I spent today watching the first five installments of Ken Burns' World War II documentary, 'The War'. And of course I was inundated with the images: airplanes drowning in the sea, a parachute impaled on winter branches – its living occupant having run away or been shot away, soldiers with faces looking like puzzles with the wrong pieces forced into place. There were the terrible corpses of the dead, and the even more awful faces of the living. Barbed wire on Omaha Beach. Soldiers advancing onto shore: with no sound, you didn't hear the bullets, so when they fell, it looked like they had merely tripped and fell. And then stayed there. Color reels of ships erupting into bloody flames.
And while watching this, I was reminded of something; it was as if my mind had tapped me on the shoulder, to make sure I didn't forget a news story I had been hearing for the past few days. The story reported the trimming down of questions for the American Citizenship Test. A local reporter had thought it a pithy idea to ask an American-On-The-Street these questions. Questions like, who was President during World War I, what was Susan B. Anthony known for, etc. Finally one person answered, "These questions are stupid. All those people are dead."
Now, let me start by saying that I believe that in memory, people and events can live on. To forget that a person has lived is to grant him a fate worse than death. I would like to ask the testy American who was so disinterested in the dead – the soldiers I watched today: do they bore you as well? Do the war dead become unimportant by virtue of the decades and decades that separate your life from theirs?
They screamed for help, drowning at Normandy, ignored by the troop ships passing them, whose commanders were instructed not to stop under any circumstances. Theirs were lifetimes in hell, existing for days in swamps, jungles, foxholes and trenches. Is it stupid to remember them? There are barely 100 survivors of World War I still alive. When they pass on, do we forget them too? Should we forget that war as well?
I study World War I. I'm surrounded by books, memoirs and photographs from that wasteland. And I cried today as I listened to stories over 60 years old. I was glad, too - because my tears felt like contributions to the memory of the dead. I can't forget war's pettiness, its disillusionment, its tragedy. I couldn't forget. How dare one forget?