Americans have not directly felt the brutality of war — and particularly the miseries of its aftermath — since the slaughter of three quarters of a million in our Civil War which is still manifesting itself in our on-going racism and group contentions.

However, the Europeans know better. The “lost generation” was the aftermath slogan characterizing WW1 when millions of young men were slaughtered. I heard the pattern of deaths reported first hand when I was a student there as a teen. A young officer had to lead the charges of his men out of the trenches in Belgium and was the first target to be killed along with the thousands that would then try, but generally fail, to reach the enemy on the other side of no man’s land.

WW2 got its start in Europe with the Blitzkrieg (lightning military attacks by the Nazi forces) followed up at longer range with saturation bombing — not of military targets, but of dense civilian populations in the major cities. If Hitler initiated this practice, the Allies continued it with their own terror bombings of civilians in Berlin, Dresden — and of Tokyo, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki in Japan.

Americans were not directly impacted by such attacks in either of these ‘wars to end all wars’. During WW2 possibly one German shell fired by a submarine hit in New Jersey and a Japanese balloon bomb started a harmless fire in a forest in Oregon. We did see the oil on our beaches from the tankers sunk early in the war by the German wolf packs. But those of us who were children were not directly threatened. Some, but not all that many compared to our overseas allies and enemies lost parents and loved ones.

As a teen aged exchange student to Britain in the early 1950s I saw directly through the eyes of my overseas peers the direct effects of war. I visited the WW1 trenches in Belgium with the chaplain to the princes who had served there and saw the endless fields of crosses. On one occasion I hiked down the Rhine with a dual group of British and German teens. Many of these were partial orphans — their fathers (and sometimes mothers, too) having been killed in the war. One German farmer told me of his ten sons who had not returned from the Russian front where the German armies had been trapped by the bitter winter storms and wiped out by the counter-attacking Russian who finished off those who had not frozen to death.

Also during the summer of that year I continued on with the sort of summer camp counselor job training I had had up to then in the Bethnal Green Community Center with teens my own age. Bethnal Green was one of the poorest boroughs of London and it had been a prime target of the Nazi bombers at the start of the Blitz which would look for the bend in the Thames with orders to drop their bombs just beyond it. Hitler figured (wrongly) that by terrorizing the British civilians he could force an early British surrender. There, too, I encountered a number of partial or full orphans. One weekend I assisted with a group of younger kids being cared for by caring adults — all of whom were full war orphans. They were not happy children.

Back in the States some years later I encountered another kind of war orphan while doing my student field work job at the Manhattanville Community Center in lower West Harlem on 126th St. There the kids with whom I worked had no fathers in the home. The reason for this cruel phenomenon lay in our welfare policies combined with our treatment of the factory workers who had come north from their southern homes to do war work. When the veterans returned home in 1945, most of the ‘temporary’ employees — women and minorities — were laid off to make room for the vets. However, our welfare rules of those days only permitted welfare benefits to women and children with “no man in the house.” Social workers and police would stage midnight raids to enforce that rule. And families became a thing of the past for those who could not find work — unions were no help for minorities in those days — the late 1950s. So once again I found myself playing the role of big brother to de facto orphans.

Lest one think that being orphaned has no effects on kids — particularly boys — I saw sadness and pressures of kinds in kids that I had never seen as a summer camp counselor. I do not know what happened to the German kids. We did have one embarrassing incident in which several were caught shop lifting. My African American kids in West Harlem desperately wanted a place in American society. But only 2 of a little gang of a baker’s dozen made it. All the rest but one left homeless died violently before they made it out of their forties.

Never let anyone tell you that being orphaned is not a terrible shock. Americans seem generally all too unaware of this cruel fact and, thus, do not, as others who are, do all that they can to avoid wars.

Listen up as the casualty figures are reported from Iraq and Afghanistan. The only official record that is kept by us is of our own military and supplementary personnel killed or wounded. But each day one hears the reports of the numbers of “insurgents” (and civilians) we claim to have killed in both these countries. As I was preparing to write this piece the report came of another 30 killed in Iraq by a bomb.

Think about it. How many orphans are we creating over there? How many of us take seriously the lasting impact of these deaths? Not many, I would venture, as we Americans are entertained by violence and killing. Spin the dial and you will find such everywhere. The orphans, however, will have a life to live without one or more of their caring parents. And one can predict in all too many cases what sort of embittered people they will become.

“A war is just if there is no alternative, and the resort to arms is legitimate if they represent your last hope.” (Livy cited by Machiavelli)

Ed Kent 718-951-5324 (voice mail only) [blind copies]
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