Remembering forward

May 26, 2008 by barbara

barbara writes

I’ve been half-heartedly Googling this weekend, trying to find a particular photo dating back to my childhood. Even now, I can’t decide whether I really want to find it.

My family used to spend part of each summer at a rented cabin in northern Minnesota. My father was with us each weekend, commuting back and forth from the Twin Cities where he worked.

When he arrived on Friday evenings, we ate together, the four of us. My little brother would hit the sack early. As the elder kinder, I got to stay up on Friday night until I voluntarily retired myself. So while my parents busied themselves at the oilcloth-covered table in the kitchen, swatting mosquitoes, chatting and sucking up a few old fashioneds, I hunkered down to sort through the week’s mail from home.

There was rarely anything for me, but I had right of first refusal of all my parents' magazines. McCall’s, Ladies Home Journal, Life, Look, Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s. (Did I mention that I’m old as dirt? I thought not.) Those, and my kid magazine, Jack and Jill.

One of those summer Friday nights, I was lying on my belly in the living room, flipping the pages of Look Magazine. Part-way into it, there was a multi-page feature about the Korean War. Grown-up stuff. I was supremely naïve about war, even though my father had served in the South Pacific in WW II. And as I began thumbing through the Korean War photo essay, I had not the faintest premonition about what photos of war might reveal. Read on.

Then, there it was. Three American soldiers, said the caption. Crawling, one behind the other, on their hands and knees. As I recall, each soldier had a gun in his camera-side hand. Each of them wore what appeared to be a military helmet. I say “appeared to be,” because the soldiers had been fused into a grisly, burnt still-life by an enemy flame-thrower. Their bodies, helmets and guns were completely blackened, their features unrecognizable, one from the other. A few charred twigs were the only vestige of the vegetation that had been giving them “cover” before their destruction.

To say I was horrified is to completely understate the moment. My child’s eye locked on to that photo. I remember that I wanted to vomit, but I didn’t dare call attention to myself. I sensed I had just seen something a little girl was not supposed to see. I assumed that was my fault. (I know, I know.) And so I began manically flipping to the next page and the next, trying to distance myself from the terrible image.

Who knows what compels a kid to the level of horrified fascination? Even as I moved on to different magazines that night, I returned again and again for another peek at the dead soldiers. Finally, I’d had enough. I snuck into bed without saying goodnight to my parents. I’m not sure why exactly. I just lay there and cried and cried, and when my mother peeked in on me, I pretended to be sleeping.

Every night afterwards, for a long time, before I went to sleep, I prayed that I could stop seeing the image, stop thinking and dreaming about it. Such is the nature of obsessing. But it was a long time before the image faded. And all these years later, that photo is still my personal image of war.

LeftyMN directed me to a couple of stories in Saturday’s New York Times: Here and Here. These are powerful, poignant stories of soldiers sent into war zones.

Let us by all means honor – truly honor – our women and men who have served, are serving this country in the military. Let us give courage and support to those who are horribly injured and struggle every single day through their pain for survival. Let us be present and deeply respectful of families whose loved ones have perished in war, whether they are Americans or all the others. These sacrifices are immense.

Charred bodies in Korea in the 1950s. Burnt bodies hanging from a bridge over the Euphrates in the 2000s. Fifty years of escalating madness. In the name of the holy, creation, the universe, mother/father God, please bring our soldiers home now, alive, whole and sane.

UPDATE: Check out Joseph Galloway's excellent piece at McClatchy about genuinely honoring our veterans. I picked up the link from Christy Hardin Smith's post at Firedoglake.

Posted in


susan | May 26, 2008 - 9:39am

Amen to that, sister. I think I once wrote here about being similarly transfixed by a fat book of WW2 news photos (I'm also old as dirt) which included photos of cities turned to rubble, women with their arms flung in a futile protective sheild over their children, soldiers laughing, soldiers dying. And of course it was the photos of death that riveted me, the eyes gaping to an empty heaven, the flies ringing the mouth, the upraised arms in a rigid last grasp at life. Obviously my siblings had felt the same way, as those pages were the most dog-earred and worn, yet we didn't look at them together. You're right Barb, there was something porn-like and shameful in seeing such things, and worse, being drawn back for another look. We didn't talk about them anymore than we talked about the stash of nudey magazines we found by the culvert in the ravines, probably dumped off by some scion of suburbia who couldn't risk having them turn up in the trash can.
What a difference 50 years makes, eh? Children now see graphic depictions of death in TV, movies, and in the mesmerizing cyber world of Grand Theft Auto. And far too many of them see death on their city streets as thugs with guns terroize the neighborhood. And little girls, as well as their grown up moms, wear clothes on the street that we only used to see in those purloined girly mags. Nothing left to the imagination, nothing erotic about it. (She sniffed in 60 year old disdain.)
We are a desensitized culture. The Bush administration needn't have worked so hard to keep those coffins out of our sight.

