What is It Good For? (Absolutely Nothing)

War through the lens of seniors who’ve lived through previous conflicts.  

Since the president of Russia launch an unprovoked attack on Ukraine, world leaders and citizens around the world have wondered and worried that this is the prelude to a third world war. How do individuals cope with the tension and terror of this possibility? How has anyone survived previous conflicts that inflamed the world?

SOWN serves older women who have lived through a number of world events, including a world war and conflicts that were never officially identified as war. Present-day events in Ukraine have triggered memories in elders who endured other cataclysmic conflicts. Based on the age range of SOWN clients, their range of experiences include WWII, the Korean Conflict, Vietnam, and Desert Storm. WWII and Vietnam evoked the most memories.

In light of the contemporary war on Ukraine, we asked current SOWN clients about the immediate impact of previous wars and the long-term consequences they felt individually and collectively. What’s the earliest conflict they were aware of? Did it affect them directly through a family member or friend? Did it mean rationing or higher gas prices?

For the telephone support group at an independent senior apartment building in Germantown, the earliest conflict they remember is WWII. The United States was forced into the war when Japanese pilots bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1942. U.S. troops fought in Europe and the South Pacific until the surrender of Japan on September 2, 1945.

The father and an uncle of one woman and 4 uncles of another served in WWII. None of the women had a “Rosie the Riveter” in her family but one aunt epitomized the economic effect the war had on civilian women. This member’s aunt was a “college professor but left teaching because she could make more money sewing uniforms for the troops.”

For another group, it was “a tough topic” with their memories centered on Vietnam. The war between Communist North Vietnam and South Vietnam was a war of proxies. China backed the north; the south was backed by France and, eventually, the United States, but none of the countries wanted to risk direct confrontations that could include nuclear weapons. The rationale for sending U.S. troops was to circumvent the “domino effect” of one country, i.e., North Vietnam, falling to communist control. Once the first domino was down, the chain reaction was feared to be unstoppable. The United States deployed troops to serve in 1965. The final US troops pulled out of South Vietnam in 1973.

Women in the group spoke for a generation that was marked by events and impressions that emerged from that era. The draft took young men after high school graduation. Brothers and uncles who served in Vietnam “never returned to normal.” They attended funerals of young men and their distraught families. One woman talked about an uncle who had been “exposed to Agent Orange [and] who suffered throughout his life with mental health problems.”

In another group, two women among those who meet regularly by phone offered more details through a Q&A format. Both women asked to be identified by the initial of their first names. The facilitator asked:

“What’s the earliest conflict you were aware of?”

For A it was Vietnam; for M, WWII. A’s father made a deep impression on her when he said, “I’d rather see my children dead than living through a war.” M offered a succinct analysis: “It’s all about greed and power. That is why there are wars [and] conflict.”

As children, both women were affected by the fear their parents experienced rather than from a direct awareness of the wars. And both said that their parents “protected them from the news during those wars to the extent they could.” That was difficult because the Vietnam War was the “living room war” – for the first time, war was brought directly into American living rooms via television.

A’s mother was very worried about her sons, A’s brothers, and so grateful for letters they sent home. Much later, A found out her brothers hadn’t said very much in their letters. They were wounded and given medals for their bravery, but never told their family the details because they didn’t want them to worry. A’s dad saw the medals on their uniforms and “put it together later.” He, too, told his sons not to tell their mom because he agreed it would cause unnecessary worry.

“Did anyone have a Victory Garden?”

During WWs I and II, the government rationed sugar, butter, milk, cheese, eggs, coffee, meat and canned goods. Additionally, labor and transportation shortages made it hard to harvest and move fruits and vegetables to market. The government encouraged citizens to plant “Victory Gardens” to provide their own fruits and vegetables. Nearly 20 million Americans planted gardens in backyards, empty lots and even on city rooftops. [Victory Gardens during World War II (livinghistoryfarm.org)] This included M’s family. She grew up with a victory garden that her parents shaped in a “V.”

The final group to answer these questions represented experiences from WWII to Vietnam to protests against Vietnam. Participants also agreed to use their names.

The Vietnam War was the earliest conflict Lynn was aware of. Her father participated in WW II, but he never spoke of it.

