Every War Story Is One Of A Kind

The stories, letters and pictures that appear in this Veteran’s Day issue of Northeast reflect personal reactions of Connecticut people to war over generations. This is the first awful truth about war.

It recurs. Since Sept. 11 it has been said over and over that we are engaged in a “new kind of war.” The older notion of “wartime” belongs, so far, to generations past. They knew that war is a season of its own, like the seasons of the year to be expected, but one with an onset and duration that is always unpredictable.

The world has seen a Six Day War and the Hundred Years War. The Persian Gulf War, the last war fought by the nation of which Connecticut is a part, had one decisive ground battle. It lasted 100 hours. Nearly a half million soldiers, men and women, served in the gulf war, according to Department of Defense figures.

A total of 148 were killed in combat. The first war the nation fought, the Revolutionary War, lasted almost eight years and was also the longest, unless one counts the Indian Wars that flared off and on for most of the 19th century. During the Revolutionary War, about 200,000 soldiers answered the call to arms and 4,400 gave their lives, as orators often like to say.

Sacrifice is part of war and so is courage. Sacrifice, the willingness to die, and courage, the willingness to fight, together make war glorious. The nature of battle and its carnage make war terrible.

The newest enemy seeks, supposedly, to die for the Lord’s glory. Their destruction of the World Trade Center towers was terrible. One of our nation’s most resonant war songs, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” tells of the Lord’s “fiery” gospel and His “terrible, swift sword” that strikes with “fateful lightning.”

A woman, Julia Ward Howe, wrote “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” near the start of the Civil War. Since then, it has been heard so often it has acquired a face, the haggard face of Abraham Lincoln, and its stirring music has come to sound like an anthem of perseverance in pursuit of peace. Yet it was composed as a battle hymn, and military historians have judged the Civil War the first modern war. At Gettysburg and other now-hallowed battlefields, centuries-old notions of gallantry began to wither before new weapons that slaughtered with inhuman efficiency. Also, the war to save the union and end slavery made destroying civilian property a cruel, but legitimate strategy.

Who is to judge war? The bleak classics of American war literature - “The Red Badge of Courage” (Civil War), “A Farewell to Arms” (World War I), “Catch-22” (World War II), “Dispatches” (Vietnam) - are no more or less valid than more celebratory nonfiction books like Tom Brokaw’s “The Greatest Generation” or movies like “Saving Private Ryan.”

War is overwhelming and multifarious. Soldiers who survive it may or may not choose to admit that combat was the most profound experience of their lives. After the World Trade Center attack, millions of younger Americans, as some commentators noted, discovered how deep a feeling patriotism can be. This latest war may not yet be seen as the coming of another wartime season, but for the first time the United States is being called a “homeland.”

The death and destruction of war can be so extravagant it is a wonder nations survive it. It is estimated that of the 3 million who fought in the Civil War, a half million died. It was our nation’s bloodiest war by far. In World War I, the combatant losses for England, France and Germany totaled about 1 million each. In World War II, military and civilian war- related deaths in the former Soviet Union reached 18 million. Japan absorbed a nuclear attack. Millions have died and are dying in civil wars in one or another part of the world that barely register elsewhere.

War is universal. Its stories are personal, like those in these pages. Each survivor of the missile-sunk troopship Rohna, where men died en masse in the Mediterranean Sea, has a story as personal as that of soldier Cindy Beaudoin of Plainfield, who died alone in the Iraqi desert. The letter Beaudoin wrote to her parents reflects the contrary impulses stirred by war - the wish to fight, the wish to live - as do the letters exchanged at the start of the Spanish-American War by Hartford’s McCook family.

The contradictions of war were displayed vividly just last month in an unusual ceremony honoring a Connecticut man for courage he showed 60 years ago at the start of World War II. The man was Hiram Bingham IV, a diplomat who risked his career by giving visas to Jewish and political refugees in Nazi-occupied France. Among the thousands he helped save were painter Marc Chagall and philosopher Hannah Arendt. Bingham’s father was the Yale archaeologist who discovered Machu Picchu and later became a U.S. senator, and his grandfather and great-grandfather were both important missionaries. But Bingham saw his own career end in bitterness. Only after his death in 1988 did documents he left behind transform his wartime disobedience into an act of moral heroism.

Since then he has been honored by numerous entities, including the United Nations and the State of Israel. The occasion for the ceremony last month was the Connecticut secretary of the state’s decision to add to Bingham’s belated laurels by dedicating the 2001 edition of the State Register and Manual to him. The new war that began after Sept. 11 did not alter the drama of Bingham’s personal war story. But it did alter the ceremony.

It took place at Yale’s Peabody Museum (generations of Binghams went to Yale) in the Great Hall of dinosaurs. A full-sized skeleton of a brontosaurus, the thunder lizard, bestrides the Great Hall. From a corner, near the speaker’s podium, glare the reconstructed skulls of armored dinosaurs. They look now like fearsome war masks. Above them, in the Peabody’s famous mural, a tyrannosaurus rages. It is the very image of terror and bloody ferocity.

The ceremony opened with the presentation of the colors by the 2nd Company of the Governor’s Foot Guard, a vestige of the Revolutionary War. The soldiers marched slowly past the thunder lizard, bearing rifles and the flags of the United States and Connecticut. Their commander, Major Peter Wasilewski, called them to a halt, then over taped background music solemnly read a script in which Old Glory speaks sadly of being ignored.

“Something has been bothering me, so I thought I might talk it over with you, because it is about you and me,” the flag says. “…I don’t feel as proud as I used to. When I come down your street you just stand there with your hands in your pockets and I may get a small glance and then you look away. Then I see children running around and shouting - they don’t seem to know who I am. … Is it a sin to be patriotic anymore? Have you forgotten what I stand for and where I’ve been?”

The flag then lists past wars it’s seen, updated to include the Persian Gulf. Before Sept. 11, the Old Glory lament might have sounded like the easiest kind of patriotism. But since then, the flags flying from car antennas and draped from so many porches have answered the question about whether it’s a sin to be patriotic. In every homeland, patriotism leads the call to arms.

Speeches by Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz, New Haven Mayor John DeStefano and Yale President Richard Levin followed. None dwelt on the new war, but they didn’t have to.

The ceremony closed with a prayer by Rabbi Joshua Konigsberg of Woodbridge. He said it was the second best-known Jewish prayer after the Kaddish, which praises God and is also said at funerals. Konigsberg read the prayer in English before he chanted it in Hebrew. It was the Holocaust prayer and this is what it says:

“Exalted, compassionate God grant perfect peace in Your sheltering Presence, among the holy and the pure to the souls of all our brethren, men, women and children of the house of Israel, who were slaughtered and suffocated and burned to ashes. May their memory endure, inspiring truth and loyalty in our lives.”

Konigsberg amended the prayer to include a reference to Bingham and to the victims of the World Trade Center attack, many of whom no doubt died by suffocation and were burned to ashes. It took the rabbi a minute or two to read the prayer. His chanting of it, aching with strains of grief, took much longer.

The story of all wars was told between Major Wasilewski’s reading of Old Glory’s plea for respect and Rabbi Konigsberg’s chanting of the Holocaust prayer. It is the story of the living and the dead.

Click on the "Related" links to the right to view, stories, photo galleries and video about the sinking of the HMT Rohna in 1943, Art Kiely's experience as a war photographer in the Pacific, and more.