veterans of World War II and those of the Vietnam War, which can be ... percent among able-bodied veterans and a meager 5 percent among disabled veterans.
PsycCRITIQUES, Vol 55(11), 2010, No Pagination Specified. doi: 10.1037/a0019204
© American Psychological Association “Rest You, Charger, Rust You, Bridle” A Review of Soldier From the War Returning: The Greatest Generation’s Troubled Homecoming From World War II by Thomas Childers New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009. 352 pp. ISBN 978-0618-7-7368-8. Reviewed by David Manier This lively book, written for a general audience, is the third volume in a planned quartet of books on World War II (see also Childers, 1996, 2004). Echoing Hersey (1956), Childers says that his purpose with these books is to make the reader “identify himself with the human beings in the story . . . [and to] feel that he himself took part in the great or despicable events of the story” (p. 291). Although Childers affirms that Soldier From the War Returning: The Greatest Generation’s Troubled Homecoming From World War II is based on research conducted “in the same scrupulous manner that would be required for a scholarly work of history,” he also acknowledges that it is written “in a more personal fashion, using literary devices usually associated with fiction” (p. 294). As are the title and the subheadings of this review, the book’s main title is drawn from a poem by A. E. Housman (1922). However, the reference in the book’s subtitle to the “greatest generation” refers to a collection of stories assembled by Tom Brokaw (1998). Brokaw’s collection has its merits, but Childers’s salient criticism is that in “the jaunty, feel-good stories that compose [Brokaw’s] book and its numerous spinoffs, we find not a hint of trouble, not a trace of the often overwhelming personal struggles encountered when millions of men and women, after years of separation, loss, and trauma, tried to readjust to civilian life and to one another.” (p. 5) Childers views his own book, in part, as a corrective to the whitewashing of the aftermath of World War II that he attributes to Brokaw and to those who have followed his lead. “Peace Is Come and Wars Are Over” Childers rejects what he sees as Brokaw’s Pollyannaish view that when World War II was over, “the men and women who had been involved . . . immediately began the task of rebuilding their lives and the world they wanted” (p. 4). World War II veterans were part of the “greatest generation”—other veterans, not so much. There is an implicit comparison here between the veterans of World War II and those of the Vietnam War, which can be summarized as follows: Good war, good outcome, good aftereffects; bad war, bad outcome, bad aftereffects. Childers explicitly challenges this implicit comparison. Take, for example, the diagnosis of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Some skeptics dismiss
PTSD as a myth created by political activists in the aftermath of the Vietnam War (see Brewin, 2003). Others acknowledge the reality of the syndrome but assert that PTSD and behaviors associated with it are “new” afflictions that particularly affect Vietnam veterans, whom they regard as being like “problem children” (see the discussion in Scurfield, 2004, p. 69). Such skeptics are ill informed. Although there is room for debate about specifics, scientific research has by now produced a wealth of evidence supporting not only the reality of posttraumatic syndromes, but also their prevalence in combat veterans prior to the Vietnam War (for reviews, see Bonwick & Morris, 1996, and Schnurr, 1991). As Childers notes (see p. 8), many tens of thousands of soldiers were discharged from service during World War II for psychiatric reasons, and two years after the war’s end, a large proportion of the patients being treated in Veterans Administration medical facilities were reporting psychiatric symptoms that today would be taken to be indicative of PTSD. Not only PTSD (which at the time went by names like war neurosis and combat fatigue) but also a host of other problems affected World War II veterans. By design, the bulk of Childers’s book is (in effect) anecdotal, but he also cites some relevant statistics. In 1947, a large percentage of veterans were facing severe shortages of jobs, housing, and even civilian clothing. According to one poll, about one half felt that “their military service had been a negative experience and that they were worse off than they had been before the war” (p. 7). In 1946, the rate of employment was only 20 percent among able-bodied veterans and a meager 5 percent among disabled veterans (p. 223). Substance abuse, crime, sexually transmitted diseases, and divorce rates were substantially higher among World War II veterans than in the civilian population (p. 136). Civilians complained that veterans were “flagrantly exploiting” the “gravy train” of their benefits, such as the G.I. Bill (p. 217). In short, Childers documents (citing contemporary sources) that virtually all of the psychosocial problems that were