Seventy years ago today, my father and his buddies hit the beaches on Iwo Jima. They had been told that the battle would last a handful of days. The Army Air Corps had bombarded the island for weeks. The Navy, which had amassed an enormous armada, had pounded Iwo with the big guns. The Marines were told that, although it would be a tough fight, the Japanese were so outnumbered that the worst part would be over quickly.
It didn’t go down as predicted. Instead, the 22,000 Japanese defenders had spent years building a honeycombed fortress beneath the rock, which offered not only protection from the bombs and shells but a means by which to attack the Marines up top, then disappear back into the underground safe haven. There was little cover for the advancing Marines. As my dad explained to me, Iwo was black with volcanic ash. There was almost no vegetation and the ash on the beach made it nearly impossible to dig in. The rocks that could have provided cover were far away and to venture out into the open was a deadly business. I remember pop telling me that those first hours “were something else.” My dad was a master of understatement.
Iwo Jima would soon become the bloodiest battle in the history of the Marine Corps. Before it ended, nearly 7,000 Marines were dead and nearly three times as many were wounded. The promised swift victory took 40 horrible days.
My dad was uninjured. Indeed, he made it through all four of the battles waged by the 4th Marine Division — Roi-Namur, Tinian, Saipan, and Iwo Jima — without a bodily scratch.
But there are other wounds.
In those days, no one spoke of PTSD. There were cases of “shell shock” and “battle fatigue”. My dad spoke once of a young Marine on Saipan who simply stopped. He had reached the point where he could no longer make sense of any of it. He wasn’t a coward. He showed no signs of intending to desert. He just could no longer move. And, as pop put it, they had to get him out of there quickly because battle fatigue is contagious. There were many such casualties, although none are listed on the rosters for the Purple Heart.
Bodily wounds, combat fatigue, shell shock: those are the visible signs of the sacrifices we call upon out troops to make. Also, of course, the last full measure. When flag-draped coffins arrive from a war zone, we all turn and lower our heads while choking back tears. We do this even when we stand far away. Television pictures of the dead, or video of a warrior’s funeral, trigger that deepest level of sorrow because we the living know in our hearts that the soldier, sailor, marine, or airman now enclosed inside that box has given his life for his country — for us.
But sitting here tonight, remembering my father and thinking about the battle he was waging as a 21-year-old on a rock in the middle of a Pacific nowhere, I wonder if we perhaps ask for an even greater sacrifice from our warriors. One we rarely ask of ourselves. We boast that “I will give my life for my country,” a boast we probably will never have to prove.
But what of the other question? The one about which we dare not boast. How would any of us answer the question “will you kill for your country?”
That, it seems to me, is the most humbling and terrifying question. It is, as Clint Eastwood’s William Munny said in Unforgiven, “a hell of a thing to kill a man…you take away everything he’s got, and everything he’s ever going to have.” That means his wife, his mother, and his children, together with all his hopes and dreams. The burden of killing a man must be overwhelming.
I do not know for certain whether my dad ever killed an enemy soldier. Now that I think about it, the odds are high that, at one time or another, he ended a life. He fought through four tough battles against an enemy joyfully willing to die for the emperor. At some point, in one of those battles, pop probably shot a Japanese soldier.
It was a question I never asked, partly because I didn’t want to know the answer and also because I understood at some visceral level that pop would never admit to his children that he had taken a life. Now, however, on this 70th anniversary of the battle, the idea that my dad, a quiet and gentle man, might have killed someone haunts me.
The truth is that I’ve been hiding from the answer since I was a kid. Although pop never spoke of it to us kids, one night while we were out hunting, I overheard him and my uncle whispering about a bonzai raid on Saipan during which pop’s rifle jammed. He turned his weapon over and smashed the butt, baseball bat style, into the face of a Japanese attacker. From the hushed voices I knew that my father had killed a man.
I haven’t thought about this in decades. A repressed memory. I feel a sadness now — not for me, but for my father, who, for 55 years, carried the burden of taking at least one man’s life. I think that I’d have given my life if I had ever been called. I hope that I would have possessed the strength to carry any wounds with courage. But sitting in front of this computer screen, I have no confidence that I would kill. Or that I could bear the cross of taking a life.
That’s the real, gritty, grim, and awful question: “I know you will die for your country, but will you kill for your country?”
Pop has been gone for 14 years. I am not concerned for his soul. He was, in all events, a servant of God and if he killed it was in fighting evil. Nonetheless, I wonder what St. Peter said when dad approached the Gates. I wonder what dad said to Peter. I am certain of this much: Pop entered heaven humbly, aware of his sins and seeking mercy.
I am quite sure that the first thing my old man did as he walked into paradise was to go looking for the man he’d killed to ask for his forgiveness.
As we pause for a moment to remember the fallen on this 70th anniversary of bloody Iwo, we ought to also remember the living who killed in Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, and all those little battles about which we may not even know. We owe them thanks and respect for all they’ve given up — peace of mind and soul — as they are weighed down while living with the awful knowledge that another human being has died at their hands. We need be ever mindful of those who had the courage to do what many of us would find unthinkable. We might even say a little prayer today for those blessed men and women who had the guts to kill in the service of freedom and goodness.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons (public domain).