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My family has a long history when it comes to war: a shameful history, I believe, and one that has cast a shadow over my entire existence. It is why I've always refused to wear a poppy.
The man who effectively raised me, my grandfather, fought for the United States in the Second World War. When he returned, he was a violent and dark human being, a different person, or so everyone said. The man I knew was a hate-filled racist; one who abused me when I was an infant and liked to stand over my bed with a loaded pistol. His old self, like so many of his generation, had been traded away in a sacrifice performed so that children of the future could live in a better world. That, at least, was their story.
When the first atomic bomb was detonated over Hiroshima, my mother's father was part of the American armada engineering the invasion of Japan. The battle for Okinawa, in which he fought, was perhaps the single most brutal conflict of the entire war. Civilians were wiped out on a colossal scale. One in three islanders perished, frequently in unspeakable horror. Atrocities were committed by both sides.
The island was slated to be the staging ground for the full invasion. In three months, an emerald isle of lush vegetation was reduced to a no-man's land of mud and rubble by the "typhoon of steel" fired in by Allied forces. Details are gruesome. Some 23,000 civilians were fatally sealed in underground caves, left to starve or suffocate. Thousands of women were raped.
I grew up hearing about my grandfather's Okinawa high point, when he went AWOL to "take care of" a Japanese sniper who'd been taking pot-shots at his battalion. He hunted the man down, supposedly, and shot him dead. When he returned to base, the commanding officer thanked him and then informed him that papers had come through, while he was missing, promoting him to corporal. Given his self-styled desertion, however, the order was immediately nullified, rendering it among the briefest promotions in the army's history. He was not otherwise disciplined. This, I was raised to understand, was an heroic sample of what was inside of him, which grew so darkly through the decades.
When I was 9, I managed to crack an old Civil-War-era safe belonging to him. The sturdy old Vulcan was the kind of thing you'd see in a John Wayne movie. Black, cast iron. Among the contents, a small collection of war trophies. It wasn't the Luger that struck me most, nor the red swastika armband. It was a pile of candid war photographs, either taken by my grandfather or, more likely, traded into his possession. I peered cluelessly into a 35-millimetre print of a woman tossing a bundle of what I immediately realized was human flesh off a cliff. It was a baby. Part of a mass suicide.
These suicides, I grew up hearing, were a sign of the godless ways of the Japanese; evidence of their irrational devotion to the Emperor. This was propaganda. The world subsequently learned that these people were forced to commit suicide or suffer a more brutal murder at the hands of the Imperial troops.
What the Americans "experienced" on Okinawa is frequently cited to justify the use of atomic weapons. I grew up under the oppression of that thinking. If my grandfather kept those terrible pictures to remind himself of the horror of war, he never communicated that to his family. I never heard a word of regret; not for the people he helped to kill, not for his own lost promise, nor for the misery his "service" cost his yet-unborn family.
He drank himself to death before I started wondering what, specifically, he had done in the war. My family had fractured. Like millions of people, I grew up smothered by the effect of his military service. Just last year, I finally learned the cause. I found it online. It was not, as those around me always insisted, for the greatest of principles. Not by a long shot.
He was in the 801st Aviation Engineering Battalion, the sole Canadian among more than 800 men. He was in a utility platoon, his job to protect soldiers building runways for what later became the Kadena Air Base. Now, for 70 years and counting, his "contribution" – those runways – serve as concrete tendons inside the U.S. military fist, infrastructure for long-range bombers.
The sum of my grandfather's service was to help literally pave the way for the U.S. military-industrial complex. The man was no hero. He was the abusive, alcoholic face of my very first trauma.
In a profound sense, it is we in this soldier's family who paid the most for his military service: collateral damage that is seldom tabulated. The damage they inflict is their real legacy, the rest is nothing but jingoism. Poppies are part of that: blind-eyed, plastic flowers that have never saved a single life or prevented one gunshot.
War lives in our collective cell-memory. It hardly requires commemoration. The children abused by men who have gone to war are surely the most unsung victims of all. For us, there are no parades, no speeches or flowers. Remembrance comes in flashbacks and nightmares, and – if we're lucky, as I am – therapy for PTSD.
David Robbeson lives in Toronto.