later reported among Vietnam veterans had been found previously among World War II veterans. “Now No More of Winters Biting” As mentioned above, the main title of Childers’s book comes from a stanza heading of a poem by A. E. Housman (1922), which is also the source of the main title and the subheadings of this review. The tone of Housman’s poem is mournful, not panegyrical; the soldier from wars returning is labeled as the “Spoiler of the taken town,” and he is told that he will rest only upon his death: “At the inn of night for aye.” Moreover, Housman’s poem (which was written soon after the end of World War I) offers the solace of rest to both sides in the conflict—to soldiers of the German “Kesar” [sic] as well as to those of the British king. Childers is not as evenhanded. His focus is on (a few) American soldiers: He ignores that war traumatizes both sides in a conflict, civilians as well as soldiers. This myopia becomes apparent early in the book: An American plane releases its bombs when its engines fail, German fighters strafe the bomber, and several airmen bail out. One of them parachutes near a schoolyard, and as he descends, it strikes him as idiotic that “after a year of intense training and three combat missions over Germany, he will be taken prisoner by a crowd of frightened schoolgirls” (p. 20). Neither the airman nor the author seems to consider how much worse than idiotic it would have been if some of those schoolgirls had been killed by the bombing. No thought is spared for innocent civilians, let alone enemy soldiers. Childers’s stories are not panegyrical, but they are undeniably biased in their sympathies: They are all about American soldiers, all of whom were White men. No book can include everything,
but the choices Childers makes mean that this book is blatantly one-sided in its perspective. The book also has stylistic flaws. Sometimes Childers is snippy: “Ithaca. Autumn 1945. Breezes off the lake. Enormous elms towering over the campus. Ivycovered walls. Students rushing to class. . . . It was all there, college, just as he had imagined it. . . . Clothes, though, were going to be a problem.” (pp. 126–127) Elsewhere, unexpectedly, he lurches into purple prose: “Ack-ack thundered in the distance, and searchlights swung like metronomes across the sky, their broad azure beams swaying across the low lambent clouds” (p. 82). Rather than telling us that the days were getting shorter, he waxes grandiloquent: “The dwindling daylight hours huddled meekly between tides of encroaching darkness” (p. 91). Overall, Childers is a talented storyteller. But the story he tells here can be summarized in a single brief sentence: American soldiers (especially White men) had lots of problems when they returned home from World War II. It is an engaging but familiar story, and it has been told in many different ways (e.g., in Fred Zinnemann’s The Men, a 1950 film starring Marlon Brando, and in William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives, a 1946 film that won numerous Oscars, including Best Picture). The sociocultural context in which Soldier From the War Returning appears is one that pervasively glorifies all that is connected with the U.S. military. Nevertheless, perhaps some of us need to be reminded of the suffering endured by the veterans of our nation’s many wars, including World War II. Perhaps, too, we need to be reminded of the suffering endured by civilians during war, and during the aftermath of war—not only the citizens of the United States and its allies but also the citizenry of its adversaries, in nations throughout the world. References Bonwick, R. J., & Morris, P. L. P. (1996). Post-traumatic stress disorder in elderly war veterans. International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, 11, 1071–1076. doi:10.1002/(SICI)10991166(199612)11:123.0.CO;2-B Brewin, C. R. (2003). Posttraumatic stress disorder: Malady or myth? New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. Brokaw, T. (1998). The greatest generation. New York, NY: Random House. Childers, T. (1996). Wings of morning: The story of the last American bomber shot down over Germany in World War II. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo. Childers, T. (2004). In the shadows of war: An American pilot’s odyssey through occupied France and the camps of Nazi Germany. New York, NY: Holt. Hersey, J. (1956). The novel of contemporary history. In H. Hull (Ed.), The writer’s book (pp. 23–30). New York, NY: Harper. Housman, A. E. (1922). VIII [“Soldier from the wars returning”]. In Last poems. Retrieved from http://www.chiark.greenend.org.uk/~martinh/poems/complete_housman.html#LPviii Schnurr, P. P. (1991). PTSD and combat-related psychiatric symptoms in older veterans. PTSD Research Quarterly, 2, 1–6. Scurfield, R. M. (2004). A Vietnam trilogy: Veterans and post traumatic stress, 1968, 1989, 2000. New York, NY: Algora. Wyler, W. (Director). (1946). The best years of our lives. United States: MGM. Zinnemann, F. (Director). (1950). The men. United States: Republic Pictures.