December 6, 2000:
I have a friend, about
my age, who likes to joke that he was in "the Big One"
- referring to his role as a tank squadron commander in the Persian
Gulf War. He can kid about it because his father really was in the
Big One, as an Army officer in World War II.
My friend is unusual.
For most people in my generation, war is a distant abstraction.
We were born during Vietnam. The Desert Storm operation of 1991
seemed like a made-for-CNN miniseries: We watched smart bombs find
their targets, listened to Peter Arnett report from a hotel in Baghdad,
and feared for Charles Jaco at an undisclosed location in Saudi
Arabia. We worried, briefly, about the possibility of a reinstatement
of the draft, but the war was over so quickly and so decisively
that those anxieties never felt real.
the Princeton classes of the early 1940s, however, war was all too
real. Eighty-four percent of the Class of 1942 served in World War
II, most going directly from the classroom to the battlefield. "He
had never held a serious job, was not used to taking orders that
governed his every move, and had never functioned as a supervisor...He
was a college boy one day and a serviceman the next," writes
Charles Blackmar '42 of himself and his classmates. Blackmar is
the editor of the Class of 1942's recent book, a collection of individual
war stories, which we excerpt beginning on page 16.
Though these callow soldiers
were remarkably successful - "Our hastily trained civilians
were able to overcome fierce resistance from soldiers who had received
their military assignments in early youth and had had continuous
training until called to war," writes Blackmar - they were
hardly unscathed by their experiences. Twenty-five died. For others,
their contribution to this book, nearly 60 years after the war's
conclusion, marks the first time they have been able to discuss
what happened during the war.
"Those who cannot
remember the past are condemned to repeat it," wrote philosopher
George Santayana, and that is perhaps the most important purpose
of this book - to educate those in my generation, and in the other
fortunate generations behind mine with no experience of armed conflict,
about the terrible price of war. Blackmar says it best: "Our
hope is that this volume...may provide some understanding of the
individual experiences of people in the armed forces during the
Second World War. Nor is it too extravagant to hope that better
understanding of the events of 1941 through 1945 may provide some
insights which may be helpful in preventing future wars."