Last Veterans Day, I was in a nursing home with a broken ankle, and all us war veterans were invited to a meeting in the day room. We had the usual inspirational patriotic songs and then the hostess introduced some speakers from the VFW and the American Legion, and several other individuals.
Most of them, I think, were professional veteran types that usually have a minimum experience with war but want to be heroes. The hostess then mentioned by name two men who she said had been wounded or received special medals.
After two or three more patriotic songs and speaches by the two representatives of veterans organizations I attempted, ineptly, to change the focus away from us being heroes, by telling them that the war was not about making heroes but about killing and dying; and of the POWs that my squadron brought out of Japan but killed when the airplanes, probably overloaded, crashed into the ocean. My remarks were about as successful as a lead balloon, and I could have done better. This is what I wish I had said:
War is not about making heroes but about killing and dying. We are here today because we survived, and we survived for many different reasons. A few of us survived because of skill or bravery, but most of us survived because, through no fault of our own, we were never sent where a bullet or bomb might kill us. Some of us were close, but obviously either lucky or just not close enough to get killed.
Regardless of why we survived; that fact that we survived is less significant than what we survived. As an individual, I ran for cover and hid from enemy airplanes about two dozen times but I never fired at an enemy or had any of the enemy shoot specifically at me.
My particular job was to care for and repair the airplanes, but collectively we all survived slaughter in which millions of people from our side were killing millions of people from the other side who were doing the same to us. We are heroes only in that we wore the same uniform as those who died and, had chance been different, might now be where they are.
We should be thankful for our good luck but also remember that merely surviving does no make us heroes. My squadron dropped bombs on Iwo Jima to kill Japanese soldiers before they could kill Americans; but we also dropped fire bombs on Japanese cities and set fire to men, women, and children who were guilty only of having a bad government.
Over half of all people killed in our war were civilians and not soldiers. Killing them was not heroic, but we won and can say that good triumphed over evil. We nearly lost our own own souls in the effort, however.
Immediately after the war ended we removed bomb racks from our airplanes and installed wooden benches so that we could bring POW’s out of Japan, but then killed many of them when several airplanes, probably overloaded, fell into the ocean. Those men were not killed as heroes; they just died and became some more of the dead.
The war was dirty work but seemed necessary, and each of us, in his or her way, did what we were asked to do. Being young people living in that time and place I don’t know what else we could have done, but at some risk to ourselves, we did what our government told us, so I suppose we deserve some credit and hope that we did help make the world a better place.