As World War II was approaching in the years before 1941, I recall heavy debates at our kitchen table as a neighbor and my dad tossed down boilermakers (shots of whisky and beer chasers), often sitting in their undershirts, sweating profusely, on warm summer nights. The neighbor usually groused about Roosevelt “leading us to war.”
Our neighbor was called an “isolationist” in those days. There were great and honest debates about this. President Roosevelt and others saw the emergence of Adolph Hitler as a threat to Western democracies. And, indeed, he was: by 1939, Hitler had moved troops into several nations.
The debate as we begin the Year 2003 is much different. Saddam Hussein is “evil,” but there is no evidence he will attack soon or that he has the weapons to do it. The Hitler threat was real; the threat attributed to Saddam may indeed be bogus.
As the U.S. contemplates going to war in Iraq, my mind can’t help shifting to dates I still remember vividly: Sept. 1, 1939, Dec. 7, 1941, and Aug. 6, 1945.
Sept. 1, 1939, the newspapers headlined: “Germany Attacks Poland.” The term “blitzkrieg” became emblazoned on our minds. By the end of the month, Nazi troops easily overran Poland.
On Dec. 7, 1941, my brother, Jerry, and I were in the basement of our midwestern bungalow with our dad, setting up the train table, when my mother, who had been listening to the New York Philharmonic on radio, shouted to tell us Pearl Harbor had been bombed. Jerry and I, whose childhood had been filled with the glories of “cops and robbers,” jumped with glee at the news, knowing we were now at war. It was exciting to two boys, aged 12 and 11.
My father shouted us down, telling us war was nothing to celebrate, that it was a beginning of dark times. How soon we were to learn that. My uncle who lived with us had just been released from the Army and within a few days was ordered back into the service. By April 1942, we sat in a chilly, darkened living room, fearful of turning lights on during a practice blackout and listening to radio reports of the surrender of the Bataan Peninsula.
On Aug. 6, 1945, came the radio announcement that our air force had dropped a nuclear bomb on Hiroshima. The graphic initial reports that square miles of a busy city were bombed are still etched indelibly in my mind, some 57 years later. I recall a neighbor’s son returning home from serving in the occupation forces in Japan after the war. He had taken snapshots of Hiroshima or Nagasaki (the other bombed city), and I recall vividly several photos of a flattened city, except for one standing building. Even though these photos were less than two inches square, I see them in my mind to this very day.
During our Christmas season, we heard much about “Peace on Earth;” yet war is being touted as the patriotic way to go – they say peace will only be gained by going to war. Our leaders seem to be acting much like my brother and me in 1941, all excited about the supposed glories of war without an idea of its consequences.
Few of our leaders have life experiences about war; most were too young for World War II or Korea, and they missed military service in Vietnam due to the unfair draft practices of that era. These leaders come from an elite class that rarely has rubbed elbows with ordinary folks who must struggle for their daily bread and whose kids usually are the ones doomed to serve in the trenches, storm the beaches or sweat in the bowels of warships.
World War II and the Korean Conflict involved all citizens. No deferments for college folks or athletes or potential presidents. Some, like baseball hitter Ted Williams and many of my college friends, interrupted their careers twice, being called up for both wars. Few will talk about their frontline experiences, even 50 years later.
Why does President Bush seek war? Is it to “avenge” his father, to protect oil reserves, to show the world the U.S. is the world’s strongest nation or to prevent Saddam Hussein from building up weapons? Or, is it to provide cover for political motives: re-election or completing a right-wing agenda?
There was good reason to go to war in World War II, and even my dad’s shot-and-a-beer drinking friend came to see that. There seem to be no sufficient reasons, however, for putting ordinary people through the devastation of a war in 2003.
Ken Germanson is a retired labor union representative who served in the U.S. Navy in the 1950s. He currently works as an advocate for low-income families in Milwaukee. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org