Since then, I have read or listened to 25 books on WWII: biographies, memoirs, historical fiction, non-fiction and have watched the two HBO series Band of Brothers and The Pacific and as well as Hollywood's renditions of the war: War and Remembrance, Patton, Midway and Memphis Belle. I have ordered 17 more books from Amazon and have another 20 books on my wish list. I have never been interested in history, much less military history before now.
Why the fascination? And how does this relate to my grief journey, knowing that somehow it must?
I find the first question easier to answer; in fact, the following bullet points are what I wrote on the first page of my WWII study journal:
- This war spanned the entire globe - it was a true world-wide conflict.
- It was a two front war against Nazi Germany and Imperialist Japan.
- Transformation of the United States was unprecedented from an isolationist country to full and total commitment to war as we would only accept full and unconditional surrender of the enemy - no peace negotiations.
- Enormous sacrifice of human life.
- Countless inspiring stories of valor and courage.
- Sometimes, the outcomes of battles came down to pure luck.
- War politics personified in the larger-than-life Big Three: Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin.
- War and larger-than-life generals: Eisenhower, MacArthur, Rommel, Montgomery.
- War and citizen soldiers: college students, farm boys, salesmen, factory workers - regular "Joes" turned soldier.
- Homefront in war - changes in the workforce primarily for women and Negroes.
- Post war - the "Greatest Generation". What did they do? How did they fare?
- Post war politics: Cold War to Korean War to Vietnam War
I wrote that reading drama by the four greatest tragedians (Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Shakespeare) was cathartic. I also noted that while my external life had contracted to a small circle, my internal world had expanded with the exploration of ancient Greek and Elizabethan literature.
Since then, my mind's eye has jumped centuries to the greatest drama of human history: World War II. And instead of reading about characters created from imagination, I am learning about real life heroes and heroines - about the grisly business of war and how in the midst of either witnessing or experiencing unspeakable horror, one can keep their human dignity and find the resilience and fortitude to keep going.
The cathartic affect is still a paradox: i.e how can reading about someone else's pain and suffering cause a purging, cleansing and connection to my own deep feelings?
In recent days, I have been drawn to the classic memoirs of two Marines who fought in the Pacific Theatre, Helmut for My Pillow by Robert Leckie and With the Old Breed by E. B Sledge. These brave men were featured in Tom Hanks/Steven Spielburg's HBO mini-series, The Pacific.
The title of this post comes from a quote in Leckie's book as he ruminates on a post-battle scene in Cape Gloucester on the island of New Britain.
I stood among the heaps of dead. They lay crumpled, useless, defunct. The vital force was fled. A bullet or a mortar fragment had torn a hole in these frail vessels and the substance had leaked out. The mystery of the universe had once inhabited these lolling lumps, had given each an identity, a way of walking, perhaps a special habit of address or a way with words or a knack of putting color on canvas. They had been so different, then. Now they were nothing, heaps of nothing. Can a bullet or a mortar fragment do this? Does this force, this mystery, I mean this soul - does this spill out on the ground along with the blood? No. It is somewhere, I know it. For this red-and-yellow lump I look down upon this instant was once a man, and the thing that energized him, the Word that gave "to airy nothing a local habitation and a name," the Word from a higher Word - this cannot have been obliterated by a quarter-inch of heated metal. The mystery of the universe has departed him, and it is no good to say that the riddle is solved, the mystery is over - because it has changed residences. The thing that shaped the flare of that nostril, that broadened that arm now bleeding, that wrought so fine that limply lying hand - that thing exists still, and has still the power to flare that nostril, to bend that arm, to clench that fist exactly as it did before.
Because it is gone you cannot say it will not return; even though you may say it has never yet returned - you cannot say that it will not. It is blasphemy to say a bit of metal has destroyed life, just as it is presumptuous to say that because life has disappeared it has been destroyed. I stood among the heaps of the dead and I knew - no, I felt that death is only a sound we make to signify the Thing we do not know.This is a profound thought written by one who, after looking at the dead; no, really, deeply looking at them, contemplates what has occurred and after deep reflection, is convinced that a piece of metal cannot destroy the "mystery of the universe" that resides within our earthly vessels, nor can a plain, brown extension cord.
Said another way, just because life has disappeared or no longer inhabits the flesh, it does not mean that it has been obliterated or destroyed. How this works, I do not know but I believe it.
I wrote the following in my journal:
Death is not the end but rather the beginning of another beginning.
Death is not the end but the transition to another form of living.And perhaps the living bears some responsibility for as long as our loved ones are remembered, they stay alive. I underlined this passage from Doris Kearns Goodwin's Pulitzer Prize winning book, No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II. This little verse, given to Eleanor by a friend after FDR's sudden death, encouraged her to "make the rest of her life worthy of her husband's memory. As long as she continued to fight for his ideals, he would continue to live."
"They are not dead who live in lives they leave behind. In those whom they have blessed they live a life again."RIP Josh.
You remain alive in our hearts.