(In honor of Veteran's Day and my dad's retirement, here's the essay I just mentioned)
When I was little, my dad used to ask me "How's your gafangen nummer doing?"
I would giggle and say "fine," sure he had made up another crazy word. I pictured the gafangen nummer as a vestigial organ, like the appendix, something small and green hidden in the body.
I found out years later that gafangen nummer means "prisoner number" in German. My dad liked the silly sound of it, but it had a serious connection to his life--he had guarded German prisoners during World War II. Per the Geneva Convention, he could only ask for their name (namen), rank (rank), and gafanger nummer, which I suppose was interchangeable with serial number. Now he witnesses the abuse suffered by Iraqi POWs, and shudders. "We treated those prisoners with dignity," he tells me. "This is deplorable."
By the time I was born, my dad was 48 years old, and his military career was well behind him. The only vestige that I saw as a girl was when he showed me his old rifle drills, using me as the rifle. He tossed me over his shoulder, spun me around like a baton, shouted out (as I heard it) "AttenTION! Forward, HARM!" I loved it. It didn't seem related to war (except for that last misheard word. He was really saying "ARMS".)
My dad, fortunately, didn't have to inflict harm on anyone during his tenure in the Army. His first assignment, after only six weeks of basic training, was to pick up German officers at the Port of Boston and accompany them on a train to Colorado. He watched their faces shift from anger to confusion to wonder as the train made its way across the country. These officers had been told that Germany had bombed the United States to smithereens. They were expecting to see a country in ruins. My father was proud to show them the beauty of the American landscape.
It wasn't long before he was sent to Texas to guard German prisoners.
"We were raw recruits," he says. "We thought of them as the enemy. But when you see them, you see they're just people, just like us."
The prisoners slept in the same types of barracks as the American soldiers. They received PX privileges; they had the same rations. "They had better cooks than we did, though," he laughs. "When they were on work detail and we broke for lunch, their picnics looked better than ours."
Local farmers took advantage of this work detail opportunity and hired prisoners for $1.50 a day--the prisoner received 80 cents of this in canteen coupons; the rest went toward paying for the POW program. My father spent his days in the fields, riding a horse between corn stalks, supervising the prisoners as they harvested one ear after another.
Many of the Germans chose to stay in Texas after the war was over. "There was no mistreatment," my dad says, "and they grew to appreciate what America had to offer."
The opposite, of course, has been happening in Iraq. When I ask my dad how he feels about the situation in Abu Ghraib, his mood turns dark. "The thing that gets to me," he says, "is that our President says that these soldiers don't represent America, but by allowing these brutish things to happen, they are redefining what America means."
I think about my dad swinging me around his shoulders, my body a rifle, his voice ringing (as I heard it) "Forward, HARM!" This seems to be the order our troops in the Abu Ghraib prison had been given. Harm upon harm upon harm.
"When we do this," my dad says, "we become terrorists ourselves. And then we're nothing. Then America is nothing."
My dad's time in Texas sounds almost idyllic as he speaks about it, almost like summer camp, but he is quick to point out that it was wartime, not something to be idealized. "I don't understand why veterans glorify their war experience," he says. "War is not glory. War is the most stupid thing humans have invented."
"Especially this war," I say.
"Especially this war, my honey," he agrees. When the light hits him just right, I can see a ring of blue around the brown iris of his left eye, a halo left by his glaucoma medicine. It makes his pupil look huge. It makes him look like a sage. "If anything should be idealized, it's the Geneva Convention, but that is clearly not being followed."
We look at each other for a while. Even hearing all of his stories, it's hard for me to believe my peaceful dad had really been in the military, hard to believe the rakish portrait of him in his uniform isn't a glossy from a black and white movie. The air between us is thick—thick with anger towards our administration, thick with love for each other. It's hard to know what to say. Then my dad leans toward me, his face intense.
"So," he says, eyebrows raised. "How's your gafangen nummer doing, anyway?"