The Amend Corner

Studying war

By Don Amend
Posted 5/24/22

I’ve spent considerable time exploring human conflict in recent months. 

My physical condition coupled with the precautions necessary to avoid becoming a COVID statistic have given me …

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The Amend Corner

Studying war

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I’ve spent considerable time exploring human conflict in recent months. 

My physical condition coupled with the precautions necessary to avoid becoming a COVID statistic have given me many hours to devote to reading. The hours spent between the covers of books I’ve read, more often than not, are about wars and other disputes between humans. 

I’ve read about nearly every conflict the U.S. has participated in, beginning with the conditions that led to the so-called Boston Massacre, in which British soldiers occupying Boston fired on a crowd in the lead-up to the American Revolution and including the British march on Washington in the War of 1812.

I read about the Mexican war and the divisive debate in the U.S. about invading another nation in an effort to gain territory.

Mostly, though, the books I’ve read have focused on three wars, our Civil War, and the two great wars of the past century, World Wars I and II. I haven’t found many books about the Korean War that I haven’t read already, but I’m still looking.

In addition, thanks to a couple of internet connections, I’ve watched a rather large collection of documentaries produced by the Smithsonian Institution, Ken Burns and others, and over the years, I’ve watched all sorts of movies about the various wars.

A while back, my wife wanted to know why I took so much interest in war. The only answer I could give her was that it was because I never experienced war in person, and it is only through books and movies that I can try to understand what happens to the people, both military and civilian, who are intimately involved in the atrocity we call war. I realize that no book or movie can actually tell the whole truth about just what being in a war is all about.

Recently, my curiousity about war led me to an old TV series set in World War II. “Combat” aired on television during the mid-1960s, during the years I was in college, and at a time we still had positive feelings concerning our victory over Fascism/Naziism. About the time the show ended its run, the U.S. had began escalating our military action in Vietnam, and the way we looked at such conflicts began to change. The army that had won the world war had depended on drafting men into service. A few years after the show finished its run, the U.S. ended the draft and made military service voluntary. 

Of course, “Combat” was not very realistic. It focused on three foot soldiers in a squad, the medic who accompanied them, the sergeant who led them, and the lieutanant under whose command they fought. They had all landed in Normandy on D-Day, and every one of them was woundeded or otherwise injured, most of them more than once. Sgt. Saunders, for example, was injured three times during the first season alone. Two of these injuries were minor, but in one episode, he was trapped in a burning barn and managed to escape. Both of his hands were burned badly. Such an injury would have likely sent him home back then, but he found his way back to his unit, and managed to survive four more seasons with hands that didn’t seem the worse for wear.

While the combat scenes were often unlikely, the episodes often explored the issues the soldiers confronted, and it is these that intrigued me about the show. For the most part, all of the men were killing other human beings for the first time, and at the same time, experiencing the efforts of the enemy to kill them. They dealt with friction among themselves, and sometimes questioned what they were commanded to do before reluctantly obeying. They often found themselves dealing with French people who were trying to survive, and who sometimes believed the Americans’ arrival in their village meant the Germans had disappeared, only to be bombarded with artillery during a German counter-attack. The squad sometimes worked with the French resistance fighters who had their own ideas about how to fight the war, and Americans and their British allies also disagreed over what actions to take.

The men even cross swords with another squad within their company. Worst of all, they unavoidably had to confront the loss of comrades and their own mortality, especially when faced with a command that seemed illogical to them and which seemed to be a suicidal action.

This is what interests me about war, more so than the actual combat. I wonder what motivates a soldier to attack a fortified position and how he justifies blowing up other human beings in taking that position. How do they handle the non-combatants that find themselves in the middle of the the battle? 

“Combat” is entertainment, not history, of course, and back in 1965, a realistic war story such as “Saving Private Ryan” would never have made it into my living room. But I’m not really interested in the actual combat. I’m interested in those individual battles the men fight within themselves about what they are ordered or otherwise forced to do. 

And remarkably, they do all this in “Combat” without swearing.

As Memorial Day approaches, I’ll do what I often do on that day; I’ll pull out my copy of “In Harms Way” and watch it. As I do, I’ll marvel at the courage of those who fought in the Pacific, and I’ll wonder if this nation, as divided as it is, could do what it did back around the time I was born.

I’m not sure we can.

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