I’ve been half-heartedly Googling this weekend, trying to find a particular photo dating back to my childhood. Even now, I can’t decide whether I really want to find it.
My family used to spend part of each summer at a rented cabin in northern Minnesota. My father was with us each weekend, commuting back and forth from the Twin Cities where he worked.
When he arrived on Friday evenings, we ate together, the four of us. My little brother would hit the sack early. As the elder kinder, I got to stay up on Friday night until I voluntarily retired myself. So while my parents busied themselves at the oilcloth-covered table in the kitchen, swatting mosquitoes, chatting and sucking up a few old fashioneds, I hunkered down to sort through the week’s mail from home.
There was rarely anything for me, but I had right of first refusal of all my parents' magazines. McCall’s, Ladies Home Journal, Life, Look, Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s. (Did I mention that I’m old as dirt? I thought not.) Those, and my kid magazine, Jack and Jill.
One of those summer Friday nights, I was lying on my belly in the living room, flipping the pages of Look Magazine. Part-way into it, there was a multi-page feature about the Korean War. Grown-up stuff. I was supremely naïve about war, even though my father had served in the South Pacific in WW II. And as I began thumbing through the Korean War photo essay, I had not the faintest premonition about what photos of war might reveal. Read on.
Then, there it was. Three American soldiers, said the caption. Crawling, one behind the other, on their hands and knees. As I recall, each soldier had a gun in his camera-side hand. Each of them wore what appeared to be a military helmet. I say “appeared to be,” because the soldiers had been fused into a grisly, burnt still-life by an enemy flame-thrower. Their bodies, helmets and guns were completely blackened, their features unrecognizable, one from the other. A few charred twigs were the only vestige of the vegetation that had been giving them “cover” before their destruction.
To say I was horrified is to completely understate the moment. My child’s eye locked on to that photo. I remember that I wanted to vomit, but I didn’t dare call attention to myself. I sensed I had just seen something a little girl was not supposed to see. I assumed that was my fault. (I know, I know.) And so I began manically flipping to the next page and the next, trying to distance myself from the terrible image.
Who knows what compels a kid to the level of horrified fascination? Even as I moved on to different magazines that night, I returned again and again for another peek at the dead soldiers. Finally, I’d had enough. I snuck into bed without saying goodnight to my parents. I’m not sure why exactly. I just lay there and cried and cried, and when my mother peeked in on me, I pretended to be sleeping.
Every night afterwards, for a long time, before I went to sleep, I prayed that I could stop seeing the image, stop thinking and dreaming about it. Such is the nature of obsessing. But it was a long time before the image faded. And all these years later, that photo is still my personal image of war.
Let us by all means honor – truly honor – our women and men who have served, are serving this country in the military. Let us give courage and support to those who are horribly injured and struggle every single day through their pain for survival. Let us be present and deeply respectful of families whose loved ones have perished in war, whether they are Americans or all the others. These sacrifices are immense.
Charred bodies in Korea in the 1950s. Burnt bodies hanging from a bridge over the Euphrates in the 2000s. Fifty years of escalating madness. In the name of the holy, creation, the universe, mother/father God, please bring our soldiers home now, alive, whole and sane.