Small Wars Journal

Letter from a Semi-Foreign Land

Thu, 12/16/2010 - 5:33pm
I was sitting in my "local" the other day after work. It is a pub called the "Lower Lode." It sits just across the Severn River from the Battlefield of Tewkesbury. I was thinking about the past. The Lode is a fairly old place, though not ancient by the standards of this country. As best as they can figure the first part of the pub/inn was built in the 1400s, or maybe later. But that is not verifiable. Pub history is, like Pub math, understandably, somewhat fungible. Though as fascinating as this public house might be, that is not the past that I was considering. I was thinking more personally.

I was wondering what my grandfather felt when he drank in small rural pubic houses not too far away from here. (Not "too far away" in American standards, of course, not English. The English seem to think 20 miles is a long distance. I know Texans who will go 100 miles, one way, for a high-reputation Barbeque joint. Split the difference for my mid-western sensibilities.)

My grandfather was a bomber pilot in the US Army Air Forces, and in particular in the 8th Air Force. He flew B-17s, and perhaps B-24s. He and his men learned to fly in America, then trained some more here, and then fought from here, in World War Two.

I knew that, but I realized something else that night, this past Sunday, as I thought about a man I had never known: I am the fourth out of five generations of my family to come to England, train for war, and then go to war in a place far from home. You can decide what you take away from this observation. My great-great grandfather was French, who emigrated to England and then America. My great-grandfather was born in London, then emigrated to America. And my grandfather was American.

My great-grandfather, somewhat non-sequentially, started the trend. Like I said, he was born in London and so was technically British. By 1914, however, he had moved to New York City. He returned to England and immediately enlisted as an Infantryman at the beginning of the war. It appears that in 1914 he trained for the war in the UK, and then spent the better part of the next two years on the Western Front. Somewhere around the summer of 1916 he did something that won him a commission as an officer, and then the Military Cross from His Majesty's Government. Sometime after that he switched to the Royal Air Force. After the war he returned to America. He died before I ever met him.

But by that time, his father, who had emigrated from France, to England, and eventually to America, had also enlisted. It was late 1916 when that happened. England needed every breathing soul. So my great-great grandfather joined his son, or perhaps replaces his son, in the Infantry, in the Middlesex Regiment. I know nothing else about the man. He too, like his son, trained for war in England and then spent two years on the front lines of the Western Front. He mustered out in December, 1918. This much I know. He died before I ever met him.

When war broke out for us Americans on 7 DEC 1941, my grandfather was affected. It was his turn, I guess, and so he immediately joined the US Army Air Force. He trained in Texas, then he too came to England, where he trained a bit more, then he went to war in the skies over Germany. He died before I ever met him.

This is all from my mother's side. She was an only child. So it skipped her, generationally, this apparent familial obligation to come to England and then to war. And now, sitting here in Gloucestershire, England, and realizing that I am the fourth, out of the last five generations of my family have come here, I am humbled. My family, for essentially a century, has come to this land, prepared for war, and then gone off still further to wage that war. It makes me wonder. I wonder because I am so acutely aware that I am not the first, or the second or even the third...

They just had "Remembrance Day" here in the UK a few weeks ago. It is a solemn period, held on the Sunday after the Armistice. Our own version has become, perhaps, a little less so. But their solid and restrained response to their losses reminded me of my own history, and of our history as a nation. It reminded me that our current numbers are so small that this national/collective sense of loss will not happen again. That is to say that those of us in the Armed Forces today are so few, when seen on a national scale, that a generation from now we will not matter, nor be remembered, by the children in school today. We soldiers are, in America, anomalies. This is, all things considered, probably a good thing. Countries who worship their soldiers are, quite often, countries where soldiers stage coups.

But I also observed that, being a volunteer based service, we who serve seem to come from the same lines. Over and over and over again, across decades and even centuries. And I noticed that among the career soldiers, sergeants and officers alike, this trend is even more pronounced.

I know that mine is not the last generation to see war. I am too much of a historian to believe something like that. But I do hope that, if I do my job well, I might be the last in my family line for at least a few generations, that must come to England, prepare for war, and then launch off to an even more foreign land to fight. I hope that my daughters will come here as students, or scholars, or businesswomen, because this is a wondrous Semi-Foreign land. But I do not want them to follow in the family footsteps.

In the end, that is what the true professionals all hope for. We detest war, for the same reason that we are good at it. We hate war because we know war. We know it in a way that nobody else can. We know that it is nothing but obscenity. Sometimes a necessary obscenity, we know this too and understand and that is why we serve. But it is an obscenity that we know, and one that we hate, and so we would like to see the end. Not so much for us, but for others.