War Souvenirs Soon Forgotten

JUST as people bring back souvenirs of places they visted during their vacations (pieces of pastel-tinted coral, trays with scenic views painted on them, toy cable cars, and so on), men bring back souvenirs of the wars they fought. If the wars are unpopular, such as those in Korea and Vietnam, the souvenirs are usually packed away rather than passed around and displayed. World War II (the Good War, in Studs Terkel's phrase) was the mother lode of war souvenirs, and every boy who grew up in the late '40s has one memory in common: a room decorated with war souvenirs.

I was one of those kids, and I had more than my share of the stuff: a brace of 50-caliber machine-gun bullets, a hand grenade that had been eviscerated but whose pin and spring assembly still worked, an Army helmet, a canteen, a large caliber shell of some kind (emptied of its powder) whose origin I never knew, an American bayonet, and even, at one point, a Japanese rifle and bayonet - found gathering dust in the attic of a tavern my parents bought.

War souvenirs gave undeniable verisimilitude to the war games we played (they were the ultimate war toys - authentic military icons) and their presence was accepted by our parents because they were the memorabilia of a war proudly fought and won against ``morally delinquent'' enemies.

War souvenirs were casual reminders of that. Those that were brought back from World War II were the last fashionable war souvenirs this country has seen, which is good, but now that they've been relegated for the most part to the memories of those of us who owned them, it seems worth reflecting on what they meant to us.

None of us, to be sure, knew what terrible reality these prized possessions represented. Our sense of the war was derived mostly from comic books and movie propaganda, and in those days movies didn't even attempt to capture reality.

In war movies the wounds were always clean and virtually bloodless and such ancillary things as the filth and malaise of combat were non-existent. The fatigues of those who fell in battle were invariably no worse for wear than a pair of jeans you send to the laundry after three days use, and any kind of sickness, physical or psychological, was usually irrelevant to the script, which was heavy on patriotism and heroics. So we staged our Hollywood-inspired battles using bits and pieces of the real war as props, never realizing the irony.

As in trading bubble-gum cards or anything else, some items were commonplace and easy to get, others more exotic and hard to come by. Every kid had an American helmet - that was de rigueur, although many were mystified by the relationship of the helmet liner to the helmet, and some thought that a helmet liner was a helmet.

I remember how envious I was of a friend who had one of the World War I dish-style helmets that were still used in the early part of the war. Hardly anyone had one of those. The eviscerated grenade, for all its exoticism, was fairly common. Canteens, like helmets, could almost be taken for granted.

Things that had belonged to the enemy were considered special because they were not just souvenirs but trophies - they were symbolic of victory. These ran the spectrum from enemy helmets to things that had an almost mystical aura - flags taken from enemy buildings, the notorious samurai swords, knives, sidearms, etc. One did not play war using the real guns, but just about everything else was brought into play.

Today the war games played by children tend to reflect worlds of fantasy instead of being symbolic recapitulations of our last war, which was altogether unpopular. Kids fight intergalactic dictators modeled after real ones like Hitler and Mussolini, or they re-enact martial arts free-for-alls, which, however impassioned, are still quantum leaps from Iwo Jima or Anzio.

I grew up with the boyhood fantasy of shooting Japanese snipers out of palm trees and German snipers out of bell towers. Today I watch the old movies that inspired these fantasies on a Japanese television set.

It is a strange thing to see the passion that ruled one's life become antiquated as history becomes memory. Passion cools and in retrospect one marvels at its force. Passion that was relevant to its time (whether of love or anger) becomes merely an echo as we develop new passions. One could say that war is pointless since we eventually lose the anger that made it seem important.

I was one of the members of a generation that was given cultural sanction to romanticize war and whose childhood was dominated by ritualistic recreations of it. Today, playing war is no longer fashionable, which makes sense, because global war is no longer feasible. In a world with atomic weapons, wars can only be exercises in futility.

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