Guest columnist Arlene Avakian: No telling how WWII affected many vets

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Published: 5/31/2023 11:23:00 PM

Remembering, forgetting, denying, immersing, obsessing, uncovering, inhabiting.

World War II veterans, on the 50th anniversary commemorations of their war, remembered and articulated, many for the first time, what they had experienced. Unlike the Vietnam vets, WWII vets were honored when they came home, but what they had experienced was not acknowledged.

They came home to a country that wanted to get back to “normalcy” after the disruptions of a world war. And maybe they, too, wanted to forget the horrors they not only experienced but many perpetuated. Many of them may have killed other human beings, either in the intimacy of hand-to-hand combat or the more impersonal but far more devastating bombing of civilians.

Consider Dresden, where the Royal Air Force and the U.S. Air Force dropped 3,900 tons of high explosive bombs over a period of only two days, destroying 1,600 acres of the city center and killing an estimated 22,700 to 35,000 civilians. While not all bombing was this extreme, any bombing may have an impact on the bomber, perhaps if only to recognize that you were responsible for the death of civilians whose only crime was being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

World War II vets, most of whom were drafted and were forced to go to war, came home to their mothers and fathers, perhaps wives or sweethearts, and were anxious to get back to the lives they had sacrificed for “the war effort.” The government provided for the white and male vets, giving them preference in jobs, even pushing out the women who were on the home front in jobs that the men would have had, jobs that paid them substantially more than the “women’s work” they had been doing before the war.

Once the men were back from the war, the assumption was the women would go back to the home, but not all women had men who came back, not all of those men were physically able to work, not all the men were white and given this special advantage, not all women had men before the war, and some were the sole support of their families. And not all women wanted to give up their jobs, just because they were women.

In addition to jobs, white vets got the GI Bill that paid for college tuition, books and living expenses. The GI Bill also provided low-interest loans so that many vets were able to buy houses, creating the white middle class in the suburbs.

But what about the inner life of these vets? What about their memories? The word trauma was not ubiquitously used then as it is today and certainly not applied to veterans, except those who had what was called war neuroses. The “real men” picked up on the lives they had left and seemingly got on with it. Or did they?

My cousin Edmond was a soldier in the Korean War. I think he was drafted. I have a vivid memory of him in my family’s apartment. I was probably 13 years old. We were alone and he was sitting in the kitchen with his head on the table. He was crying.

I can’t remember if we talked then. I did know, from him or another family member, that he was not in combat but in the Graves Registration Unit, the group responsible for retrieving and burying bodies of dead soldiers from the battlefield when the shooting stopped. That was one moment in time and was never revisited.

Edmond’s older brother Howard volunteered for the Army during WWII. I never heard him talk about his experiences in the war. Howard, the sweetest and kindest man in my family, was a Democrat and a staunch union man. During the civil rights movement, he and Edmond were openly racist and we began to drift apart. The brothers had a serious falling out with each other and by the time Edmond died, they had not spoken for years.

Eventually Howard became a far-right Trumper and was full of hate. I found it impossible to talk to him and he died without us reconciling.

I often wondered about the psychological impact of what Edmond and Howard experienced in the wars had on them. Did they have unrecognized and untreated trauma? Did the rigid masculinity of those pre-women’s movement days dictate that they be strong, to not show emotions and “take it like a man?”

I don’t know what Howard did in the war. Maybe he was a killer, maybe not. But I now think that both of my cousins were victims of war. I don’t know if Howard talked about his experiences on the 50th anniversary of WWII or before. But some vets did speak of the pain they felt, pain that had wreaked havoc on their lives, pain they bore in silence or that perhaps some of them medicated with alcohol or other substances or found release in the vitriolic anger of white supremacy and Trumpism.

As Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen wrote, “All wars are fought twice. The first time on the battlefield and the second time in memory.”

Arlene Avakian is a professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and lives in Northampton.
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