Facing war's horrors by looking inward

It was a typical sultry night on Bougainville, Papua New Guinea, during World War II. Mosquitoes, scorpions, thick mud, and three red-alert air raids did little to lull exhausted marines to sleep.

Lt. Bertram Yaffe was the 23-year-old commander of Baker Company, 3rd Tank Battalion, 3rd Marine Division. And inside his Stuart tank, this thoughtful, well-trained lad from Sparta, Ga., suddenly had claustrophobia, which he had never before experienced.

"This was not the normal fear or tension - even the anxiety - endemic to combat," he writes in "Fragments of War: a Marine's Personal Journey."

"I was drenched in a cold sweat," he says.

What Yaffe did, as did many young men caught in the horror of war, was defend himself against the external threat by going inward to explore ideas and concepts as if they were cool waters.

His philosophical meditations during his 2-1/2 years in the Pacific became a counterbalance to the recurring claustrophobia and all the killings.

Through his courage to seek meaning while in the chaos of war, he gained a sanctity of focus even while friends were being blown apart and Marine tanks under his command blasted through enemy strongholds in Bougainville, Guam, and Iwo Jima.

In this moving book, Yaffe is as adept at detailing his war experiences as he is discussing the ideas of Julian Huxley, William James, or Edwin Burtt's definition of intuition as "the final controlling factor in all thinking whatever."

Yaffe's publisher, Naval Institute Press, says this book fills in a hole in combat history by providing an account of Marine tank action in the Pacific.

Despite illness, multiple shrapnel wounds, and broken ribs, Yaffe never flagged. He was awarded two Bronze Stars and a Purple Heart. He fought his way out of a face-to-face encounter with two enemy soldiers by killing them and survived numerous tank battles.

He says he rarely dwelled on thoughts of his own death to avoid self-fulfilling prophecies. What fortified him was the loving image of his wife, Erna, and visualizing his life with her after the war ended. And in war, the bond of being with men who "were just trying to respond to what and where they were needed at the time" was the immediate reason to stay alive.

Today, Yaffe bicycles as much as 20 miles a day in Stockbridge, Mass., and is president of the Erna Yaffe Foundation and chairman of the New England Coalition for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention.

Following are excerpts from a recent interview.

At one point in your book, you wrote that, despite fear, men acted with calm decisiveness, with no wasted motion in battle.

The Marines then were all volunteers, and this is what you came to do, to fight and do your part. You had time to worry about things later when you had time to think. We were all calm in war and very young.

But I do not glorify war in this book, because I don't think there is any such thing as a good war, even though this was a necessary war.... War is utter randomness. No matter how well trained you are, or how you plan, no matter how surgical your strikes are supposed to be, people get hurt; it is utter randomness and chaos, and the noise is horrendous. Sometimes I was happy and proud of what we did, but I never felt this was great.... I still carry some shrapnel in me. But not enough to set off alarms at airports.

The war in Kosovo consisted of dropping bombs and not using foot soldiers. Is there as much urgency to 'worry about things later' in this kind of war?

War today for us is not feeling the consequences, not experiencing the effects of war. Flying airplanes requires a lot of courage, but you don't hear the noise or see the blood and body parts.... Sometimes, the US starts a war too easily because we don't realize the consequences. There is no such thing as a clean war or a surgical strike.

We say we are in Kosovo for humanitarian reasons, and I am sure we are in there with the best of motives, but I would like to have seen more attempts to work around war, not because of Kosovo, but because this is not going to be the end of dealing with nationalism, ethnic clashes, and racism. My experience is that war has to be the last resort, and I'm not sure it was in this case.

Are you in favor of reinstating the draft?

Yes, because all kinds of people should be involved in the military. That was the thing about World War II - all walks of life were fighting, and we had a unity of purpose.

At the same time, I think the ad, "Be all you can be," hits a very realistic nerve if young people say they have no other ways to be fulfilled in life except to join the Army or Marines. I would challenge a society where that is their only option.

In your war experience, did you think deeply about the meaning of life because the reason for war was clear then?

I had a lot of time on my hands. Out of 2-1/2 years in the Pacific, actual battle time - on Bougainville, Guam, Iwo Jima - was maybe four months. It doesn't mean there wasn't activity at other times; you're training and working. I spent six weeks on a ship before we were supposed to go into Guam, and I remember it, strangely enough, as a kind of philosophically exciting time for me.


I would stay up on deck at night and think about these things. I was a young man with a scientific bent, obsessed with evolution and Charles Darwin, and Bertrand Russell, who was very rational and against any kind of dogma. This made a lot of sense in the 1930s. And as much science as I read I didn't feel I was getting basic reality.... But in reading Henri Bergson, he convinced me that what you are searching for has to come from intuition "as the faculty whereby we penetrate to the truth of things and feel the inner pulse of reality," as he says. But it has to be your own, otherwise it won't transform you. And finally, it was Julian Huxley who convinced me that intuition could be trained and developed the same way reason could be.

What was your conclusion on deck as to the meaning of life?

That young man concluded the meaning of life was thought and reflection. Thought is the way nature reflects on itself, the way science is discovered and beauty is appreciated. Whatever ultimately reality is, I don't discount God but I speak of nature's God as the totality of universal consciousness.

Despite your physical exhaustion and wounds, you still carried on beyond anything that would be considered normal.

People get attached to the unit in which they are involved; there is a commitment, and you rise to do things you wouldn't otherwise do. William James refers to this as being "proud of the collectivity."

But he wants us to find the moral equivalent of war because war is the only force able to bring about this level of valor. I suggest that a commitment to humanity is the equivalent, by really identifying with humanity as being a collectivity that needs us.

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