Image credit: U.S. Army Warrant Officer Irving J. Zweig, ca. 1945 (courtesy Felice A. Zweig)
I never served in the U.S. military, but my father fought in World War II. A former journalist himself, he was a great storyteller, but my dad never talked about the battles he’d been in. He was a warrant officer who commanded a minesweeper, a small ship in “the Army’s Navy.” He was posted to South America, to Africa, and then finally to the South Pacific.
My dad died not long before Veterans’ Day in 1981, but I still remember some of the lessons he said he learned in the war.
He had enlisted in the Army in April 1941, eight months before war was declared. In the midst of graduate studies in history and political science, he said he could see the war coming and he wanted to get in ahead of it. In the end, my father did three hitches of duty and was among the first American soldiers to land in Japan after the surrender. I remember him describing Nagoya, after the prior months of fire-bombing, as “looking like the surface of the moon, with nothing but craters as far as the eye could see.”
Finally, in late 1945, my dad ended up in a military hospital, but the Army had lost his enlistment papers. Gen. George C. Marshall visited the hospital and said, “What happened to you, soldier?” My dad replied, “I enlisted in April 1941, Sir. That’s what happened.” Gen. Marshall laughed, turned to his aide, and said, “Send this man home today.” Remembering that moment later in life, my dad liked to say, The more power a man has, the more he should remember how big a difference his smallest decisions can make.
A few other lessons I remember my father telling me about war:
Day to day, the bureaucratic bungling of the Army was a lot more dangerous than the Germans or the Japanese.
That thing people so often say — “War is 90% boredom and 10% sheer terror” — isn’t true. Depending on where you are posted, war could be anywhere between 10% and 99.99% boredom. For me it was about 95% boredom and 5% sheer terror.
There were soldiers who were never terrified, but none of them made it home alive.
Right after you were sure you were about to die, you’d find yourself telling yourself, ‘That wasn’t so bad.’ And then you’d notice that your underwear was hot and wet and weighed about a pound-and-a-half.
Every soldier’s motto was the pig Latin expression “Non illegitimus carborundum”: Don’t let the bastards grind you down.
There is nothing either too evil — or too noble — for human beings to do to each other.
I still have my dad’s leather-bound journal from 1945.
In it, he inserted clippings from newspapers, worked out math problems, jotted down tidbits from articles and books he was reading (among them the poems of Tennyson, Kipling, and Walt Whitman, as well as Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis and Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe), and wrote some aphorisms of his own.
As a bookmark, he’d inserted his set of bar chits from the officers’ club in Nagoya. Every slip within is torn out, suggesting he’d had his share of drinks — and who wouldn’t have? Fascinating to me is that his guests co-signed the back cover of the set of bar chits. Among them — a month or two, at most, after the end of the war! — are several Japanese and Chinese military officers. Only a few weeks after they’d been trying to kill each other, these men were already eating and drinking together. You can tell a true warrior, I remember my dad saying, by how eager he is for peace.
Here’s a page from my dad’s journal — dated April 10, 1945, a few days after U.S. troops invaded Okinawa — in which he mused about the life of a soldier:
I found the following aphorisms in his journal. I can’t say for certain that my dad wrote all these himself; he might have copied them from somewhere. But they do sound like him:
The trouble with present-day education is that it covers the ground without cultivating anything in it.
If you can’t think of another way to flatter a man, tell him he’s the kind of man who can’t be flattered.
It is much easier to do or die than it is to reason why.
The rich man is one who isn’t afraid to ask the clerk to show him something cheaper.
Sinclair Lewis, Arrowsmith
Thomas Wolfe, Look Homeward, Angel! (One of my all-time favorite novels, as well as one of my dad’s. I first read it when I was 13 years old and immediately resolved to become a writer.)