[Come summer heat, much of my blogging momentum melts away. Hence an experiment until Labor Day: fifty minimalist posts about whatever.]
In graduate school, I met a veteran of World War II and the Korean War enrolled under the GI Bill. He was really only two years older than I, but had lied about his age to enlist as soon as he turned sixteen in March 1945, so officially he was three years older.
By the time he’d completed basic training the war in Europe was over; he was therefore shipped off to the Pacific to die there instead. Douglas MacArthur snapped him up for his Honor Guard. (As my friend said later, sardonically, “His Honor Guard was all tall white guys.”) Because he already knew how to drive, he became MacArthur’s personal chauffeur. Aged sixteen (but passing for seventeen), he drove the General into Tokyo when Japan signed the peace treaty.
After that he got to go home, although his term of enlistment wasn’t over, Then came 1950, when he was called back to finish his tour of duty. MacArthur was leading the troops in Korea this time. The General told him what he needed was battle experience. Now aged twenty-one (but passing for twenty-two), he found himself dodging bullets. They gave him a Purple Heart for getting shot in the foot while running away from the front. He used to tell that story himself. War had made him a cynic.
Bill and I watched a documentary last night about the Second World War. 60,000,000 soldiers and civilians died in that war. Blown apart, fire-bombed, incinerated, shot, gassed, starved to death. I could give you the breakdown by country, but why bother? Such vast numbers of real people dead are impossible to fathom, even if you try to imagine their bodies carpeting acres and acres and miles and miles of battlefield and scorched earth. The documentary reminded me of my graduate school friend awarded a Purple Heart for running away.
It also reminded me of something else MacArthur was famous for besides war. When Harry Truman fired him in 1951 for wanting to nuke mainland China after it entered the Korean War, he came to Congress to explain himself and say goodbye. His patriotic last words: “Old soldiers never die; they just fade away.” Everyone thought it quite moving, until journalists asked Truman’s opinion. Truman replied: “It’s all just bullshit.”