The Moral Burden of Dog Tags

The “Untold War” author first became interested in the psychology of combat by observing her father’s tight-lipped silence about World War II.
  • Transcript


Question: What did your research for “The Untold War” consist of? 

Nancy Sherman: Well, I’m a philosopher, so I was thinking of soldiers in terms of the meaning, the philosophical meaning of their stories; the emotions and the deep emotions.  And I interviewed a lot of soldiers, probably about 30 to 40 soldiers of the current wars including some from Bosnia and Vietnam, and my dad, who is a World War II veteran and I really wanted to go beyond just stories about trauma, of which many soldiers don’t suffer, though of course we know of many who do, but I wanted to talk about the feelings everyone seems to come home with of trying to make moral sense of what they’ve seen and done, even when they do everything right by war’s best standards.  So, it was talking about the moral weight of war, the moral burdens of war.

Question: How did your father’s war experience inform your war research?

Nancy Sherman: Well, my dad actually just died December 15, the days I was putting the final touches on the book.  And I always knew he was a World War II veteran, and a medic.  He never fired a rifle, or gun, during the war, but always had this sense that war was hell and he didn’t want to talk about it like many of his generation, a member of a laconic generation.  And when he died, I was cleaning out his effects and found in his pockets his dog tags.  And he never told me, and I never asked, and so it was 65 years of carrying his dog tags.  They were an identity to be sure, but they are also a moral identity, or a moral burden.  And I thought he really carried it silently, he thought it wasn’t polite conversation to talk about the war.  When I probed, he would say, well aboard the QE1, the Queen Elizabeth 1st, and the Queen Mary, it was a slaughterhouse.  It was a butcher shop with amputated legs and men that were really, really suffering.  This one would have a leg and that one won’t.  And so, it was painful, tears would come down and I realized that he never wanted to watch footage of the war, and he wasn’t traumatized, I don’t think.  He was a very healthy, resilient guy, but if his war was difficult it was so for many and I don’t think war should be a private burden, whether it’s a draft war or a volunteer force, or you are National Guard, or a member—well contractors is another story; a complicated story, but both going out to war as part of the Reserves. 

So, he was, I think, the unconscious reason, you might say.  I also have an uncle who fought in World War II as a Marine, bayonet, Okinawa, really ugly.  And he did suffer PTSD, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.  But the book wasn’t really about psychological injuries that we know about that are very acute.  It’s about the every day ordinary mix of feeling exultant about the battle and exuberant and it’s the time of your life to shine, for some.  And that’s the only way that you could go in and be a sniper who is defending himself and his buddies and for victory or survival.  And then also feeling the shame of doing what you do when you do it all right.