From the April 2008 issue: A Soldier Strips the Romance Out of Life at War
Military censorship and a desire not to worry loved ones at home kept most troops from disclosing the strains and hardships they faced in battle. But when they heard stories of war fatigue on the home front or sensed that the public did not fully grasp the enormity of combatants’ and civilians’ suffering, a spark of frustration could emerge in correspondence home. “Every time you hear somebody say that the war will be over soon,” one soldier wrote to his wife in May 1944—a full sixteen months before hostilities ceased—“look them straight in the eye and tell them that a lot of people are still dying over here.” In the spring of 1944 a U.S. Army major named Oscar Mitchell, who was serving in the China-Burma-India theater, received a letter from a close friend in New York expressing how much she missed him and suggesting it would be exciting to be with him. Mitchell understood the good intentions of her sentiment, but nevertheless felt the need to gently admonish her for romanticizing, in any way, life in a war zone.
Somewhere in Burma
15 April 1944
You say that you wish you were over here. Would you really like to be over here? I don’t know whether you would like it but this I know, I wouldn’t like it for you. There’s more than just danger. That’s the least of all the worries. You are with it so long, it remains about you so close, that it also becomes an impersonal thing. Familiarity breeds contempt you know.
I will tell you why I would not wish it so. Although most people think that they are War Conscious, are they really?—so far removed from the far-flung battle fronts, can they be? Perhaps I’m wrong but I can’t see how they can be. Not that I would want them to be. Not that I hold it against them but that’s the way it is, that’s the way it will remain. I hope and pray that the time will never come for when bombs are rained down from the heavens and with death and destruction come the real meaning of despair, sacrifice and fortitude. Then you would have to live as we are living now to be, in the true full meaning, War Conscious. You would have to live in a fox hole for days on end. Half filled with water and creeping things. Always the fear of malaria. More fears than the enemy. But then [fear] is the enemy.
The worse one, waiting in a fox hole, after dark, afraid to move as the cracking of a twig brings on a salvo of firing from Friend and Foe alike. At the front, when darkness comes, you don’t dare move about. When you are caught at darkness, that’s where you dig in and wait for blessed daylight. No one wanders about at night for any reason and I mean for any reason!
You would have to eat cold food, “C” Rations, canned. What a variety. Meat and beans, vegetable hash, or vegetable stew. That’s our menu. We change and switch them around in eating order to try and fool ourselves. I’ve read that lately a new, better ration has been devised but I doubt we’ll even see it. Not over here!
It’s said that variety is the spice of life. That being true the spice has gone out of my life. You are really War Conscious when you see the airplanes, in formation, early in the morning, flying to meet their rendezvous with the Japs and with death. To see this formation go out and see this same formation returning in the evenings. But the number is not the same! Twelve went out, nine returned. You stand there, looking up, watching them fly into the distance; into and part of the horizon, then disappear. You wonder what really did happen. Those that went down in flames, how did they die? How those that “sweat it out” on the ground will take it at the inevitable report, “Some of our planes are missing.”
Do they die as you see them in the movies? I do not think so. Not with a smile on their lips and a happy gleam in their eyes, rather painfully and regretfully with the knowledge that this is it! You’d have to see the wounded streaming back from the front after a battle. The more wounded ones are flown back, others arrive by ambulance. They don’t look like heroes with the “devil may care” look. Just plain Americans or the average Chinese or Indians. Above all, to see the light go out of men’s eyes. Young men shaking from nervous exhaustion and crying like babies. Strong men they are, or were, who did not or will not have the chance, ever, to live normal lives. Theirs is finished. Some have been over here so long that they wouldn’t care anymore whether they go back home, or whether they stay. You get this way when promises after promises are broken.
All the books written, all the movie pictures produced cannot capture the true light. Reading a book, or seeing a motion picture does not give you the pangs of hunger, the tiredness of body after days and nights without sleep, or the feeling of wet, sticky clothing….Nor can they give you the loneliness, that lonely feeling of being away from home and the ones you love. You paint glowing pictures of what it will be like to be home or when we get home, but all the time we know. I know that conditions there have not changed. People may think they know what War is like. Their knowledge is facts of the mind. Mine is the war-torn body, scared to soul’s depth. When I was in the States, War was far away, unreal. I had read, I had seen pictures, but now I know. And what it’s like, I cannot put it into words. It has to be felt.
But I would like you to see the pleasanter side. Soldiers singing in the evening at the close of day. Sometimes it’s spirituals that bring back Sunday School days. How I hated to go! Now, how thankful. I can remember the pleasant smell of the church. Everyone dressed in their Sunday best. The atmosphere of hush and quiet, the workings of a faith, pure and simple. Other times it’s popular tunes that bring back memories of parties and dances. The good times you had. A return to a normal world by the words of a song. Mostly they’re the old favorite love ballads because of the association to that life they bring.
I would like for you to see some of the sunsets here, like none other the wide world over. Rainbows at twilight that streak from hill to hill. Row after row of mountains, each with its halo of clouds. As far as you can see there is always another row, a little bit higher, with its ring of clouds, and yet another bursting above the clouds beyond. I wish I could bottle it up and bring it back with me. Or to see the grand trees that reach straight up, above and beyond, to walk on virgin jungle floors where human feet never trod before. A floor of decaying leaves and clinging vines and struggling, growing things. Or to see the tangle masses of green that cover the mountain sides. Or, in the early morning, to see the clouds rising out of the valleys, engulf you and rise above you….These are the things that I would wish to remember….The part that man has never touched!
So if I must dream awhile, I’ll dream of pleasant things.
Write soon. Until then, I’ll remain