My Dad took my Grandpa to see Saving Private Ryan when it first came out in the theater. Then they bought Band of Brothers and watched it together. I remember listening to them talking about each of these afterward. “The scene, landing on the beaches in [Saving Private] Ryan, it’s what it really sounds like,” said my Grandpa. Dad agreed, “Yeah, the bullets, the whizzing, it was very real sounding.” Similarly, Band of Brothers received praises for its understanding of the camaraderie between fellow soldiers from both of them.
Both my Dad and Grandpa served in the U.S. military; my father was stationed in the Philippines during the Vietnam War and my Grandpa was in the army in Europe during World War II. They both saw battle. They both experienced the camaraderie between soldiers. And they both seemed to want to see and experience these things again in movies and television series.
How odd, I thought, that they should want to relive these moments – moments that were no doubt terrifying, despite all their intense military training. But they aren’t the only ones. My friends and their family members who’ve been in the military during wartime also seem to want, even need, to re-experience war through entertainment.
In recent years, the field of games has produced a number of war games to add to the mix. Indeed, several of my younger veteran friends find these games just as compelling as some of the movies released to the masses. And so I pondered whether my own Dad and Grandpa might find in games that something that seems to draw them into the other forms of entertainment. I decided to interview them for this issue on war games.
I had never really talked with either of them extensively about their time in the service; neither one is much of a talker. My Dad actually continued this trend, only admitting that he did see battle and that he’ll never forget the sounds. My Grandpa, however, was feeling talkative.
John C. Peeler was a Sergeant in the 100th Infantry Division of the U.S. Army, deployed in the European Theater of World War II. The Century Division landed in Marseilles, France in October of 1944 and moved north, toward Alsace, for their part in the Ardennes Offensive. The 100th experienced “Success in Battle,” as was their motto, holding the strategic Saverne Pass against the 17th SS Panzer-Grenadiers, the “Götz von Berlichingen” Division, in mid-January, the height of winter. This is their very impressive record on paper.
But what made the most impression on me was my Grandpa’s description first-hand experiences. Sure, the historical notes of the heaviest snows in the 20th century in January 1945 are meaningful, but the description of the bitter cold brought it home. The reputation of the powerful German Panzers made a dent, but Granpda’s stories of the sound of the trees splintering above him from artillery blasts made it real. It was these tree splinters that caused many of the casualties to their division – people he knew, friends and comrades.
And it was these stories that really brought home to me that you can only get part of the story from a history book. But more than that, I began to get an inkling of why vets may want to experience war again through entertainment. It’s a healing thing to experience terrifying, difficult events again in a controlled environment. It’s a way to reconnect with them, feel the emotion again, and then put them safely away again.
I recently experienced this desire to reconnect with and re-experience events. My Grandpa died two weeks ago, today. In those grasping days afterward, where one reaches into the treasure chest of memories, as if to make sure they’re all still there and weren’t lost along with your loved one, I remembered these conversations about WWII. In some bizarre leap brought on by sadness, I felt a desire to watch Saving Private Ryan, to watch Band of Brothers or to play Call of Duty.
It doesn’t seem to make much sense on the surface, but it was a need similar to my Grandpa’s to connect with memories of war. It was different for me in that it was a need to connect with my Grandpa. I have to wonder how many games, movies and TV series’ were created so that we could not only connect with memories of combat, but also for the civilians among the population to connect with loved ones lost in war or who told stories about war before passing.