Urf! has been trying to watch The War this week, and I've been trying not to watch it. I turned it on by accident one night, just as it was starting, and saw the big "graphic depictions of violence ahead" warning. That was pretty much all I needed to see.
It wasn't queasiness or my already firmly established pacifism that made me change the channel, though. It was my dad. Any war images set in the 20th century drive my thoughts to the unpleasant place where my imagination holds a 22-year-old Minnesota boy in jungle-dank fatigues. Seeing photographs or, worse yet, film from WWI, WWII, Korea and of course Vietnam forces me to think about the things he saw himself and the trauma he suffered because of it.
Not that he talked about it, of course. Being both a Norwegian and the son of a WWII veteran, it was natural that he kept the details to himself. Even as a child, however, I knew that his reasons for suppressing discussion of his war experience went much deeper. It wasn't hereditary reticence that caused him to take cover if a late-night phone call startled him awake.
Something about the familial disaster of the past month spurred a sudden outburst, though. As we were gathered together in grief, he shared a story about his last week in-country that he'd never breathed a word of before that night. It was a surprisingly light-hearted anecdote, but it couldn't help but reinforce the knowledge that the vast majority of those 52 weeks would remain unknown to anyone else. Because there was really no way to describe them.
Ken Burns is attempting to dissolve that cloud of mystery, at least for the second World War, but I think I prefer being on the other side of the fog. There's no reason for a daughter to be able to picture so clearly a field of fallen soldiers, the faces of desperate civilians, or the actual second-by-second death of a friend, not while knowing that those same images were burned into her father's brain before he had bought his first car. Burns has said (is actually saying on Letterman right this minute) that the greatest thing about documentary film-making is meeting the people, but knowing my dad as well as I do, there are some things we still don't need to talk about.
I feel that way, too. But at the same time, I feel like people need to see the realities of war sometimes, as opposed to the Hollywood version, so we can remember the very real horrors it produces.
My Dad's oldest brother never came home from Vietnam, and throughout my entire childhood, my grandmother's house was a shrine to him. The calendar on her bedroom wall was never turned to a new page after she got the MIA notice. The car he bought her rested on cinder blocks in the back yard once it was no longer drivable. It took her decades to accept that he was truly dead, and not being held prisoner in some jungle hell. I'm not sure which thought was worse for her.
I definitely think people need to see the reality. I just don't need to.
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