Food For Thought

War And Those Who Fought 

by John E. Bonfadini, Ed.D.,
Contributing Columnist
Professor Emeritus, George Mason University

John E. Bonfadini
John E. Bonfadini

During the Vietnam War era, my sister served as clerk to the draft board in southwestern Pennsylvania. Many young men received unwanted letters from her and hers is still one of the names they remember from 40 years ago. I was fortunate ó because of my age bracket, student and marital status, I did not receive a draft notice; but Iíve often wondered what effect serving in the military service would have had on my life.

My original plans after high school were to join the Navy, but the difficulty of getting into that branch of the service right after the Korean War helped direct me toward college. Every time I visit the Vietnam Memorial I wonder why those names are there and others are not. Those who serve in the armed forces deserve the utmost respect and gratitude from all of us.

I spent my summers in the early 1950s with my aunt in Youngstown, Ohio. My cousin Aldo had just returned from serving in the Korean War. My aunt couldnít understand why he often would not come home to sleep at night. I understood, because I slept in the same room when he did. He relived the war every time he went to bed. I can still remember him yelling and using vulgar language, shouting to fellow Marines to get their heads down. When awake, he never talked about the war. He was one of the lucky Marines who made it back from the Chosin Reservoir Battle.

My dadís picture in his World War I uniform hangs on my office wall. Itís in a beautiful oval bubble-glass antique frame that would be a cherished purchase at any auction. The purchaser would probably remove the picture of the handsomely dressed soldier in his Italian Army uniform and think little of the young manís sacrifice. The frame would be the item of value, not the picture of my dad.  Dadís eyes certainly reflect the seriousness of that phase of his life. I donít remember him talking much about the war, except for one discussion of a mustard-gas attack. He was recalling the event with my uncle as they shared a glass of homemade wine. The description of the battle left a lasting impression on my young mind. Anyone who watches the history channel and the old movies about World War I or World War II understands the devastation of those conflicts and the sacrifices of those who served. 

I moved to Virginia in 1966 and one of the first things I noticed was how prominently the Civil War was depicted in all aspects of the community. The school where I taught was named after Stonewall Jackson. I purchased a new home not far from the Manassas Battlefield, where war reenactments were a part of many family outings. The entrance to my community is the Ben Lomond farm, with its historic buildings including a slave living quarters. Segregation had just ended and the effects of civil-rights legislation were manifesting themselves in the school systems. I hadnít realized that many of the problems about which the war was fought still existed a century later. When my granddaughter Megan called me a few days ago and asked what were three reasons for fighting the Civil War, I responded, economics, slavery, and stateís rights. Things really donít change much over time. Society just doesnít seem to learn from its mistakes.

Civil War paintings adorn the walls of my downstairs recreation room. Pictures of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson hang prominently above the fireplace. Two reproductions of battle scenes show the devastation and loss of human life. One painting, titled ďFire at an Angle,Ē shows a cannon firing at charging troops with the goal of killing as many of the enemy as possible. Another is a picture of a soldier carrying a flag into battle made from the wedding dress of his wife. Several original pages from Harpers Weekly are also framed, telling the daily story of the war. I just added another picture of the Gettysburg Battlefield obtained during my recent visit to the historic site. I was visiting my sister in Chambersburg, Pa., and took time to visit the Gettysburg Museum. It was a very sobering experience. What struck me the most were the statistics of the war, including the number of dead and the reasons for their deaths. One look at the medical instruments used then told the whole story. I left the museum with the feeling that the romantic element of the war is over-played and the tragedy associated with the loss of human life is underemphasized. More people lost their lives in the Civil War than all other American wars combined.

Our military forces in Iraq are fighting for reasons similar to those of the Civil War. We hear terms like the liberation of people, democratic government, and economic stability. The global nature of todayís society and the mediaís ability to bring war into our living rooms have changed the rules. Often the horrors of war are forgotten in the political discussions and statistical data surrounding the conflict. General William Sherman, who is remembered for his words, ďWar is hell,Ē also said, ďYou cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out. I know I had no hand in making this war, and I know I will make more sacrifices today than any of you to secure peace.Ē 

Educators often forget that many of our graduates who donít go to college and some who do will eventually serve in the military. Seldom do I hear the military option mentioned in school literature or in advertisements. Only in great times of sacrifice do we seem to remember those who served. Sherman said it best; he, like all our men and women in combat today, had no hand in making any war. They only sacrifice their lives so others will think twice before starting another war. When it comes to war, most people in all societies have short memories.

Whatís Your View?

Obviously, there are at least two sides to every issue. Do you have a different view? This column is meant to provoke thought, so keep sending comments. Each one is read with the utmost interest. Send e-mail to:, or send written responses to the editor.  Mail will be forwarded to the author.




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