Almost twenty years after these battles, my parents were living in the Bay Area. Through business, my father ended up becoming friends with a German man who had fought as one of Rommel’s personal guards in the same region. In other words, he was on the other side of the rope in that endless tug-of-war over a little town in North Africa. My mother said that it was the most peculiar thing to watch the two men gleefully reminisce about that town, talking about the liquor caches hidden under bridges, the places to get good food, the strategic benefits of one location versus the problems with another — as if they’d been on the same side.
I think the friendship was able to survive because this man, while a soldier in Hitler’s war machine, was not a Nazi — by which I mean that, while he wore the uniform, he hadn’t embraced the Nazi ideology. He was a conscript, and he fought. He was one who was relieved when the War ended and his side lost. If my father, who suffered terribly from the Nazis, and who lost all but his immediate family, could befriend him, I have to assume that there was something okay about this man’s thinking, regardless of the side for which he acted during the war.
It’s a nice story, both because it’s amusing, and because it’s a reminder that, in the wake of a war, relationships can be normalized, and that warriors from opposite sides of the field can find common cause and visit the same memories without rancor. Humans are remarkably resilient, something that is worth remembering in the face of all the doom and gloom predictions being thrown around.
This makes me think of 1984. Not the book. The year.
In 1984 a friend of mine who was teaching in Japan invited me to come visit, and my newspaper editor gave me a leave of absence, and I swallowed my fear and set off, a young American woman traveling alone.
In addition to the common worries associated with being a relatively-inexperienced traveler taking off for faraway places solo, I had an extra psychological hurdle that I didn't know quite how to clear. My grandfather was a lead scientist on the team that developed the atomic bomb, and I was headed to the only country where those bombs had been used. I didn't know quite what I should think about that, and I didn't know what the Japanese would think about it, either. Beyond that, more generally, I was headed to a country that had been fiercely at war with my own, and not really that long before. I didn't know quite what to think about that, either.
Should I be ashamed, apologetic, politely defensive of my country, or spout the line that that was then and this is now, or should I opine that we were more enlightened these days? I simply didn't know.
Would they hate me? Could the hate turn violent? Or would it merely be manifested in cold shoulders or the request to take myself elsewhere? I simply didn't know.
I played over and over in my head all the conceivable scenarios that might arise should the subject of World War II come up, and tried to think of how I should meet them, if it turned out I had to meet them.
I probably envisioned every possibility except what actually happened.
The first encounter with World War II happened on a train shortly after I got there. An older man, obviously of an age to have fought in that war, kept looking at me. He asked me, after a while, if I were American. I braced myself and admitted as much. He broke into a delighted grin.
'Isn't this wonderful?' he asked. 'Can you believe this? Our countries were at war, and now we can be friends. Isn't this terrific? I'm so glad you could come to Japan.'
Not. at. all. what. I. expected. (/understatement)
On the same train trip, I'd look out the window to watch the world going by, and several old ladies, one after another after another, different stages of my journey, caught sight of me and bore daggers into me with their eyes. Hatred. Raw hatred. They didn't want me there and weren't afraid to let me know that.
Throughout my stay, I had similar experiences. By and large, the men who had fought my country were delighted to have an American come to visit, but a noticeable portion of the old ladies were obviously concealing resentment, or else letting it show.
Since then I've noticed that phenomenon several times, in several settings, and not just in Japan. A number of retired soldiers seem to wind up embracing at least some of the men they used to fight. A number of old women hang on to the past.
I can't remember who I talked to about this who thought he had a pretty good explanation. He was a veteran, I remember that much. I told him about Japan, and how the old men had surprised me with their warm welcomes, but so many of the old ladies had so clearly been grieved by my presence. I wish I could remember his exact words, but I don't. But what he said was something like, "Oh, child. We men got to fight. The women had to sit at home and get messages: their husband was dead, their son was dead, their next son was dead, their last son was dead. We men were out there fighting. It makes all the difference in the world."
I doubt that's the whole explanation, but I have to think he might have a point.