Excerpted from my talk to the Quincy, IL, Unitarian Church on December 7.
Today is December 7. And for Americans of a certain age, that will always be followed by “a date that will live in infamy.” It’s the anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the event that drew the United States into the Second World War. For my parents’ generation, December 7 was the day that changed everything, that shook the world loose from its foundations. Even though war had been raging in Europe for two years and in Asia for two years before that, it’s the attack on Pearl Harbor that dominates our national psyche as the day the war began.
I’ve been doing quite a bit of reading about war lately as I’ve been working on my second novel. Not so much war itself but the aftermath of war, the societal and cultural reverberations of war that echo long after the war ends.
Evidence of the wounds of war is everywhere we look, if we look carefully enough. On the personal level, our friends, relatives, neighbors, fellow church members, and co-workers who have experienced war deal with that experience in their own ways and with their own levels of intensity. In our political life, we deal with the costs of war, both the economic costs that come from a commitment to military spending, honoring promises made to veterans, and maintaining international ties that grew from wartime; and also in the guns-or-butter sense that every decision to enter into conflict or to maintain a certain level of war readiness is also a decision not to spend money on something else, the old one aircraft carrier equals a million school lunches calculation we’re all familiar with from Facebook.
But as a novelist you try not to think in such abstract terms, and try to focus instead on the human side. So I have a few stories to tell you of a semi-personal nature. Some of them may seem beside the point of this talk, so please bear with me.
When the United States entered the war, my mother started a scrapbook. She was 18 years old at the time, a year and a half out of high school, so as you can imagine the coming of the war affected her and her friends greatly. The community she and my father grew up in was called German because of the high number of German immigrants who had settled there in the 1800s, so maybe they overcompensated a bit. But whatever the reason, the German township always overtopped its war bond quota, led the scrap metal drive, and of course sent its boys into the service by the dozen.
Reading her letters and clippings today always gives me a feeling of being transported to an entirely different universe, even though this is my own immediate family I’m talking about. Letters home were subject to military censorship, so there is little mention of movement or fighting. Like good farm boys, they always took note of the weather and the countryside, and the principal phrases of approval or disapproval were “a lot like home” and “not like home.” One theme permeates all those letters and V-mails, and it’s the simple desire to get home.
The same thoughts appear in wartime correspondence from all ages. While working on my books I spent a lot of time with “Missouri’s War,” a compilation of original source documents that details life in Civil War Missouri through letters, newspaper accounts, sermons, speeches, and so forth. And while the letters in the initial rush to war sometimes have a measure of enthusiasm to them, once the war is underway the voices change, and a kind of grim get-me-through-this mentality emerges.
In 1864 a Missouri cavalryman on the Union side named William Kesterson wrote home to his brother in Lafayette County, close to Kansas City. Kesterson had been in the military hospital in Springfield for about nine months at the time of this letter, and was to stay in that hospital a few months more before being discharged. So you can imagine his state of mind. Part of the letter reads:
I take pen in hand to inform you that yore letter of the 12th came to hand this day and I was glad to hear that yore health was some better than when you had wrote before. . . . I have wrote to my wife to stay where she is a while longer if she can stay there in any peace it is better than to move to town. That is the worst place a family can go to. . . . I aught to be well satisfied here but it seems as if I cant and I wish that I was away and then I get so that I don’t care where I am until my time is out then I want to get somewhere where I can live in peace with my wife and children and where I can give them good schooling that will be my main object when I get out of the service is the schooling of them. My wife says they are as fat as pigs and talk about me all the time you can guess whether I want to see them or not. . . . I shall be glad to see the end of our time for serving uncle Sam come to an end. I hope the end of this war is close at hand but I fear it will be a long time yet and if you don’t wach you will loose yore bet on peace being made by the first of May. I hope that I shall see you again but when that will ever be the lord only knows but I hope that through gods mercy it wont be long. Yet life is very uncertain and then the dread of the future hangs heavily on my mind some times and dashes what little worldly pleasure I see away from me.
Mr. Kesterson, you will be happy to know, did indeed return to his family, and lived on in Lafayette County for another twenty years.
One of the most treasured documents in my family is the recollections of my great-grandfather, Christopher Wiegenstein, who immigrated from Germany to the United States in 1848, found his way to Madison County, Missouri, and established a farm there. His memoir was composed later in his life, at the entreating of his children, who wanted him to get down on paper the events of his early years in the United States. Like most German immigrants to Missouri in that time, he was a devoted Unionist, an anti-slavery man, and a supporter of the North during the Civil War.
