Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Hidden Legacy of World War II

We tend to think of those who served in World War II as the "Greatest Generation." And in many ways, they were. But when we hear those words, we don't think of alcoholism. We don't think of post traumatic stress disorder. We don't think of nightmares and flashbacks. We don't think of what happened to those soldiers who came back from the war after the parades and thank you's.

We have perpetuated a myth, and that myth is this: that soldiers of World War II returned home from war, resumed their normal lives, and never had any problems.

This is not a myth for some. There were those who adjusted to civilian life just fine. But for too many, this was not the case, and for too long, we have ignored their stories.

In The Hidden Legacy of World War II: A Daughter's Journey of Discovery, Carol Schultz Vento gives us an intimate, in-depth look at the deep emotional and psychological wounds suffered by combat veterans of the war. Her father, immortalized in the 1960 movie, The Longest Day, was Arthur "Dutch" Schultz, a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division who parachuted into Normandy on D-Day.

Growing up, Carole suffered through her father's drinking, his inability to hold down a job, and the endless fights between him and her mother. Little did she know that several other children of World War II combat veterans were suffering the same fate. Yet no one talked about it, least of all the veterans themselves. The U.S. Army told many of them they were suffering such emotional turmoil because they'd "had a difficult childhood" or were "psychologically weak." No one seemed to understand, or wanted to understand. Some soldiers tried to relieve the constant pain through dramatic means like lobotomies. Others used alcohol and drugs. Still others committed suicide.

Yet we do not hear about this side of the war. We have sanitized World War II and in doing so, we have turned these men into something they're not - supermen. Are they heroes? Unquestionably. But they are also human, and their suffering is very real.

Though not nearly as many studies have been done on World War II veterans and PTSD as have been done on Vietnam veterans and the wars of today, Vento has done her research, and it shows in her well-written narrative. We read of a daughter's frustration and fear, insecurity and helplessness, all emotions experienced by several other children of World War II veterans as documented in Vento's book.

It's a powerful book and can and should be read in conjunction with Thomas Childers' work on the subject, Soldier from the War Returning: The Greatest Generation's Troubled Homecoming from World War II

As William Tecumseh Sherman said, "War is hell." Yes, even World War II, the "Good War" was hell. We must never forget this. For many WWII combat vets, they've continued to endure the hell of war for more than sixty years. While we must continue to honor them, we also must continue to chip away at the myth of the stoic warrior who was unaffected by the horrors of war. We do them a disservice when we refuse to acknowledge the post-war difficulties they endured, and they do not deserve that. Instead, they deserve our thanks, our gratitude, and most importantly, our acceptance of their humanness.
_____________

For more information or to read other stories of children of the Greatest Generation, visit Daughters of D-Day, a site started by Carol and another daughter of a D-Day veteran.

6 comments:

vaughnroycroft said...

This reminds me of David Webster, made famous by Band of Brothers. He was a brilliant writer and scolar, and a few years after the war he rowed a boat out in the ocean, never to return. Have you ever read any biographies of Erinie Pyle, Melissa? I read one and can't recall the name, but it really went into depths of Pyle's despair over the carnage--what the war was costing, especially in the Pacific, and his fears for the cost for America's youth after. He bemoaned the 'sanitizing' of the war in the press even as it went on.

It makes me admire my dad all the more, and to better understand why he never spoke of it. He lost his brother and many friends, came home to a woman he didn't love and went through divorce, all before going back to school on the GI Bill, landing a job and meeting my mom. Even if he was mentally blocking, good for him for being able to find a coping method.

He may have suffered at times, in silence, but he never let it affect his kids or his day-to-day life (that I saw). He was genuinely one of the nicest guys who ever lived.

Thanks for the review. I'm definitely interested in this book. (And Happy Birthday, my friend!)

Melissa Marsh said...

Vaughn, thank you so much for sharing this story. It really goes to show how different each man was in coping with the war. And thank you for the birthday wishes! :)

Zim said...

The book sounds like a very good and informative read. I'll have to put it on my ever-growing list.

My Great-Grandfather fought in World War II and he was badly wounded in his leg. He walked with a limp the rest of his life. After the war, he turned more and more to the bottle, whether it was because of his new disability or the war or, perhaps, a combination of both. He died in a car accident years before I was born and from stories I’ve heard, he was a kind man in between his bouts of anger, depression and such.

I think society assumes that soldiers should just return from war and go back to their daily lives. As if they were returning from vacation. But regardless of the differences in individual soldiers’ rank, deployment location, etc…, war changes people.

While I was working on my thesis, I came across a quote from Martha Gellhorn, a WWII war correspondent that has always stayed with me. Gellhorn accompanied the U.S. Army to the Dachau concentration camp. Upon seeing the horrors of war she stated, “It is as if I walked into Dachau and there fell over a cliff. I know I have never again felt that lovely, easy, lively hope in life, which I knew before, not in life, not in our species, not in our future on earth.”

Melissa Marsh said...

What a quote. I can imagine how life would be radically changed after being there. I can only associate it with how I felt after 9-11, and even that doesn't compare to what she must have saw at Dachau. But there's this cold, hard reality of what gruesome acts man is capable of that slaps you in the face and she's right - you can never know that lively hope again.

Thanks for sharing the story about your great-grandfather. My great uncles served, but neither of my grandfathers did - one was 4F and the other was too old for service.

Arnold Howard said...

Melissa, your post is so true. One time while we lived in Tripoli, Libya, our dog found bones in the trash behind a restaurant. She came home smelling of death.

My father, a Marine veteran of the Pacific War, went outside to hose her off, and in my memory I can still hear him vomiting. I am certain that the smell reminded him of the trenches filled with dead Japanese.

Melissa Marsh said...

Arnold - Thanks for the comment. :)
I am sure you're right, that the dog's smell triggered a memory for your father. I honestly do not know how these men coped when they returned from war.