Tuesday, May 26, 2015

My Father and I - the American Narrative

My father, Cecil E Shelton on  shore leave in the
 Philippines after the invasion of Okinawa, 1945.

My father and I had a fraught relationship for the last forty years of his life. What I did not know until just a year or two before his death was that he suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). No one told me this nor, as far as I know, was he ever diagnosed with PTSD, but I finally put it together, with the last pieces of that puzzle falling into place because of a conversation with my aunt, his sister. She told me of his nightmares, his crying and screaming in his sleep – things she had learned from my mother, and of his experience relayed through his conversations with another aunt, also his sister and a World War II veteran in her own right, while on leave during the War.

This, however, is not about him. It is about trying to understand him and the war that made him who he was. In order to do so, I must look at that war, and the peoples who fought that war, including those he fought against. It is about trying to come to terms with what I was taught as a child and the things I learned growing up. It is about trying to put in context those very few things I heard him talk about that war – almost never to us, and to put them in a broader context. It is about my father, the United States, Japan and the Japanese, and how a generation of young men and women on both sides grew up under the influence of the mutual experiences of that war.

In the past forty years or so, I have read a fair amount of literature about World War II. Most of it has been about the war in the Pacific, for what should be obvious reasons. I have not, however, chosen to read about the heroics of American troops, battling their way across that ocean, storming ashore on islands that are now hallmarks of American military history: Tarawa, Okinawa, Iwo Jima, the Philippines. Nor will I deal with that here. There is no need. We – those of my generation, the children of that war’s veterans – were weaned on those stories. Whether what we heard was embellished or not, we know them. We know of hero Marines and evil, subhuman Japanese. Never were the Japanese given a human face in those stories. We might know of the Rape of Nanking, but not of the fire bombings of Tokyo and almost every other major Japanese city. We know nothing of those who lived through or died during those bombings.

This odyssey of reading began when I ran across an English language copy of Saburu Ienaga’s Pacific War: 1931-1945  in the early 1980s. (I still have that book.) Although somewhat dense and assuming knowledge of Japanese history that I did not have, this was the first glimpse I had of a Japanese perspective. And what does this have to do with my father? When I told my father about the book, the vehemence of his “Why would you want to read that?” eliminated any further mention to him of learning about the ‘enemy’s” perspective.

Sometimes those who have experienced traumatic events create narratives that justify those events. It is a form of self preservation. “What I went through was worth it because...” In his case, he and his fellow Americans had saved the world from the “evil Japanese”.  He had seen American soldiers killed on the beaches of Okinawa as he ferried them to shore. Although some of those deaths were by friendly fire (I heard him mention this once when I was really young. He didn’t realize that I was listening to his conversation with other Pacific veterans.), he had to see the Japanese as completely evil in order to live with those experiences. He never questioned that narrative, just as many veterans of all wars from all countries do not question the narratives they have constructed and/or accepted. This is not a criticism of my father. It is an attempt to understand him for I, too, have created a similar narrative for myself. After all, that narrative, which he never saw a reason to question, was largely constructed for him.

It is a narrative that has been made necessary to sustain our constant state of war, our frequent foreign interventions, our seeming need to invade and impose our will on other countries. It is the narrative that we are the good guys, wearing the white hats who have sacrificed so much so people around the world can be free, without considering the incredible amount of destruction that we have caused and how little “freedom” has been the result, be it in Vietnam fifty years ago, Iraq and Afghanistan in recent years or against our native peoples in the more distant past. It is a constant in our history that precedes our founding as a nation... It is the underpinnings of phrases like George Bush’s now [in]famous “They hate our freedoms” and his “You are either for us or you are with the terrorists.” It creates a conformity that views anyone who would dare question our country’s motives for its constant wars or who wants to understand another country’s perspective or another people’s reasons as suspect – and that is what caused my father’s and my divergences over so many things.

One powerful word is sadly absent from that narrative: reconciliation. We are taught to hate them. We are not taught who they are and, when it is over, we move on to our next enemy du jour without either looking back or forward, without reflecting. Today, it is the “hajis” and “ragheads”. All Muslims are suspect. Yesterday, it was “gooks”, represented by the Vietnamese and, earlier, by Koreans and Chinese “chinks”. Before that, we had the “Japs”, the “Krauts”, the “Huns” and myriad other epithets, each reflecting the war from which it arose. And, in between wars, what do we do? We talk about our might and how it makes us right. We seek to keep out those we don’t approve of. Brown people, black people, red people who are within our borders are subjected to the same treatment because they dare to question our narrative. When they ask about their perceived exclusion from “Liberty and justice for all”, we use epithets, other justifications, without attempting to understand why they would feel as they do. After all, it goes against the narrative. We even come up with new epithets to substitute those that are no longer deemed acceptable. Does anyone really wonder why the protesters in Baltimore and Ferguson were called “thugs” and, yet, the bikers in Waco were not, even though more people died in Waco than in Baltimore and Ferguson combined?

And, so, how do we get to reconciliation? How do we attempt to humanize our “enemy”, especially once our so-called reasons for hating him have ended. Perhaps we can look at people who have gone beyond, have attempted to understand not only what happened to them, but also why. We can begin by looking at examples like that of Eric Lomas, a British soldier and prisoner of war of the Japanese, and Takashi Nagase, a Japanese officer and Mr. Lomax’s interrogator. Without going into details, both were wracked with trauma from their years of war - Lomax for what he had endured and Nagase for what he had participated in. Mr. Lomax suffered severely from PTSD. He had been brutally tortured while Mr. Nagase served as interpreter during those interrogations. Nagase knew he had been both complicit and silent during the torture of Lomax and other prisoners. He knew the narrative that he had been told and believed in was a lie. His remorse led him to become a Buddhist priest and to work for reconciliation. The short version of this story is that, in order to deal with his PTSD, Mr. Lomax found Mr. Nagase years later and forgave him. They both became friends and both continued working for reconciliation between former foes. It is an uplifting story, portrayed in Mr. Lomax’s book The Railway Man and the 2013 movie of the same name. Theirs is one story among many from different wars involving different people that are largely unknown. Those are the stories that my father never heard, largely because they ran against the narrative. Would they have helped my father deal with his trauma? I honestly do not know, but it would have also required him to step back from the narrative a little in order to avail himself of them had they been available.  I don’t know if he could have done that, but those are also the stories that we, as humans, need to learn. They are everywhere. They remind us that, in the end, we are all the same. Without them, we are doomed to continue hating, and fighting, and letting our wounds fester rather than heal. We can do better than that.


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