The new Ken Burns book and the miniseries on PBS this week are an eye-opening look at “The War” from the American veteran and civilian perspective, and serves as an important reminder of the costs of war. Ken Burns does our country a service, showing the realities of war as it affects “real people,” our fighting men as well as civilians … something rarely found in history textbooks. We see that war is a crazy hell on earth, but not just for the fighting men and women on the “good” side. Surely it is the same for those on the enemy’s side, too. There is suffering and sacrifice on all fronts. And we all know that civilians are not left untouched.
My mother grew up outside Tokyo and experienced WWII as a teen. All my life I heard fascinating stories of her childhood in Japan. It was not until I was an adult interested in writing down her life story that she began to tell me about what life was like during the war and how she survived. And so, I learned about war from a totally different perspective–that of the enemy’s child. If only everyone could see that kind of perspective and know that inside the enemy’s people are hearts that beat the same as their own. “Who wanted war anyway,” my mother says. War is caused by government and military leaders who can either effectively sway their people’s minds or who use intimidation and threats.
While finishing the book of my mother’s life, I became a great advocate for capturing the memories of our elders. This “greatest generation” who lived through so much history and hardship is disappearing quickly now, taking with them treasure-troves of memories that ought to be saved whether through legacy journals, through video, or even just through speaking those stories to family. They often don’t realize how precious their memories are because to them they are common experiences of the time.
Perhaps the most important memories are those testimonies of the people who lived through previous wars. Many veterans do not want to speak of their time on the war front, and yet we must teach our young people that war is more than the games they casually play on their computers, more than the video clips on a television they can turn off, more than the exciting action movie in the theatre. There are real bodies that bleed, real hearts that break, real lives that are destroyed. If a veteran cannot bear to speak their stories, we learn that war must be so hideous that thoughts of it must be shut away in darkness. If tears flow as they tell their stories, we learn that war affects people so deeply that even grown men cannot help but cry.
Our veterans can help us remember that war is the worst answer of all to conflict. Sometimes, as in WWII, it is necessary, but many other times it is not. Thank you to our veterans who are brave enough to tell their terrible stories of war so that another generation can more fully understand and learn from the experiences of others. We can dream that someday the leaders of the world will learn to put aside their agendas and work together to maintain peace and that no one will ever have to experience the horrors of war again, but for that to ever happen we all must remember the past.
Linda E. Austin is the author of “Cherry Blossoms in Twilight: Memories of a Japanese Girl” http://www.moonbridgebooks.com