War – What is it Good For

February 15, 2007 Thursday

As Americans have soured on the Iraq war, it’s easy to forget that armed conflict is sometimes the right course of action. In fact, a reflexive chant of ‘war is not the answer’ is a dangerous and amoral way of thinking. A child’s war-themed birthday party — and the ensuing meeting between members of the Greatest Generation and the next generation — brought this point home.

My wife and I recently watched as our three boys marched off to join Easy Company of the Army’s 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division. Their stoic faces belied their youth — ages 8, 6 and 4 — as they faced the horrors of dropping into Normandy 1944 as part of their best friend’s birthday party. There was plenty of action, of course, but nothing like what the parents would experience a few days later.

It appears that, as casualties and opposition rise with the Iraq war, even Liam Bowman’s 8th birthday party can become fodder in our national debate. Outraged parents complained that we were perverting the minds of children by glorifying war. Yet, there is something to learn from war — as we found out later with a visit to a small Veterans of Foreign Wars hall in rural Maryland.

It began as a birthday party for Liam, who has watched the HBO series Band of Brothers so many times that he can name all the men of Easy Company as easily as his third-grade class roster. Liam’s mom, Brigid Schulte, threw an authentic Easy Company party with World War II music, jump wings, Normandy maps, ammo boxes and root beer in the mess hall. With Liam’s dad, Tom Bowman, in Iraq covering a real war for National Public Radio, I agreed to play the role of Col. Robert Sink (head of the Airborne Regiment) while Liam served as Lt. Richard Winters, the central figure and commander of Easy Company in the series.

The outrage

As soon as the invitations went out, a couple of parents politely declined to let their children come to a war-themed party. Afterward, Brigid — a Washington Post reporter — wrote a short piece about the party, and the response from outraged readers was fast and furious. Describing the whole affair as deeply disturbing, one reader chastised Brigid for giving into the base, violent inclinations of her son: “Here’s a novel idea: Say no. Tell him that war is sad and horrible and should never be a cause for celebration.”

There is a palpable sense among such playground objectors that boys harbor some deep dormant monster that, once awakened, inevitably ends with the invasion of Poland or a massacre at My Lai. Of course, millions of men played war games as kids without becoming war criminals. To the contrary, playing war was for most men an early type of morality play, defining values of sacrifice and selflessness. George Orwell once observed that a war-weary parent “who sees his children playing with soldiers is usually upset, but he is never able to think of a substitute for tin soldiers; tin pacifists somehow won’t do.”

To teach that all war is immoral is to deny the absolute values that frame a truly moral life. Arguably, the view of all war as immoral is itself amoral. Whether it is World War II or the first Gulf War, there are wars worth fighting and causes worth dying — and yes, killing — for. The failure of the world to fight in Rwanda and Darfur are, in my view, amoral acts of omission.

Moral clarity is what we found in a small Veterans of Foreign Wars hall in a tiny town in Maryland. Not long after Brigid’s column ran, she was contacted by a former Airborne division veteran, Frank Maio, who offered to arrange for the kids to meet with one of the last survivors of Easy Company.

This is how four of the boys — Liam, Ben, Jack and their friend Colby — recently found themselves sitting nervously across a table from four combat veterans at VFW Post 2632. (My 4-year-old son Aidan, wisely, preferred to play with Tessa Bowman, the fetching 5-year-old USO tap dancer from the party.) The commander of the post is Pat McGonigle, a Navy veteran of Grenada. Maio is a former decorated paratrooper from the 82nd Airborne and “tunnel rat” in Vietnam who would crawl into small dark tunnels to flush out enemy soldiers. Tom Warren is another Airborne veteran from Vietnam.

Yet, the boy’s eyes were all fixed on the 82-year-old Clarence “Clancy” Lyall, a highly decorated paratrooper (with 25 decorations and citations) and a veteran of World II, Korea and Vietnam. Lyall jumped into Normandy with the 101st and fought in most of the battles portrayed in the HBO series, including the Battle of the Bulge. He was wounded four times in combat, including a still-visible shrapnel scar on his head, which the boys couldn’t stop staring at. (To the relief of the parents, Lyall declined to show them the bayonet scar on his stomach.)

Lyall has hundreds of jumps to his credit, including a rare record of four combat jumps. He told them how he had lied at 16 to enlist and had his 18th birthday in combat in Holland. (He was wounded the next day.) After World War II, he also served in Vietnam as an American adviser with the 8th French Parachute Assault Battalion at Dien Bien Phu, and narrowly escaped when the garrison surrendered.

Yet rather than asking about the gore of war, the boys seemed most interested in matters more relevant and important to the adolescent mind: how Lyall overcame fear. “When you did your jump into Normandy,” Liam asked, “was it scary?”

“You bet it was scary,” Lyall said, and described how bullets ripped through his jump pants as he descended toward the town of St. Marie-Eglise. “There was so much flak coming at us, you could walk on it.”

“Did you ever throw up?” my 6-year-old son Jack shyly asked.

“No, but I felt like it many times,” came the reply.

“What was the scariest part of the war?” my 8-year-old son Ben asked. “Every day!” Lyall responded, “but the very worst was leaving that plane.”

The real face of war

Lyall explained that war is not like the movies. When he landed, he told them how he was “shaking all over” in fear and how a Catholic priest had to get him to his feet. All of the veterans explained that men who suffer “hysterical blindness” or “shell shock” are not cowards and that everyone can reach a breaking point in combat.

“All that John Wayne stuff is a lot of bull,” Lyall said. “I don’t like war. I hate it. No combat soldier likes war.” The boys all nodded knowingly.

Lyall described how he had broken down after his division liberated a concentration camp and how he was haunted for years by what he had seen. The boys again nodded knowingly.

“What makes someone a good soldier?” 8-year-old Colby Gustafson asked. All four vets responded at the same time with “patriotism.” When they said it, it did not seem like the cheap shtick that we hear in Washington from politicians cloaking themselves in the bravery of others. It meant something coming from these guys.

Lyall now drives a bus for the Department of Aging and brings meals to the elderly. Lyall, who is part Cherokee, explained that “Currahee” — the cry of Easy Company — was a Cherokee word for “stand alone” but really meant “stand alone; fight as one.”

After almost two hours, the four boys and the four vets said goodbye. As the adults stopped to chat outside, the boys immediately ran to a nearby mound of dirt. Grabbing sticks to use as guns, they set up a defensive perimeter and started firing at some phantom enemy. They were a band of brothers in every sense of the word. The four graying vets watched critically from a distance. “Now, that’s a tight 360,” Maio said, and the rest nodded their approval.

In the end, I was less confident about the boys’ war-making ability than I was about their ability to make sense of war. Now if only we could take the rest of America to VFW Post 2632.