Last night my husband and I watched the movie “Stop-Loss.” It is about an American soldier who was called back to Iraq after serving his full tour. It exposed his anguish about going back, an anguish fueled by severe and unrelenting Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. It got me thinking and feeling. Even though I know that sometimes war is unavoidable, I remembered how much I hate war and how this feeling developed in me at a very young age.
I grew up in a suburb outside of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It is called Wauwatosa. “Tosa” for short. It was a great place to grow up. I loved my neighborhood and all the kids in it. Everybody in the neighborhood knew each other, and it felt like one big family. Summers were the best as we kids often stayed up late and hung out under the street light eating popcorn and laughing at who knows what. During the daytime, we would ride our bikes around the block repeatedly. It never seemed to get boring.
In 1968, one of the older kids in the neighborhood was drafted into the Vietnam War. His name was Johnny. He was the older brother of one of my good friends, Tommy. At the time he was drafted, it really had no meaning for me. It was only when he came home that I began to understand what war was about and how it affected people.
When Johnny left for Vietnam, he was your average 18-year-old. As far as I knew, he was clean cut and wholesome. When he came back, he was a very different person. He grew his hair long, smoked pot and took other drugs regularly, drank all day, and drove his car recklessly around our quiet suburban neighborhood. I remember hearing his car roar down our street screeching as it would round the corners. My parents would just shake their heads. Often commenting, “Look. See. This is what the war did to him. He will never be the same.” They could only guess what happened to him. But I actually knew.
You are probably wondering how a ten-year-old would know what happened to a Vietnam Vet. I knew because I asked. We would sometimes hang out around Tommy’s house where Johnny would be drinking beer, smoking cigarettes, and listening to very loud music. One day I took the opportunity to ask him what it was like for him in Vietnam. He did not hesitate to tell me and the other children around what it was like for him. He talked about not knowing who was the enemy and who was your friend, and about having to kill children with his bayonet because they were going to pull the pin on a hand grenade and blow them both up. He told us how scary and confusing it all was for him and how he had nightmares and flashbacks. He talked about feeling angry all the time and not being able to feel anything else.
Most adults would probably be disturbed that Johnny exposed children to the horrors of war and to his pain, but I am glad he told us. It had no adverse affect upon me. It helped me understand him and his pain, and the compassion I had for him only grew deeper and wider. I now felt sadness and compassion for anybody who had to face war. As well, I started to formulate my own beliefs and ideas about what I thought about war in general. I knew I did not like it.
My father grew up during World War II in a region of Germany called Silesia. It is now a part of Poland. He and his brother grew up in the country on the farm my grandmother ran. My grandmother’s father bequeathed it to her on her wedding day. Before the war, my grandfather was a tailor and went to the city everyday to work. During the war, he served as a medic assisting medical doctors in surgery. Fortunately, he never faced battle or used a gun. This kept him out of prisoner of war camps after the war ended.
One day when I was in ninth grade studying history, we were given an assignment to go home and ask our parents about World War II, what they were doing during it, and how it affected them. I ask my mother who said, “Well, it did not really affect me in Brazil. You need to ask your father because he was in Europe during the war.” Therefore, I did. He told us the worse thing for him was when the Russians came through his city after the war had ended and Germany had lost. They took everything. They made him and his brother watch as they raped his mother. Everybody was forced to leave his or her home and walk to many miles to West Germany. Many years later as my understanding of war grew, I wondered if my father and brother were also raped.
My father was 15-years-old and my uncle was 13-years-old when the war ended. The horrors they were exposed to never left them. My uncle, who is now deceased, never recovered. He had severe depression and Posttraumatic Stress until he died several years ago. My father suffers from chronic alcoholism and suffered from nightmares at least until he was fifty. My mother would tell us that he would often wake her with his screams about the Russians coming.
So why do I hate war? Because, as far as I can tell, nobody wins. We are all losers: the soldiers who fight it, the women and children who have to endure it, the civilians who have to support it and pay for it.