What was I doing on January 7th?
It was a Wednesday, I know that much from looking at the calendar, but nothing else about the day sticks out in my mind.
Illustration by Graham Winn-Lee
I went to work, came home, ate dinner, watched TV, did the usual routine, apparently, with nothing out of the ordinary.
But I recently realized what I didn’t do on January 7th. I didn’t remember it was the anniversary of my father’s death.
My father died on that day in 2008, and, as best as I can remember, I didn’t pray for his soul, go to church, or even put a notice on my Facebook status.
The day just slipped by me without any acknowledgement of my father’s passing. I’m not sure what to say about that, except that I’m very sorry.
I backed into this realization while reading the news stories about the American Sniper controversy that started when filmmaker Michael Moore tweeted that his uncle had been killed by a sniper in World War II and how his father thought snipers were cowards.
American Sniper, Clint Eastwood’s biopic about Chris Kyle, is currently the top movie at the box office, and Moore’s comments were interpreted as at attack upon the late marksman.
I recalled how my father, himself a World War II veteran, hated snipers with a passion, too. He described the terror that soldiers felt when one of their own was suddenly stuck dead by an unseen assassin. At least with an artillery attack you could hear the shells coming.
I was amazed to learn that the US didn’t have an official sniper course during World War II, contrasting sharply with Germany, the Soviet Union, and other countries. Maybe that’s why my father’s generation hated snipers so much. The good guys didn’t do that kind of thing.
My dad told me the Germans used to leave behind a sniper in a town just to slow down advancing American troops.
“They’d kill a couple of guys,” he said, “and then they'd come out with their hands up and say ‘I surrender.’”
My father didn’t say it so many words, but he strongly implied that the GIs didn’t always go for the “surrender” routine and that some snipers never made it to the POW camps.
Calling the Shots
The fear of instant death was intense, my father said. One time a young recruit, who hadn’t been in combat, foolishly fired his rifle just to make some noise.
One of my dad’s buddies, a huge guy who had seen a lot action, went berserk, charging forward, mistakenly grabbing the wrong soldier by the throat and lifting him clean off the ground.
My father intervened, swearing that the big guy was strangling an innocent man.
“Was it you, Lenny?” the man demanded. “If it was you, then it’s all right.”
“No, it wasn’t me,” my dad said, and the big man let his victim go.
My father said his platoon once cornered a German sniper in a barn and set the building on fire in an attempt to flush him out. The sniper was trapped and the soldiers could hear him shrieking as the flames consumed the barn.
That may sound harsh to some people, but war is an ugly business.
It’s not about parades, waving the flag, or some schmuck in a flight suit prancing around on an aircraft carrier chirping “Mission Accomplished.”
It’s about death, death in mass numbers, and if you want to win, then you’re going to need snipers. You’re going to need someone to make those corpses, but when you’re done don’t be surprised if your soldiers have turn into monsters.
That’s what war produces, monsters and corpses, because if you’re not one then you will quickly become the other. And that’s why war should be avoided at all costs because even the survivors will be scarred for life. I honestly don’t know how much damage the war did to my father, but it’s impossible to believe that he or anyone else came away from that experience unscathed.
Finnish marksman Simo Häyhä, dubbed “White Death,” is credited with over 500 kills during the Soviet invasion of Finland. When asked about killing so many people, he said "I only did my duty, and what I was told to do, as well as I could."
I wonder if anyone has ever asked a general or a politician if they have any regrets about the people they indirectly killed in wars. Did anyone ever ask a defense contractor how he felt about all of those who had died so he could collect his bloodstained money? I tend to doubt it.
Soldiers may pull the triggers, but so much happens before we reach that moment. They’re the last link in a very long, very twisted chain.
I wish my father had never gone to war. Yes, I forgot the day he left this world, but I’ll always remember how he served his country and how he did his duty as well as he could.