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Secrets at the Bottom of the Drawer

The Americans Who Won World War II Went on to Comfortable Lives as the Nation's Greatest Generation, or So the Story Goes. In Truth, Many Veterans Were Left With Emotional Wounds No One Wants to Talk About.

July 22, 2001|DAVID WEDDLE | David Weddle's last piece for the magazine was a profile of Internet movie critic Harry Knowles

I set the oak case down on my desk. My throat tightens as I insert the gold key and open the lid. The 1911 government model Colt .45 automatic sits in a bed of red velvet, its five-inch blue-black barrel etched with gold oak leaves and the Marine Corps insignia. The hammer, trigger and safety lock are solid gold, and the blue, red and gold emblem of the First Marine Division gleams in the center of the walnut pistol grip. I pick the gun up--it's heavy and cool in my hand--then turn it over. Engraved on the other side of the barrel are the words: "MSGT James O'Neal Weddle--To My Son David O. Weddle."

* Ten years ago, I bought my father a subscription to The Old Breed News, a periodical for veterans of the First Marine Division who served in the South Pacific during World War II. Even though Dad had deeply conflicted feelings about the Corps, I thought he might enjoy reading about the other men who had served with him, maybe even reconnect with an old buddy or two. I never anticipated that he would see an ad for this special edition "commemorative" pistol, or that he would present it to me on my 35th birthday. "It's a real collector's item," he explained. His blue eyes shined brightly as he took hold of the barrel with his huge arthritis-knobbed hand and turned the gun over. "Look, there's an inscription on the other side."

I read it, fighting back tears and an impulse to laugh. My father, reaching out to express his love with an instrument of death--it was too funny, and terribly sad.

Dad died two years later, and for the next eight years the gun rested on the top shelf of a bookcase in my bedroom, half buried by dusty hardbacks. I never took it down to show to visitors, and when my wife and I gave tours of our home, I hoped no one would notice it and ask questions. Yet I cannot bring myself to throw it away, for it is, I believe, the perfect symbol of what World War II did to my father, and to me.

I take it down finally because I've been thinking a lot about the war of late, principally because there is no escaping it. Every week another blockbuster book, movie or television series generates a fresh tsunami of media nostalgia for "The Good War." There are the publicity blitzkriegs for the movies "Saving Private Ryan" and "Pearl Harbor" and HBO's coming series, "Band of Brothers," and such recent books as "Ghost Soldiers," "Flags of Our Fathers," "Citizen Soldiers" and Tom Brokaw's "The Greatest Generation" franchise, which includes three books and his "Home of the Brave" vignettes about WWII veterans on the NBC evening news.

My reaction to all of this is, to put it mildly, ambivalent. On the one hand, I am in awe of what my father's generation endured in the titanic struggle against fascism. They did indeed suffer terribly, give up much and perform heroic deeds that boggle the mind. But they were human--frail, flawed, sometimes strong, sometimes weak human beings. The romanticized revisionism robs them of that humanity, ignores the long-term costs that the war sometimes exacted, ultimately belittling the true scope of their sacrifices.

After the war, Stephen E. Ambrose asserts at the end of his otherwise excellent bestseller, "Citizen Soldiers," America's fighting men returned home, cast off their uniforms and cheerfully set about building a postwar utopia, seemingly untroubled by the death and destruction they'd participated in. "They learned to work together in the armed services in World War II," Ambrose writes. "They had seen enough destruction; they wanted to construct. They built the interstate highway system, the St. Lawrence Seaway, the suburbs. . . . They licked polio and made other revolutionary advances in medicine. They had learned in the Army the virtues of . . . inventiveness, and responsibility."

In "The Greatest Generation," Brokaw depicts the war as an epic character-building exercise in which American youth learned lessons in self-improvement. Brokaw even implies that it is a shame subsequent generations have missed out on such a wholesome enterprise. "In the war I learned to be self-sufficient," one veteran, Wesley Ko, says in a typical passage. "I learned to be a leader." Brokaw writes that "Ko's only regret is that the lessons of his generation are lost on his grandchildren."

My father did not respond well to war therapy. World War II mangled his spirit. He suffered the rest of his life, and inflicted suffering on two wives, four children and countless co-workers and friends. Or so I've always thought.

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