Letters from the Front

800px-US_Soldier_with_cattle_dogThis Remembrance Day, I’m remembering two World War II veterans, my father and my uncle. Just six months ago, my brother and I read their wartime letters to family.

Each man had his own principled understanding of what it meant to write home.

Our father sought to reassure his parents and sister of his safety.

From England, he wrote, “The food here at training is great! Much better than I expected!” From France, he added, “I’m so glad I enlisted! I got my choice of posts!” If he could find a funny, normalizing anecdote, he shared it.

Our uncle tried to show that war did not corrupt his values.

Drafted and assigned to an active front, he shared his truth: “I’ve been seeing quite a bit of North Africa…don’t let anybody tell you different, it’s war torn.”

He shared his pain: “I saw that article about Hitler’s supposed death. It is strictly a matter of speculation as to whether he is alive or not. If he did die I hope it was in the same manner some of our people were forced to end their existences.”

And he shared his compassion: “I’ve spoken to many Italian and German prisoners already. They are a nice lot generally speaking but apparently misguided. They are as one fellow remarked ‘typically GI.’ You know, that’s the army expression for soldiers. It is just the fact that they’re fighting under another flag and for a cause of hatred and injustice. I thoroughly despise what any German soldier represents.”

Each man’s letters modelled for us a particular ethic. Our father was other-directed, carefully writing with only the reader’s needs in mind. Our uncle was committed to truth and justice, expressions of his rationality.

Philosophers and psychologists have debated the ethics of justice and care, seeking the perfect balance between them. Today, I won’t enter that debate.

Instead, I will honour my elders in respectful silence, without a jibber-jabber of brainy commentary.

Each one found himself in a maelstrom terrible beyond words. Each found a lifeline in his own character, and in his written conversations with family.

May their memory be a blessing.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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