Underneath the Veneer

American soldier’s tribute at Carentan, Normandy, France, Summer 1944

The watchers in their leopard suits
Waited till it was time,
And aimed between the belt and boot
And let the barrel climb.
from Louis Simpson, “Carentan O Carentan”

I first discovered Louis Simpson’s poetry when I was doing a search for other poetic works on the Second World War a few years ago.  I was reminded of his poem a few weeks back when discovering that Simpson, who coincidentally taught at UC Berkeley in the 1960s, passed away in mid-September.  While I ultimately decided to use other poetry for what I needed at the time, Simpson’s description of the Battle of Carentan in his ballad, an engagement taking place during the Battle of Normandy after the D-Day landings, stayed with me, in particular after watching the 506th PR’s role in the battle, reenacted in HBO’s Band of Brothers:


Veteran’s Day has become one of those holidays where servicemen are easily celebrated by those who haven’t served, lacking a full understanding of what warfare truly represents, not just symbolic, but also in terms of the physical, as well as the psychic costs.  I can’t, myself, in any way, understand the nature of warfare, only gain glimpses of it; in poetry like Simpson’s Carentan O Carentan, we witness his own insight:

Carentan O Carentan
Before we met with you
We never yet had lost a man
Or known what death could do.

Eugene Sledge, whose character figures so prominently in the latter episodes of HBO’s more recent The Pacific shared his own insight in his war memoir, With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa:

…something in me died at Peleliu. Perhaps it was a childish innocence that accepted as faith the claim that man is basically good. Possibly I lost faith that politicians in high places who do not have to endure war’s savagery will ever stop blundering and sending others to endure it.

Another veteran of the Second World War, former Senator George McGovern, also recently passed away, a few weeks after Louis Simpson.  As one of those politicians in high places, unlike so many of his colleagues, McGovern could somewhat share what Eugene Sledge endured, and the former Senator spent a significant part of his political life trying to avoid the very sort of terror that he once endured:

I’m fed up to the ears with old men dreaming up wars for young men to die in.

All weekend, should I desire, I could dial up old war films on the television, or find a documentary on the Smithsonian Channel.  Truthfully though, for my own part, I’ve grown more concerned today reflecting upon how Veteran’s Day has moved far beyond the American interpretation of the original Remembrance Day for which November 11th was previously known, into the usual American past-time of turning it into a department store sale event.  Or, worse, we see jingoistic chest thumping.  For instance, today, on Facebook, a popular local wine store here in Whittier chose to celebrate American veterans not just for serving, but through whose service allowed us to read their ad in English.  Certainly, this sort of woeful misinterpretation lessens the impact of what Simpson, Sledge, or McGovern hoped to convey through the re-telling of their years of wartime service.  I have read what those former servicemen wrote–in English–and am thankful for both their service and for being able to grasp the understanding, even basically, that they likely hoped their service experiences impressed upon me.  On the other hand, there are others who might read the same words–in English–and be totally clueless as to what wartime service really means.

Author Robert Leckie, who like Sledge, is a featured character in The Pacific, shared the following conversation in his epilogue to his Pacific war memoir, Helmet for My Pillow:

A woman made heavy with the girth of affluence said to me:  “What did you get out of it?  What were you fighting for?”  I thought to reply, “Your privilege to buy black-market meat,” but I did not, for flippancy would only anger her and insult my comrades.  Nor did I answer, “To preserve the status quo – to defend what I now have,” for this would have pandered to her materialism, which is always a lie.  Most of all I could not tell the truth:  “To destroy the Nazi beast, to restrain imperialist Japan,” for this she would not have understood.  This we had done, and done it without a song to sing, with no deep sense of dedication.

But I could not answer the first question, for I did not know what I had  gotten out of it, or even that I was supposed to profit.

Now I know.  For myself, a memory and the strength of ordeal sustained; for my son, a priceless heritage; for my country, sacrifice…[b]ut sacrifice says:  “Not the blood of your brother, my friend – your blood.”

That is why women weep when their men go off to war.  They do not weep for their victims, they weep for them as Victim. . .[t]hat is why there are no glorious living, but only glorious dead.  Heroes turn traitor, warriors age and grow soft – but a victim is changeless, sacrifice is eternal.