PS. Here's an op-ed I wrote on Memorial Days of old for the Strib, Published on Monday, May 29, 2006. It ends:

This Memorial Day I miss the fanfare and the drums, but most of all I miss the shared relief of a difficult chapter ending and the shared hope for a brighter one ahead. And I wonder, how do we honor our dead when we are asked not to notice?


barbara says (not verified) | May 26, 2008 - 12:29pm

I think the part about missing the shared hope of a new chapter beginning helps explain the powerful appeal of Barack Obama. Cynical anti-linguists make light of his overarching theme of hope. But I would submit that hope is what has kept our nation and other nations (think WWII England for starters) afloat in their darkest days.

The photo that creeped me out also informs my world view. As traumatic as it was, I guess I needed to see it. If I were growing up in Bush World, I would see only the occasional flag-draped coffin, leading my child-mind to believe that death by war is a tidy matter. Blow 'em up, box 'em up, ship 'em home, park 'em in the orderly rows of national cemeteries, lower the flags for a few days and move on. Next?

Somewhere amongst my souvenirs is a scrapbook of my father's WWII time on Okinawa, Guam and other combat zones. I want to believe the book is filled with photos of Navy guys bonding. I'm guessing (though I do not know for sure) that the book may contain things more graphically disturbing than Seebeas puking up cheap beer. Well, since my father was an officer, maybe puking up cheap whiskey.

The road to hell is paved with the collateral damage of war. Of that much I am certain.


paul miller (not verified) | May 26, 2008 - 7:50pm

works for me!

Activist wants Bush arrested on arrival

Minneapolis activist will ask that President Bush be tried for war crimes. Ed Felien wants Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman to convene a grand jury.


Sedgewood2 (not verified) | May 28, 2008 - 7:51pm

Sister, your OLDER than dirt! That book was of World War ONE photos, and I remember it well! There was a picture of a naked little girl, match stick arms and legs, with a huge belly, standing amidst the rubble of a bombed out town. The picture was labeled "Famine". I asked mother what "famine" meant and she replied "starvation, hunger". "if she's so hungry, why does she have such a big belly?" I asked. "Because that's what happens, when you're really REALLY hungry, it's called bloated, " she said.

End of discussion.

She was a busy woman, of course, five children and all, but there was nothing in her voice or demeanor to suggest to her five year old daughter that there was anything amiss here. War, like shit, happens.
Later, I learned that the "book" in question, a two inch thick first time ever photo essay, up close and honest (cameras don't lie) look at the horrors of war, was supposed to change our attitude toward war forevermore. Hmm.


susan | May 30, 2008 - 1:40pm

Whoa! No kidding! WW1, really? Well, I am older than dirt, and my memory proves it. Yes, I remember the naked bloated girl too. But if I was 4 or 5, you must have been 8 or 9, so likely you were putting more together out of that book than I was. I mainly remember dead soldiers with flies around their mouths and that the book was huge.
As for changed attitudes towards war, the TV coverage of Vietnam was supposed to do the same thing. Hmmm.


barbara | June 1, 2008 - 11:41am

No, no, not a book. A magazine. LOOK, I think. Maybe Life. Not positive about that. But a photojournalism type mag. So you see? Older than dirt but not as old as original matter.


susan | June 1, 2008 - 1:41pm

You saw Look Magazine, we saw a book. A book the size of an atlas, and it was about WW 1. Before magazines were invented. We is me and my sisters, including the one who wrote in above. But Look was always a good source of soul-stirring photos as well, thus the name, I suppose.
So, we're all old, all marred and scarred and the wiser for it.


susan | June 1, 2008 - 1:41pm

You saw Look Magazine, we saw a book. A book the size of an atlas, and it was about WW 1. Before magazines were invented. We is me and my sisters, including the one who wrote in above. But Look was always a good source of soul-stirring photos as well, thus the name, I suppose.
So, we're all old, all marred and scarred and the wiser for it.