dragged on.” But by giving them back their vulnerability, frailty, fears, and failures, and honoring the bravery of their long struggles against their personal demons, he mercifully removes them from the pedestal where they were placed a few decades ago. It turns out they have more in common with the soldiers of Vietnam and Iraq and other wars than we knew. And that’s a good thing to know. Welcome home.
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