For Ethy, an immediate impact of Vietnam was moving her marriage to an earlier date so her husband would not be drafted. (President Lyndon B. Johnson had signed an executive order changing the military conscription rules for the expanding war in Vietnam. One second after midnight on August 26, 1965, married men would no longer be exempt from the draft. Those married before midnight would be.) She remembers a classmate who died in the Vietnam war and still feels sad about that.

Ethy didn’t participate in anti-war protests, but attended women’s rights meetings of the newly-formed National Organization for Women. (The birth of the women’s movement was a direct response to the treatment white women received as members of the anti-war movement, that is, a pervasive disregard for their contributions to and participation in all aspects of the movement. Women of color were rarely included in the beginning stages of organized feminist protests and writings.)

Flo remembers WW II when, as a 6-year-old, her family moved to her grandfather’s farm to help with the farming. She remembers her mother repeatedly saying, “Eat your vegetables, children are starving in Europe.” She remembers food stamps for staples, hiding under her desk in school, listening to the radio with her family each night to get news of the war, and their dinner time conversations. All of Flo’s family were conscientious objectors and she, too, became a pacifist who marched on Washington and participated in campus protests during the Vietnam war. She describes herself as a “pacifist with a fighting attitude.”

Linda said she did not feel a direct impact from wars, but her brother was a marine who went to Vietnam. He never talked about it upon his return, but Linda feels his drinking problem was related to his time in the service. In contrast, her reality at that time was about herself. Even though her brother was in Vietnam, she felt “fairly oblivious about the war and protests.”

Lynn felt no direct consequences of the war in Vietnam. She had gotten married and had her first child during that era. Her husband was in the Air Force but did not go overseas.

Today, Lynn and others feel “horrible” about the war in Ukraine. Seeing everything now on the news; people behaving like savages; feeling helpless and wondering why nothing can be done to save lives. Flo, the pacifist with a fighting attitude, is “surprised and shocked” this [war in Ukraine] could happen again. her heart is “torn out” for the people in Ukraine and the innocent people in Russia. The situation simply “blows her mind.”

Ethy felt dazed by what she saw of Vietnam on television, but not the same as today’s coverage of Ukraine, which is much worse for her. The war in Ukraine feels “real.” She is reminded of the Holocaust when she sees the carnage in Ukraine. She feels there’s nothing we can do and she doesn’t see our government doing enough. She’s impressed with the bravery of the Ukraine leadership. And Linda, who was oblivious to the war in Vietnam, had seen TV coverage of Vietnamese killed. But that war didn’t affect her like the war in Ukraine

Many of the participants’ answers begged to be explored further, but time didn’t allow. Sadly, many of us have missed the opportunity to ask a relative about her/his experience in the military. If you want to ask someone whom you know to have been in an armed conflict, use the questions below as a starting point.

SOWN respondents saw that men, primarily, have not talked or written about their experiences. There’s a reason an individual chooses not to talk or reminisce about being in battle or behind a desk. Before you approach the person, be clear about why it’s important to you. If you still wish to know more, ask permission to open the discussion. Respect the answer given. If you get the go-ahead, tread lightly when asking questions. Do your best to simply listen.

  • What’s the earliest conflict they were aware of?
  • What was the impact of war and the consequences of wars upon them individually and collectively.
  • Did it affect them directly through a family member or friend?
  • Do they have a photo of her/himself in uniform?
  • Did anyone have a Victory Garden?
  • Did they participate in protests?
  • Did anyone have a relative who was a Rosie the Riveter?
  • How important is the war in Ukraine?

ABOUT SOWN The Supportive Older Womens Network serves grandparent-headed families, caregivers for loved ones, and vulnerable older adults in the Greater Philadelphia region. A grassroots news partner with WHYY/N.I.C.E.
4100 Main St. Suite 403, Philadelphia (MAP LINK)
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This column was written by Jill Gates Smith, Outreach/Administrative Coordinator for SOWN. Read last month’s column here

About SOWN 17 Articles
SOWN strengthens community support networks, reduces social isolation, and improves the well-being of older adults, especially women and their families. It offers a number of resources, including peer counseling groups by phone and in person, individual counseling, educational workshops, and resource referrals.

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