I just finished watching the final episode of The War, the 15-hour Ken Burns documentary on World War II that premiered over a year ago.
The finale, A World Without War, was packed: The fall of Berlin, the Holocaust, the sinking of the USS Indianapolis, Okinawa, the dropping of the atomic bomb, the liberation of prisoners of war in Japan.
And the journey back to civilian life. Men described the emotional intensity of combat, and how those emotions haunted them after they returned home.
Katherine Phillips of Mobile, Alabama said the veterans and their wives lived together in a tight-knit community. After the children went to bed, the adults would gather and talk — that was the evening entertainment.
The men would trade war stories. Phillips said she learned more about her husband just by listening than she had any other way. She believed these evening talks were healing for the men.
Quentin Aanenson of Luverne, Minnesota said he came home changed, and everyone in town knew he’d changed, but he didn’t have the skill with words to explain how and why.
I beg to differ with Mr. Aanenson. The eloquent letter he wrote to his future wife — about the death he’d seen and what it had done to him — was the single most moving moment of the series.
For the past two hours, I’ve been sitting here alone in my tent, trying to figure out just what I should do and what I should say in this letter in response to your letters and some questions you have asked. I have purposely not told you much about my world over here, because I thought it might upset you. Perhaps that has been a mistake, so let me correct that right now. I still doubt if you will be able to comprehend it. I don’t think anyone can who has not been through it.
I live in a world of death. I have watched my friends die in a variety of violent ways…
Sometimes it’s just an engine failure on takeoff resulting in a violent explosion. There’s not enough left to bury. Other times, it’s the deadly flak that tears into a plane. If the pilot is lucky, the flak kills him. But usually he isn’t, and he burns to death as his plane spins in. Fire is the worst. In early September one of my good friends crashed on the edge of our field. As he was pulled from the burning plane, the skin came off his arms. His face was almost burned away. He was still conscious and trying to talk. You can’t imagine the horror.
So far, I have done my duty in this war. I have never aborted a mission or failed to dive on a target no matter how intense the flak. I have lived for my dreams for the future. But like everything else around me, my dreams are dying, too. In spite of everything, I may live through this war and return to Baton Rouge. But I am not the same person you said goodbye to on May 3. No one can go through this and not change. We are all casualties. In the meantime, we just go on. Some way, somehow, this will all have an ending. Whatever it is, I am ready for it.
Quentin Aanenson never mailed that letter. But he saved it.
In the words of these veterans I heard much that resonated with me. Like a soldier, I came “home” from the cancer front a changed woman.
There are differences. The World War II veterans were carefree young men when they left. By the time I got cancer, I was a middle-aged writer, and writers are not known for their carefree ways.
But if a soldier did make it home, he had a chance to heal. The bullets had stopped flying. The deafening sounds of war had ceased. Cancer patients have support groups, but fear of recurrence hangs heavy in the air.
Many of the veterans interviewed on The War displayed an enviable stoicism. They know war is terrible, but unavoidable, because, in the words of one soldier, “humans are aggressive animals.”
Or maybe the soldiers accepted their fate better than I did because they went into war knowing that courage would be demanded of them.
Soldiers have their fictions — the crisp uniforms, the proud parents, the eagerness to prove oneself in battle. These fictions quickly erode in the bloody chaos that is war. Cancer patients too begin with fictions. Early on, I said if my cancer returned, I’d just fight it again. I did not yet know much about cancer.
A friend of mine said the war analogy for cancer patients has become a cliche, but it’s the only one she finds appropriate.
I believe patients should keep in mind the soldier analogy, but not the pugilistic bravado we so often see in the pop culture of the cancer world. Instead, patients could learn from the quiet dignity of Quentin Aanenson.
Mr. Aanenson said he’s lived a good life, but part of him changed forever after the war. “How could it not?” he said.
Indeed, how could it not?
[Ed. note: From Quentin Aanenson’s family: “It is with great sadness that we announce Quentin passed away on December 28, 2008. His contact with all of you and the information he was sharing here meant a great deal to him, so we will continue to maintain his web site for a very long time.” Read the obituary here.]