I’m an archivist, at least that’s the day!job description. I work for a congressional library, which is a fancy way of saying I work for the archives of a particular (now dead) congressman.
As a sideline, because our archives are not exactly very busy (we have one scholar visiting regularly, this is not quite a strain on our resources) we process other collections for other organizations/departments (we are affiliated with a large university system).
This is all to explain why I’m reading thousands of letters written by World War II veterans.
These letters were all written around the turn of the century, from about 1999 to 2001. Most of the correspondents were at the very least 70 years old; there was one memorable letter from a 99 year old woman who was 41 when the war started*. She had already lived a full life through World War I and the Roaring 20s and the Great Depression and was a grandmother whose husband was too old to enlist. Her handwriting was beautiful, her memories touching and vivid.
It’s moments like that where my job is wonderful, when I get to look back at history through the eyes of someone who lived it, through their words.
Many letters, though, make me question my own “future past.”
A vast majority of men who went to war in 1941 were still children, some as young as 16/17 years old (such as my father, who turned 17 two days after Pearl Harbor and signed up for the Air Force). They fought hard, played harder, and far too often died young.
What stuck me as I read letter after letter of men talking about their war years was that overwhelmingly, they defined who they were as people, as men, by the three years they spent fighting this war, sixty years before sitting down to write their letters.
Whether they went to college on the GI Bill or just went home, most of them started a family and got a job, often leading full and productive lives. Yet they all consider the war as the most important thing they ever did. I’m not saying they are wrong. It was a world-wide cataclysm in which millions died, national borders were remapped and new nations created, and almost indescribable tragedy suffered by those who survived. I’m not trying to discount their experiences.
It’s sobering to look at a full, meaningful life and realize that the defining moment of that person’s life was about three years in their late teens.
These veterans are sometimes angry about current politics circa 1999 (we have more than a few scathing letters in reference to President Clinton) or veterans’ rights and so forth, but they all display a sure knowledge that everything they’ve ever done since WWII was done under the shadow of that experience.
For some it was suffocating, and all they value about themselves was the plane they flew or the battle they fought in 1944. For others it was liberating, giving them the opportunity to see the world and then go to college.
That’s the important difference that became clear as I read letter after letter (upwards 20,000 pieces of mail, by last estimate, and I’ve read nearly every single one): there was never any way that any of these people would ever surpass what they did during the war, and they knew it, but what followed was less about their war-time history and more about the vision they had of the future.
Those who had no vision and simply rested on the laurels of their WWII accomplishments were the angriest letter writers. They were furious at being overlooked by history, by not being acknowledged as heroes by their families, by not being given due accolades and attention by their government. Whether their complaints were legitimate or not is immaterial to how they felt about their lives, which almost always circled back around to the fact that they defined themselves by that brief period of war. (My father was one such man, unfortunately.)
But for many others, the ones who had a vision of the life they wanted to lead, the war was simply part of what they experienced as they progressed along their chosen path. It’s clear that some paths were more convoluted than others (engineers who became college English professors, military officers who retired to a life of fine art painting, many who started one buisness but retired from another). Their letters, though, are full of pride and a sense of worthiness for what they have done and, more importantly, who they are.
For me this was a valuable lesson about regret. Clinging to the past means letting the present, and the future, slip out of our grasp. What’s happened in my life, good and bad, is a part of me of course, but my history does not define me as much as my dreams, goals and aspirations do.
*For the U.S., the war started on Dec. 7, 1941 with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.