War and Remberance: Whatever Hells There Are . . .

It’s a holiday weekend here in the U.S. On Monday, we celebrate Memorial Day, a day of remembrance for those who have died in our nation’s service.

As a Buddhist, I am against war. Even if I wasn’t a Buddhist, I’d be opposed to it, as really any person should. I was against the war in Vietnam, both Iraq wars, and had major reservations about invading Afghanistan to go after Bin Laden. World War II, on the other hand, has always seemed justified. It’s hard to imagine what this world would be like if the U.S. and the British hadn’t confronted the Axis forces.

And I have to admit that I’m pretty much a sucker for anything to do with WWII. As I kid I ate it up. I read WWII comics (Sgt. Rock and Sgt. Fury), went to WWII movies (The Great Escape, The Longest Day, Bridge on the River Kwai), and of course on TV, there was Combat! (with the late, great Vic Morrow as Sgt. Saunders). After all these years, nothing much has changed, except that these days I find stories and films about life on the home front as compelling as those set on the battlefield.

Patch of the 104th Infantry Division

My dad was in the war. He served in the 104th Infantry Division (“The Timberwolves”), under Major General Terry de la Mesa Allen, AKA “Terrible Terry.”  The 104th fought in the Battle of the Bulge, participated in the fight for the bridge at Remagen, and met the Soviet Army at the River Elbe. Their motto was “Nothing in Hell can stop the Timberwolves.”

Nothing did, and while the Battle of the Bulge was the bloodiest battle of the war, and breaking out of the Remagen Bridgehead no picnic, they hadn’t any idea what waited for them in Nordhausen, Germany. It was called Mittelbau Dora, a place that a Frenchman, Jean Mialet, described as “This is what hell must be like.” A Vernichtungslager, or extermination camp for sick prisoners. There wasn’t a gas chamber at Nordhausen, the SS just let prisoners die from starvation and a complete lack of medical care.

A soldier and a medical officer from 104th view the bodies of prisoners lying on the ground in a barracks at Nordhausen.

One can only guess at what it must have been like for a young soldier who may have never been out of his home state before to confront the terribly inhumane conditions of a place like that. I once asked my dad about it, and all he said was, “Well, we had to stand a lot of guard duty.” Actually, I suspect that very few of the soldiers got a look inside the camp. After all, the war was not yet over (Nordhausen was liberated on April 13. 1945 and the Germans didn’t surrender until April 29th) and, presumably, they had more combat ahead of them. Seeing some 5000 bodies lying scattered on the grounds in various stages of decomposition no doubt would have weighed heavily on the men’s minds and inhibited their fighting spirit.

The medic unit of the 104th struggled to save as many of the still living as they could, most of whom were just barely alive, skeleton-like, clinging to life one breath at a time amidst unbelievable filth. But it was a huge job, more than the GI’s could handle by themselves, and since speed was of the essence, they rounded up German citizens living nearby and put them to work, helping with the evacuation, hospitalization, and feeding.

My dad’s understated remark typifies the attitude of the “Greatest Generation.” They had a job to do, it was an ugly, horrible job but they did it and when it was over, they didn’t want to think about what they did and saw, much less discuss it. After the war ended, the men and women of WWII wanted to move on and get back to a normal life. After all, not only had they suffered through the years of war, but also a decade of “Great Depression” before that.

We, who are their sons and daughters, and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, owe them a tremendous debt. So, on Memorial Day, as we honor those who died in America’s battles, I think it is altogether fitting that we also remember the men and women who lived through war, especially the Second World War, those who fought terrible battles for a noble cause, who witnessed scenes of unimaginable cruelty induced by ignoble aims, and then had to live with it, and even managed to reconcile with their former enemies.

They bequeathed to us a great gift, and I for one, to paraphrase a line from the film Mr. Roberts, say “Thanks for the liberty.”

In the intermediate ages of warfare they are intent upon compassion; they persuade hundreds of myriads of beings not to do harm. In the midst of great conflict, they are impartial; they approve union and reconcilement, these mighty Bodhisattvas. Whatever hells there are in the infinite fields of the Buddhas, of set purpose they go forth for the good of all beings.”

Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra