Leadership: Watching "The War"

There was a time when I was growing up in the early Sixties when it seemed that every dad I knew had fought in “the War.” Viewed from the point of view of a child who squeezed in games of “war” between games of baseball and football, the Second World War was a touchstone, an affirmation that good guys always won. That attitude changed with the violence of the Vietnam, and the cold reality that so many young men, little older than me and eventually my own age, were going there, some never to return.

And so it is that subsequent generations have forgotten the sacrifices that their fathers and grandfathers made in that War. Those sacrifices come alive again, night after night in Ken Burns new series The War, through the stories of people in four different American cities. Their remembrances remind me of the men I knew, who went into the conflict and thankfully survived.

This War, like all wars, comes down to commitment honed by sacrifice for a greater cause. But as grand as the goals may seem, wars are not fought in “war rooms,” they are waged on the ground, at sea, and in the air by soldiers called to service. From them we learn lessons, such as:

Saying good-bye. For many young men, leaving home for the first time was an adventure, perhaps a lark. For those with wives and children it was more poignant. However, in time, all would feel the pain of separation whether they were stateside or overseas, they all had one thing in common – separation from all they had known till then.

Learning on the job. Military training is a good thing; it molds behaviors that ensure coordinated actions and in combat give soldiers something to follow in order to survive. But, as Paul Fussell, infantryman and author, recalls in the series, it takes time to learn to be a soldier. The North African campaign shaped the U.S. Army’s fighting character under the harshest of conditions. Poorly led soldiers were killed or captured. But after the battle of the Kasserine Pass, new commanders rose to the fore, and the American fighting man gained his equilibrium and the experience to fight even more bloody conflicts in Italy, and later France and Germany. Marines in the Pacific were taught to fight in the jungles of Guadalcanal, a cauldron of sweat, heat and lost lives.

Sticking with your buddies. An airman from Sacramento who served as a belly gunner in a B-17 Liberator remembers coming back from the first massive raid of Schweinfurt in 1943 in which a fifth of the bombers (including 600 airmen) were lost. The airman, now an old man but then 19, did not want to get back into the bomber again. He did, of course, so as not to let his buddies down. That is a refrain that soldiers from ancient times till now repeat with regularity. War for soldiers is not flag and country; it’s for the guy next to you.

Living one day at a time. War was distant to those at home yet, as the personal stories in The War make clear, Americans on the home front made sacrifices, too. There was rationing of everything from flour and sugar to meat and of course nylon, rubber and gasoline. When demand was high shifts in war plants were sometimes twelve hours seven days a week. Everyone it seemed had a relative overseas. One man now in his sixties recalls a childhood memory seeing blue stars (indicating one had a soldier in service) being replaced by gold stars (indicated that soldier had fallen).

Coming home. The War did end and soldiers came home. Stephen Ambrose wrote and spoke often of how they came back to get on with their lives. Some 10 million went to college on the GI Bill; the rest went to work. All, it seemed, married and had children, accounting for the biggest boom in births in American history.

We know now what we didn’t acknowledge then, that while the War was over, it still lived on in the lives of the soldiers who had served. War may be a chapter in someone’s life, but it one that is never closed. The memories live on, and The War serves as sentry to them.

Source: Ken Burns and Lynn Novick The War PBS 2007

John Baldoni • Leadership Expert/Executive Coach/Author/Speaker • Baldoni Consulting, LLC • www.johnbaldoni.com

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