Fighting a war must be terribly different from the act of recalling it years later. The hours, days, and weeks of anxious tedium sporadically punctuated by the brutal experience of combat are not the same as collecting WWII rifles or assembling a true scale model of a warplane that one once piloted. When a soldier publicly memorializes his wartime self, the once-upon-a-time mundane details about killing are absent. "Daddy, what did you do int he war?" asked by the after-dinner-fire is not usually rewarded with an explicit litany of spilling guts.
Last November 10 the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego opened its Command Museum. The museum presents a history of the activities and organizations of the Marines based here. Neatly constructed exhibits create skeletal overviews of subjects like the "Mexican-American War in San Diego" or the "Development of the Drill Instructor." Along with titles and descriptions, the displays contain old photographs; a few old magazines: Time, Life and Leatherneck (Magazine of the Marines); period uniforms; helmets; jackets; insignia; medals; scale models and dioramas; and, of course military hardware; ammunition, bayonets, rifles (like the Springfield breechloader of 1870), and cannons.
All these objects are real and undoubtedly authentic — but strangely made when they might be screaming. Seeing these soldierly accoutrements is like seeing a skydiver's parachute or a fireman's water hose or a taxidermist's prize-winning collection — the essence of the matter lies elsewhere, far away.
These abstractions avoid one riveting association that sticks to the warrior; blood. Any Marine who has seen action has experienced something no film or novel could hope to mimic, something that annihilates the feeble essays of Sylvester Stallone and Chuck Norris, tender-footed and starkly absurd in the face of reality. But nowhere in the gallery of exhibits is the profoundly enthralling spell of bloody truth evident. Is this the consequence of some huge denial? Does the military fear the censure born of revulsion that horrible revelations might provoke in a usually oblivious public Or perhaps memories of violence are distasteful even to soldiers? These explanations seem sensible, if not obvious. What if, however, they are not quite true?
Is a soldier proud of having killed? Of course not, he will say (and will believe), especially when such a thing is asked so crudely. On civilian turf, this question is already half accusation. But in that other time and place, when and where our ceilings would hardly reach his floors, it is a fair question. After all, even putting aside the inconceivable exigencies that might make a mockery of morality and free will, killing is the soldier's legitimate duty. Who understands this better than a fellow campaigner? Perhaps we overestimate the military's reluctance to divulge the secrets of their business. Maybe they would be forthcoming if some fruitful medium existed to translate adequately their understanding into ours.
The personal accounts of veterans place us close as nonparticipants can probably ever get to the central fact of the battlefield, which is death. But such stories are hidden away in the pages of books that are themselves hidden on shelves between other books; or they reside in individual bodies wandering in isolated worlds, their voices dissipating in the generous folds of time and space. Stories are not solid enough; they don't stand tall and look you in the eye; a collection of them would not make a museum.
In baseball, nostalgia is mediated by numbers. The histories of important players or noteworthy sessions might be obscure or nonexistent, but their batting averages and won-loss records are well-remembered. baseball's numbers are solid, palpable nuggets in the commerce of a fan's memory. For military nostalgists, a machine gun's name and capabilities or a uniform's shape and color must carry similar values. Unlike a narrative of battle, these objects are tangible and even symbolic, which makes them ideal for a museum.
Unfortunately, it's simply not easy — maybe not possible — to institutionalize the communication of fatal truths, even those truths with society's sanction. Forty-five years ago, something happened. In the cultural memory, it's not much clearer than that.