- Historic Sites
A MEMOIR OF THE SECOND WORLD WAR Seeking the answer to a simple and terrible question: What was it like?
December 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 8
Having talked with so many of these men over the years, I still find it surprising that they will talk at all to one from “the rear.” It is something like asking a person to discuss his medical record. What is even more interesting is that once they do begin to talk, it is clear they see their war as the single greatest event in their lives, no matter how distinguished their postwar careers. They would agree with E. B. Sledge, the youthful combatant turned college professor, who long after his first amphibious assault against the beaches at Peleliu, still regards that event in no uncertain terms: “Everything my life had been before and has been after pales in the light of that awesome moment.” Sledge’s view is remarkably similar to an old friend’s, well respected in his postwar profession when I first met him. In moments of confidential conversation he always turned back to the days when he flew B-17s against the Germans, his memories vivid and detailed and not at all sentimental, but more significant to him than anything he had done since.
The study of war in our colleges and universities has never been a popular subject with our professors and the academy will disdainfully ignore the anniversaries of this war if at all possible. And because the most dramatic kind of history is being made daily before our eyes, the rest of our society may find it all too easy to turn its attention away from the old war. Yet from Xenophon and Thucydides onward, war’s interior landscape has posed a great mystery, and those men who made war were the most mysterious of all, their experiences perceived as impenetrable to those who were not there. The Second World War, so close at hand in time, is now only a bit more familiar to us than the wars fought by the ancient Greeks, and our limited familiarity is fading daily. Our commemorations over the next few years may postpone our forgetfulness, but eventually our most important war will take its final place in the histories, there to be investigated by the chance encounters of scholarship.
By then my old war friends will be gone as well, but their war will live with me as it always has. For one who plies a trade that makes so much of detachment, the impression of a sentiment is close to heresy, but these men of World War II will have been the closest of my friends. How close were we? Writing in Dispatches about a far different war in Vietnam, Michael Herr asked the same question of himself and the soldiers he encountered. How close? “But of course we were intimate,” he wrote. “They were my guns.…”