March 28, 2004
War Wounds


When Julia Collins started out to write My Father’s War , she assumed it was an unusual story: a young man full of promise going off to fight, returning physically whole but with a spirit so damaged that he never regained his old life, the damage touching everyone around him. Collins was surprised to find the story more common than she imagined.

It’s what happens in war. It’s an old, old story, one we’ve been immersed in once again this past year. Some soldiers die. Others, even the ones who seem to resume the progress of their lives, return forever changed in body or spirit. And those at home are changed as a result.


Collins’ father had been a young man who loved to joke and sing. He graduated from Yale, joined the Marines, and was part of an intelligence squad in the Pacific during World War II. When he came home to marry and start a family, he was clearly a different person. A spark had vanished. Collins describes the bewilderment of being a child whose father carried a deeply unreachable part.

“The Dad I ended up with was cynical and heartbroken,” she says. “He had lost the feeling that his hopes could come true. He was always proud of being a Marine and serving his country in a heroic way, but he had seen the basest side of human nature while he was doing our dirty work. That human toll, that degradation of body and spirit is what my dad came to understand about combat.”

Still, Collins says her father never lost his yearning to cross over to, in the words of his favorite song, “the sunny side of the street.”

“He was a very hard man to love. He hurt us in so many ways, but I always understood he had been through something I had to respect, something larger than our daily lives.”

I understand some of that. My father was there, too, in the Army, in combat. The shrapnel scars that ran the length of one leg were just the outward sign. But even though his life progressed seemingly undisturbed, he had lost a piece of himself, and we lost that part of him, too.

Any extreme experience--and what is more extreme than war?--burns us down to our essence, exposes the core of who we are. It’s why, decades later, military records become the stuff of political campaigns, why military service remains something to be worn with pride. And we who stay safe at home are touched by the experience of those close to us, or simply by being the ones in whose name they fight.

“In memory of anyone who has lost life in war,” Collins says, “and for the sake of the people we’re going to send to wage combat, we have make sure we’re being honest about our reasons.”

Collins remembers a conversation she had, just before the start of the fighting in Iraq, with the five surviving members of her father’s squad. She describes the men as “all proud Marines with no regrets for their WW II combat roles and ranging from lifelong Republican to liberal.

“They were all dead set against the Iraq war. I was struck by their unanimous disapproval, because the public, at the time, was so gung-ho for war. These old warriors know a thing or two about battle. They know the public’s appetite for vengeance generally means the other folks, mostly young kids, get to fight and die.”

What we’re reading now: Julia Collins: I’m re-reading Philip Pullman’s children’s series,The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass, some of the most creative and daring reimagining of our world. Ellen Steinbaum: “All the Blood Tethers,”is a lovely collection by Cambridge poet Catherine Sasanov, that is particularly fascinating to read in light of the current discussion about “The Passion of the Christ.”

City Type features the city's writers exploring their world. If you have suggestions, contact Ellen Steinbaum at citytype@globe.com.

 
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©2004 Ellen Steinbaum

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