Remembrance: War, Death and Andy Rooney

- November 10th, 2011

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I’m not a big fan of war, death or Andy Rooney — but they all have their place.

I know that sounds a little harsh and callous but, when you think about it, war and death definitely qualify for the same description and Andy Rooney could be a real bastard at times too.

So let’s not pull any punches: Remembrance Day should be about remembering — not forgetting.

I’ve never been in a war (although I’ve survived enough life-threatening situations to know I don’t want to be in one) and I’m not dead yet — but Andy Rooney can raise his hand on both those counts. So let’s turn the floor over to him.

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As I said, I’m not a big fan of the TV cartoon character Andy Rooney presented in his 30-plus years of 60 Minutes video essays — the grumpy-but-lovable curmudgeon wandering between whimsy and vitriol.

But I do admire Andy Rooney the journalist, the man who could look at the world and look into his own soul and tell the truth about what he saw without flinching or fabricating.

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Andy Rooney was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1942 as a callow youth and came out the other end a hard (but not hardened) man who saw and experienced things that changed him from an avowed pacifist to someone who believed “any peace is not better than any war.”

He still hated war but he understood that some things are worth fighting for. And dying for. And killing for. But not to be celebrated (except in the life-affirming adrenaline rush of immediate victory and survival). More to be mourned over and mulled over and remembered. Maybe even learned from.

In a 2009 60 Minutes piece, Rooney suggested Veterans Day (as Remembrance Day is called in the U.S.) be changed to “No War Day.”

“The name doesn’t have much of a ring to it,” he said, ” but a day like that would be worth celebrating.”

In another commentary, he talked about two of the many young men he knew who were killed in the Second World War, sometimes dying right beside him:

“When I get to thinking that perhaps there is a balance between the good things and the bad things about war, I think of Obie and Charley and I know there is nothing so good about war that it isn’t overwhelmed by the death of young men like them.”

Andy Rooney’s war was fought with a typewriter, not a gun (although, alone and unarmed, he once captured a heavily armed German soldier in Normandy).

His only prior newspaper experience was as a high school copy runner on the Albany, N.Y., Knickerbocker News, but the newly drafted 23-year-old Rooney talked his way onto the reporting staff of the Stars and Stripes, the U.S. Army’s daily newspaper in the European Theatre of Operations, as it was quaintly called.

He was initially based in London but he didn’t spend a lot of time hanging around the press club or Supreme Allied Command HQ. He had a sharp eye, a way with words and he wanted to tell the stories of real people in the real war. He wanted to be where the action was, in other words.

From England, he flew five combat missions over Occupied Europe with the U.S. Air Force. He landed in Normandy four days after D-Day and moved across Europe with the cutting edge of the U.S. Army, although often travelling alone and unarmed (with consequences mentioned earlier). He was awarded two medals along the way but never talked about them.

Here’s a link to a 1979 commentary Rooney did on D-Day. It takes a minute to load and there’s a short intro (sometimes with an ad, sometimes without), but it’s worth the wait..

Rooney was one of the first Americans to enter liberated Paris. One of the first across the Rhine. And one of the first into the concentration camps of Thekla and Buchenwald.

It was that last terrible experience that convinced Rooney “just wars” do exist.

You know, I was just looking online for a particular quote from Rooney I couldn’t remember and up came page after page of obituary pieces that all said basically: “Seeing those sights made him reconsider his pacifism in favour of a ‘just war.’”

Which may be true (especially since I just noted the same thing earlier), but most of the people saying that were extrapolating to make Rooney the flag bearer in a general defence and apologia for war. Rooney wouldn’t have agreed with that. In fact, he would have blown a gasket.

Here’s Rooney again, back in that 2009 video essay:

“Of all the things that men do — historically mostly men — fighting a war to kill other men is the most uncivilized.

“Wars have been fought through time and we may think we’re more civilized now than people were 100 or 500 years ago but there’s no sign that fighting wars is a thing of the past. There’s always one going on somewhere.

“Eight of my classmates — friends really — in school and college were killed in World War II. I’ve had 60 years of life that those eight friends never had. We call this a civilization?

“More than 5,200 American men and women — kids really — have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. It may be a small number in two small wars but if you’re one of those killed or even a father or mother of one, there’s nothing small about it.”

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In 1995 Andy Rooney published a memoir called My War and it has been rightly described (in my opinion) as one of the best and most honestly eloquent war memoirs ever written.

I’m going to give Andy Rooney the last word now with an excerpt from My War.

It’s about the Falaise Gap, something more Canadians should know about since the Canadian 1st Army was a pivotal participant.

The battle of the Falaise Gap (or Falaise Pocket) was fought for almost two weeks in mid-August 1944 as advancing American, British, Polish and Canadian forces tried to cut off the escape route of German Army Group B from Normandy.

For days the Germans had kept the Allied armies from linking up and blocking their escape.

This is where Andy Rooney comes in. Be warned: Rooney is a very good writer so the story he tells hits you in the gut. But he was there and he is telling you what he saw in the (perhaps) vain hope, I think, that you and I and others don’t have to repeat this kind of history:

“…The history books say we allowed 50,000 Germans to escape at Falaise but no historian who saw the killing I saw that day would repeat the phrase I’ve seen in print: “We let the Germans escape.” It was the worst slaughter of the war, a massacre vastly more deadly for the German soldiers than D-Day was for ours.

The German soldiers in horse-drawn wagons, trucks, command cars, and a few tanks moved along the road in a straight line like clay ducks on a track in a carnival tent. As the slaughter started, big white flags started flying over their vehicles. Under ordinary circumstances the Germans would have been taken prisoner, but white flags on vehicles meant nothing at the 600 yards between them and the US troops up on the lip of the saucer. The white flags only seemed to make them better targets.

Horse-drawn artillery compounded the awfulness of the day. It is easier to get used to dead men than dead or wounded and dying horses. At one point a line of hundreds of horses was strafed by P-47s and they bolted, ran, bucked. Most of them were still hitched to wagons or field-artillery pieces. The live ones, still trapped in the harnesses, dragged the dead ones and dragged their wagons and guns and dragged dead and wounded German soldiers. Some soldiers who had not been hit were crushed or trapped by the actions of the crazed horses. There cannot have been many gorier days in history.

At one point as many as a dozen horses had bolted and ended up tangled together bleeding and dying in the Dire River, their blood coloring the water red. The wounded horses were unable to get themselves up the steep bank, and many were drowning in their traces. One US Infantryman, a humanitarian I’d guess you’d say, stood on the bank of the river shooting the wounded horses…”

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And more than 18,000 Canadian soldiers were killed or wounded in the battle to close the Falaise Gap.

Remember all of  this.

And tell your kids to put aside their Call of Duty video games for at least one day on Nov. 11.

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2 comments

  1. Mario Silvestre says:

    I’m speechless.

  2. Peter Shone says:

    An extremely intuitive article for this Remberance Day, 2011 and an eulogy for Andy Rooney which he would have cherished. Good on you!!

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