War comes in, war goes out

Don’t let the man get you down.

7 December, 1917: The United States declares war on Austria-Hungary, fully committing to the First World War after maintaining years of isolationism. 

Woodrow Wilson’s determined attempt to maintain neutrality in the First World War while the rest of the world suffered didn’t go unobserved—it wasn’t until April 1917 that the nation would agree to intervene by declaring war on Germany, and it still dragged its heels. US soldiers were known as ‘doughboys’ for a reason—their nation had been slow to rise. It took repeated U-boat sinkings in the Atlantic to drag the country into war by turning popular sentiment so far against Germany, and so far towards militarism, that the president had few options. Wilson knew the cost of war, and his resistance was less about pacifism than it was about isolationism and protectionism.

The First World War brought many things, including the infamous Second Battle of Ypres, immortalised in ‘In Flanders Fields,’ a poem so emblematic that the thematic red poppies are still referenced in memorials and ceremonies, and sold by veterans every year to raise funds. ‘In Flanders Fields’ was used to whip up sentiment over the war effort, to justify sacrifice, to glorify death, though it was written by a man obsessed with death and deeply afraid of it, too.

7 December, 1941

The attack on Pearl Harbour was the event that drew the United States into the Second World War, making it impossible to ignore the situation any longer. A public stinging with the memories of the First World War and the Depression couldn’t sit quiet in the face of a nakedly hostile attack on US soil, driving the government to act if it wanted to retain the popularity of the public—and, of course, assert itself as a world power. The war machine in the United States was ferocious. Nearly 420,000 people from the US were killed in the war—as many as 80 million people around the world fell to military action, starvation, disease, crimes against humanity, and active fighting.

It was a brutal, messy, horrific conflict that has yet to be rivaled and hopefully never will, opening for the United States with an attack on a bright Sunday and ending with the shimmering flash of an atom bomb. The war opened many things that could not be closed, created a new world order that wasn’t just imposed by governments carving up the remains of the fallen, but also by radical shifts in the cultural landscape. People had seen what war could do, and they were losing their taste for it.

I’m not quite sure of the date when my grandfather joined the Navy, only that he did it shortly after turning 18, as many men of his era did. Both he and his wife worked in Naval intelligence, and were dispatched to Berlin in the wake of the war, with the OSS, the prototype of the CIA. His work with the Office of Strategic Services and the Navy took him all over the world, along with his family—my father and his sisters, their mother.

Sifting through old photographs with my father, I see images of people and places I don’t know, many of which aren’t marked in any way, and I wonder when a box of old photographs becomes so meaningless that it becomes trash, how many generations must be followed before someone gives up and tosses it—who were these people? What were they doing? People laugh around a dinner table. Someone sits in a tree. My father, hair long and curly, at a festival with a woman I don’t recognize. Pictures of me and my half sisters, whom I barely know. Two of us looked so alike in childhood that if pictures aren’t clearly marked or discernible from context, it’s hard to tell which one of us is printed on the photo paper, usually scowling at the photographer.

My grandfather looks surprisingly like me, and I see myself in him when I flick through photographs of him in Korea, standing against the Berlin Wall, in a Japanese street. He was, my father tells me, a bit of an amateur photographer, and some of the images he took were quite striking. One in particular, of No Man’s Land, a moment frozen in time, something few people saw without great risk to life and limb, taken in the half light of dusk, street lamps curving away into the horizon, razor wire menacing above. A tiny man with a rifle leans over the rails of a guard tower, puzzled.

7 December, 2002: Iraq claims it has no weapons of mass destruction

My grandfather is dead by now, a vague figure I met perhaps once or twice in the early ’90s before he passed away. I know virtually nothing about him, other than what I can glean from a small box of photographs and the watch I inherited, the first thing he bought with his Navy paycheque, a Rolex with undoubtedly radioactive glowing hands and markers to count the time even in the darkness.

Tick, tick, tick. 

His last job before retirement was breaking into nuclear power plants, my father says.

I spoke to him briefly on the phone right before he died, though I don’t remember most of our conversation, and I’m not sure he fully understood who I was, anyway. We die by the heart or by the gun in our family, but his last, confused days would have been spent in hospital, bogged down by the weight of everything modern medicine had to offer.

‘Don’t let the man get you down,’ he said, and only later did it strike me as odd that the quintessential example of the man would tell me that.

Image: Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam recognizes veterans on the 70th anniversary of the December 7th, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, DVIDShub, Flickr