The Moral Burden of Dog Tags

Question: What did your\r\nresearch for “The Untold War” consist of? 

\r\n\r\n

Nancy Sherman:\r\nWell, I’m a philosopher, so I was thinking of soldiers in terms of the \r\nmeaning,\r\nthe philosophical meaning of their stories; the emotions and the deep\r\nemotions.  And I interviewed a lot\r\nof soldiers, probably about 30 to 40 soldiers of the current wars \r\nincluding\r\nsome from Bosnia and Vietnam, and my dad, who is a World War II veteran \r\nand I\r\nreally wanted to go beyond just stories about trauma, of which many \r\nsoldiers\r\ndon’t suffer, though of course we know of many who do, but I wanted to \r\ntalk\r\nabout the feelings everyone seems to come home with of trying to make \r\nmoral\r\nsense of what they’ve seen and done, even when they do everything right \r\nby war’s\r\nbest standards.  So, it was talking\r\nabout the moral weight of war, the moral burdens of war.

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Question: How did your\r\nfather’s war experience inform your war research?

\r\n\r\n

Nancy Sherman:\r\nWell, my dad actually just died December 15, the days I was putting the \r\nfinal\r\ntouches on the book.  And I always\r\nknew he was a World War II veteran, and a medic.  He\r\n never fired a rifle, or gun, during the war, but always\r\nhad this sense that war was hell and he didn’t want to talk about it \r\nlike many\r\nof his generation, a member of a laconic generation.  And\r\n when he died, I was cleaning out his effects and found\r\nin his pockets his dog tags.  And\r\nhe never told me, and I never asked, and so it was 65 years of carrying \r\nhis dog\r\ntags.  They were an identity to be\r\nsure, but they are also a moral identity, or a moral burden.  And I thought he really carried it\r\nsilently, he thought it wasn’t polite conversation to talk about the \r\nwar.  When I probed, he would say, well\r\naboard the QE1, the Queen Elizabeth 1st, and the Queen Mary, it was a \r\nslaughterhouse.  It was a butcher shop with\r\namputated legs and men that were really, really suffering. \r\n This one would have a leg and that one\r\nwon’t.  And so, it was painful,\r\ntears would come down and I realized that he never wanted to watch \r\nfootage of\r\nthe war, and he wasn’t traumatized, I don’t think.  He\r\n was a very healthy, resilient guy, but if his war was\r\ndifficult it was so for many and I don’t think war should be a private \r\nburden,\r\nwhether it’s a draft war or a volunteer force, or you are National \r\nGuard, or a\r\nmember—well contractors is another story; a complicated story, but both \r\ngoing\r\nout to war as part of the Reserves. 

\r\n\r\n

So, he was, I think, the unconscious reason, you \r\nmight\r\nsay.  I also have an uncle who\r\nfought in World War II as a Marine, bayonet, Okinawa, really ugly.  And he did suffer PTSD, Post-Traumatic\r\nStress Disorder.  But the book\r\nwasn’t really about psychological injuries that we know about that are \r\nvery\r\nacute.  It’s about the every day\r\nordinary mix of feeling exultant about the battle and exuberant and it’s\r\n the\r\ntime of your life to shine, for some. \r\nAnd that’s the only way that you could go in and be a sniper who \r\nis\r\ndefending himself and his buddies and for victory or survival.  And then also feeling the shame of\r\ndoing what you do when you do it all right.

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

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