The Burden of Memory

Is it better to forget?

This question comes to mind as I think about two veterans I’ve talked with recently, one with a near-photographic memory and one with trauma-induced amnesia. 

The amnesiac is Chuck Strauss, a vet who lives at a retirement community near my house.  Chuck was a replacement soldier in the 84th Division.  He entered combat in November 1944 and hated every second of it.  Frozen feet, shrapnel wounds, horrendous sights, sounds, and smells all contributed to his intense revulsion for battle.  Adding to this litany was the loneliness of the replacement soldier.  Soldiers generally ignored, even shunned newly arrived replacements.  The new guys tended to be given the worst and most dangerous jobs.  No one knew them, so no one cared about their fate. 

Today, Chuck wonders how he ever survived it all.  Once, before the Battle of the Bulge, his rifle company got lost behind enemy lines.  German panzers caught them encamped in a circle.  The tanks fired at will and killed every soldier in his company but eight.  Chuck rolled out of his foxhole just in time and ran to safety.

Other than this sketchy story and a few others, Chuck has almost no memory of the war.  This isn’t age-related memory loss.  Combat did it, he explained.  Combat wiped out his memory not only of the war, but also of his adolescence.  He remembers his young childhood and his life since the war.  Everything else from, say, age 16-22, has been blacked out, like redacted lines from a censored letter.

Chuck Strauss’s faulty memory is an extreme example of what happens after wars, when the process of inscribing wartime  experiences into our culture and consciousness begins.  Between the lived experience and the memory of it lies a chasm that is hard to breach. 

The novelist and WWII veteran James Jones, most famous for his postwar books From Here to Eternity and The Thin Red Line, once wrote about our instinct for forgetting.  “Our psychic memory is constantly at work winnowing out the bad and the unpleasant from our remembered experience,” he said.   Our slipshod memory, he wrote in 1975, “has glossed [the war’s traumas] all over and given World War II a polish and a glow that it did not have at the time.  The process of history always makes me think of the way the Navahos polish their turquoise.  They put the raw chunks in a barrel half filled with birdshot, and then turn the barrel and keep turning it until the rought edges are all taken off and the nuggets comes out smooth and shining.  Time, I think, does the same thing with history, and especially with wars. . . . the hardest thing is to try to recreate it as it really was.”

But, every once in a while, this process of forgetting fails to work.  It certainly failed for my friend Billy Wyatt, the Okie from California I wrote about a couple months ago.  “So many memories,” he wrote in a letter.  He repeated that refrain in an interview caught on video.  I helped to find someone in the Sacramento area to interview Billy for the Veterans History Project.  Billy sent me a dvd of the result.  Someone once told Billy he had a photographic memory, and I certainly believe it.  Even after suffering a stroke, his recall is still remarkably powerful and detailed.  His interview is a fascinating study of an obviously brilliant man burdened by his inability to forget.

Billy lived a hard life.  His father abandoned the family when Billy was a child, so Billy hoboed from Oklahoma to California in the Great Depression and lived as a foster child in several families.  When a railroad cop arrested him for hopping freights in 1940, the judge gave him the option: jail or the infantry.  He chose the Army, and ended up invading North Africa with the 3rd Divison in November 1942.  He followed the 3rd Division into Sicily, Italy (including Anzio), and the mainland of Europe, collecting two crippling cases of trench foot and three shrapnel wounds along the way.

He remembers everything, every twitch and strain, every muddy foxhole, every terrifying artillery attack.  He eventually got out of the infantry by giving up his stripes (he was a sergeant by 1944) to join the Signal Corps.  The reason he gave was trench foot.  He could no longer walk.  When pressed, however, he said, “People asked me why I left the infantry.  The answer is I was sick of living in the ground, not getting anything to eat, and being treated as subhuman.”  He hated the war every bit as much as Chuck Strauss.

Because of his memory, he had a tough time readjusting to life after the war.  He was unemployed for a full year after his return home “because of my nerves,” he said.  He couldn’t sleep, and when he did, he had terrible dreams.  In the early 1960s, he ended up marrying the love of his life and having a son.  It was only then, he said, that something good came along to make up for the bad.  He never told his wife or his son about his World War II experiences.  He tried to wipe that part of his life away.  But he never really could.

Chuck Strauss, by contrast, didn’t have a problem readjusting.  “I couldn’t remember anything, so I really didn’t have any problems.  I got a job and went to college,” he explains.  He went on to become an engineer and executive for US Steel.  He did very well for himself. 

A strong memory is an important and necessary thing for our culture.  But it carries a heavy burden too.