- The Washington Times - Monday, June 15, 2009


The Greatest Generation’s Troubled Homecoming from World War Two

By Thomas Childers

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26, 340 pages

Reviewed by Philip Kopper

“Novelistic in its telling and impeccably researched, [Thomas] Childers’ book is a stark reminder that the price of war is unimaginably high. The consequences are human, not just political, and the toll can stretch across generations.”

For once, the dust jacket got it right. Here, as the subtitle suggests, is the dark side of our priceless victory in what people of a certain age still call “the War” — the one we had to fight and had to win.

Remember the scenario: The Axis dictators announced their intent to rule the world and invaded nearby nations — imperial Japan into Korea and China; Benito Mussolini into Ethiopia; Adolf Hitler into Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, the Low Countries and France — and then assaulted England from the air. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had to connive to aid Great Britain through the ruse of Lend-Lease, and to cajole an isolationist America to arm itself. What might have happened to America under a different president is the stuff of “what-if” fiction, but if our isolationism had continued, the likely results are pretty clear.

As it was, Roosevelt got his war powers, the House of Representatives authorized the military draft by a margin of one vote, and a generation of American men entered the military, slowly at first, then in stampedes after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. GIs fought that war, and however imperfect our world seems now, much of the globe remained free or regained freedom thanks to them.

Now, Thomas Childers tells their stories, giving testimony to facts as true as the raised banner over Iwo Jima and mushroom cloud over Hiroshima. These tales of three survivors — and their families — exemplify the small, common, unsung tragedies of bodies mutilated, lives ruined, psyches maimed. Enumerating the infinite costs of war, and written more felicitously than one might think possible, this is nevertheless a very sad book.

The three survivors are Willis Allen, an infantryman who fought through Italy and France and into Germany before leaving both legs in a foxhole near the Moselle River; Michael Gold, a navigator who in early 1944 parachuted from his stricken bomber and spent the rest of the war starving in the ghetto of a Nazi prison camp reserved for Jews; and Tom Childers, a kid whom the Marines rejected because of a heart murmur when he tried to enlist, who got drafted by the Army two years later and returned to his wife seemingly unscathed while she bore the scars of losing a beloved brother. Like myriad others, Mildred Childers asked why one of the 16 million Americans in uniform died — and not another.

These three represent countless “survivors.” The enormity of America’s involvement and sacrifice is hard to imagine: “Roughly 1.3 million American service personnel suffered some kind of psychological setback. … By July 1943, the U.S. Army was discharging ten thousand men each month for psychiatric reasons…. During the Battle of Okinawa,” Mr. Childers writes, “the Marines suffered twenty thousand psychiatric casualties. … [Two] years after the war’s end, half the patients in VA medical facilities were men suffering from ‘invisible wounds.’ ”

The last great battle of the war “was not fought on the fields of Europe or on the jungle islands and coral atolls of the South Pacific, but on the main streets of American towns … sometimes in highly public places — hospitals and courtrooms — but more often in parlors, kitchens and bedrooms, buried in the deepest personal privacy.”

Much of it sounds too familiar. Veterans Administration facilities and budgets were strained. Divorce rates soared among vets. So did unemployment, in part because the men returning from combat were prone to violence — or were perceived to be. Marriages fell apart or shattered, as “even after more than a year of peace … 20 percent of veterans felt ‘completely hostile’ to civilians.” Why are we not surprised? Because so many problems and tragedies we see today were experienced then.

Willis Allen’s physical wounds were unmistakable, and he went through torments of hell for a year before he could walk on wooden legs.

“[N]o one would have described Michael Gold as a tormented man. … He was, on the whole, congenial. People liked him. Yet he was subject to sudden eruptions of explosive anger…. The tripwire was usually food,” given that he had barely survived starving in the Baltic.

Mr. Gold’s story may be the most surprising, because after the war, he worked his way through college and medical school, married, raised a family, worked and prospered. But then he left his wife; his partners voted him out of the practice. “He found himself in midlife, his marriage dissolved, his children estranged, his career in tatters. He was alone with the nightmares.” Fifty years after the war, he was diagnosed with a crippling disorder that had not been named when he contracted it — post-traumatic stress disorder.

As for author Childers, an established scholar who holds an endowed chair at the University of Pennsylvania, it’s no wonder his wide-ranging research illuminates the legacies of war like headlights on a mountain road. He is also Mildred and Tom Childers’ son. It is this fact, and all it implies, that enabled him to see past the filters that often shield a historian’s eyes.

He explains in an afterword his special access to the subjects of his historical excursion, and in playing fair this way, he grants himself license to write something more emotionally telling than most histories and more historically revealing than many memoirs. This is a collective biography of casualties - visible and invisible - not only the men who lost limbs or minds, but also their wives and, inevitably, their children. It should be required reading for everyone in Washington who has the authority to send other people into war.

Philip Kopper writes, edits and publishes books inside the Beltway.

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