Christian Bowe

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"A sentimental man, physically gentle, pacifistic in all things and possessed of a liberal heart that does not so much bleed as hemorrhage. I was the gutsy truth seeker, uncovering the poignant war story of a man who fond it all too painful to talk about. Except I found my father especially resistant to the idea. True, he had never really spoken about it - then again, I had never really asked. A struggle my father has always had: between hating war and having been in one, between being committed to, as he puts it, the future, and at the same time not wanting to be entirely forgotten. Each week we struggled as I tried to force his story into my mold - territory previously covered by Saving Private Ryan or The Great Escape - and he tried to stop me. He only wanted to explain what had happened to him. And his war, as he sees it, was an accidental thing, ambivalent, unplanned, an ordinary man’s experience of extremity. It’s not Private Ryan’s war or Steve McQueen’s war or Bert Scaife’s war. It’s Harvey Smith’s war. If it embodies anything(Harvey’s not much into embodying other things), it is the fact that when wars are fought, perfectly normal people fight them. Alongside the heroes and martyrs, sergeants and generals, there are the millions of average young people who simply tumble into it, their childhood barely behind them. There was a dead man in Nazi uniform lying in the hallway. My father bent down to turn him over and would have joined him in oblivion if it hadn’t been for his CO stopping his hand just in time. The body was booby-trapped. Coiled within it, my future, and that of my brothers, and the future of future, and so on, into unthinkability. He decided to make tea, the way you did during the war, by filling a biscuit tin full of sand a little petrol and setting that alight. He shouldn’t have done that. The flames were spotted a mortar bomb sent over. He doesn’t know how many men died. Maybe two, maybe three. For what hadn’t I brought this little contraption here for my own purposes? Not to record my father’s history, and not even to write this article, but precisely for this revelation, for this very moment or another like it; in the hope of catching a painful war secret, in the queer belief that such a thing would lead to some epiphanic shift in my relationship with my father. There is such a vanity in each succeeding generation - we think we can free our parents from experience, that will be their talking cure, that we are the catharsis they need. We all make so many simple mistakes at the same age, but in a normal situation, they can’t lead to anybody’s dying. The mistakes he made, the things he didn’t do, how lucky he was. To finish up, I asked him if he thought he was brave in Normandy. “I wasn’t brave! I wasn’t asked to be brave.. I wasn’t Bert Scaife! I wasn’t individually brave. I s’pose when you realized you were playing your part in killing ordinary people, well, it’s an awful thing to learn about. And then, well, I spent a year in Germany after the war you see, working for the army and making friends with ordinary Germans. I almost married a German girl, from the country, with a strong jaw. Lovely girl. And in her house there was a photo of her brother, in a Nazi uniform, about eighteen. He wasn’t coming home. And my mate who came to visit her with me, he turned the photo to the wall, but I said no. These were just country people. There was so much evil in that war. And then they were just people like that, simple people. Harvey Smith is not Bert Scaife - he wants me to make that very clear to you. It is characteristic of Harvey that he was somewhat ashamed to tell me that story. He feels he behaved cruelly. In sum, Harvey thinks pride a pale virtue. To his mind, an individual act either helps a little or it does not, and to be proud of it afterward helps nobody much, changes nothing. Still, I am proud of him. In the first version of this article, I wrote here: “He was a man able to retain his humanity in the most inhumane of circumstances.” Later I scratched it out because humanity is these days a vainglorious, much debased word, and inhumanity is a deceitful one. My generation was raised with the idea that those who pride themselves on their humanity are perfectly capable of atrocity. I think I’ll put instead: he didn’t lose himself in horror. Which is a special way of being brave, of being courageous, and a quality my father shares with millions of ordinary men and women who fought that miserable war.”

-Zadie Smith, Accidental Hero