He recalls one harrowing incident in which his brother-in-law, a man named George Canisius, was shot down in cold blood by a bushwhacker. Our family’s oral history was that George was killed because, as a recent immigrant, he didn’t speak English well enough to explain himself to the marauders. The bushwhacker’s story, recorded in a memoir written after the war, was that George had informed on him to the authorities and was killed in retaliation. Either story is plausible and both may have elements of truth.
What I had never noticed, reading this account in earlier times, was a comment that Great-Grandpa Chris made at the end of his memoir. Retired, comfortable, having spent a few terms as a justice of the peace and county judge, he writes, “In politics I am Democrat.” Just this year, I read that and thought, “Wait a minute. Why would an immigrant German, a supporter of the Union, a man who had lost a close relation to a guerrilla, why would that man be a Democrat? When in the last half of the Nineteenth Century, the Democratic Party in Missouri was to a considerable extent the party of ex-Confederates?”
The short answer is that I don’t know. But what I think happened is that Missouri had been a Democratic state before the war, in the frontier expansion Andrew Jackson sort of mode, and once the war was over there was such a longing to return to the way things had been that people were willing to join with their former enemies, victors and vanquished, in the efforts at rebuilding the state. Some of them did it for political advantage. Some of them did it because they felt more sympathetic to the Southern cause than they had been able to show during the war. But for whatever reason, by the early 1870s most Missourians had found a way to put the war into the past and move ahead.
But some did not. In Missouri, disaffected former rebels, men like Jesse James, made war by other means, attacking the visible symbols of the powers that had defeated them – banks, railroads, and government officials. Farther south, where the disruption to the social order caused by the end of slavery was greater, the defeated regained the reins of power and gradually restored a structure that was nearly as oppressive as slavery itself. The distortions in people’s lives caused by slavery, like any wound that has never fully healed, break open again and again, cause pain, and reinfect us. Just this week, marchers going from St. Louis to Jefferson City to protest the grand jury decision in the Michael Brown case were met in one rural Missouri town by counter-protesters waving that familiar and predictable symbol of racial hatred and intimidation, the Confederate flag. When I read of events in Ferguson and New York City, the gulf of distrust and misunderstanding that continues to exist between white and black in this country, even the continued insistence that we must identify as white or black, I see a wound of war that has never gone away. And I remember Abraham Lincoln’s prophetic words in his second annual message to Congress: “Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this Congress and this administration, will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation.”
My mother’s scrapbook begins with enlistments and deployments, but by the second page the inevitable other stories start to appear. Charles Clark, dead in a Philippine prison camp. John Disher, shot down over the English Channel, in the hospital with an injured foot, returned to service, and killed. Audry Clark, killed in France. And most personal to me, Michael Wiegenstein, lost with all his shipmates when his submarine was sunk in the Pacific.
This year was the 70th anniversary of my Uncle Mike’s death, so my cousin Joe organized a memorial service this October. Mike’s loss was devastating to my father’s family. So much so, in fact, that none of them liked to talk about Mike, so all I ever knew of him were a few scattered stories about childhood shenanigans – nothing about his young adult years, or what led him into the submarine service in the first place. So when we looked through the boxes and folders that had been collecting in various closets, it was like catching a glimpse of someone familiar and yet not familiar either. In one letter home, he told his brother – my dad – that there was nothing he would rather be doing at that moment than following the plow behind the family mule. We laid a wreath at the courthouse memorial, we visited the cemetery, and except for one elderly aunt and uncle none of us had ever met the man we were memorializing. My cousin remarked that this was part of our loss – that not only had his parents and brothers and sisters lost the young man who went off to war, but we too had lost the grown man we might have known, the older uncle whom we might have visited with and come to appreciate, the man who would have been a help to his parents in their later years, a friend and companion to our parents and us – an entire stream of life that had been cut off at its source. Although this loss is hypothetical and I suppose imaginary in some ways, to my mind it’s just as real as the more visible ones.
That’s the lesson I have learned this year about the wounds of war. For every visible one, there is an invisible one. They’re slow to heal and require deliberate effort, because when we are mired in a pattern of destruction and hatred, the natural tendency is to stay in that pattern. What it takes first is consideration of our losses, a counting up of the cost and a reflection upon it. I never knew my Uncle Mike, but only this year did I realize how much I missed him.