The survivors find peace after war
By JACK REED
© St. Petersburg Times, published October 8, 2000
As a new century approaches, writers and movie directors have tried to sum up the current century's greatest event, World War II, and the generation of Americans that fought it. Stepping onto this saturated field in June was Bob Greene with Duty: A Father, His Son, and the Man Who Won the War.
A columnist for the Chicago Tribune, Greene has written books on subjects from the mundane (a diary of his high school years) to the glamorous (hanging with Michael Jordan). His World War II book is something in between, both a belated father/son reunion and hanging with a celebrity, of sorts -- the man who piloted the plane that dropped the first atomic bomb. Slow-paced and understated, peopled by characters who stepped into larger-than-life roles but who are incapable of stepping outside of themselves, the book adds to our understanding of World War II and its impact on society.
Duty builds -- meanders, really -- toward what should have been one of the most bizarre conversations in modern America: Paul Tibbets, the now half-deaf, 85-year-old pilot of the Enola Gay, the airplane that made history over Hiroshima, chats with Shoji Tabuchi, the violin-playing superstar of Branson, Mo., who as a little boy growing up outside Hiroshima fled the devastation. As it turned out, they, like most of the people in Duty, are remarkably unquestioning of the moral justification for the bomb.
That is one of the book's points. The World War II generation followed orders, insulated wartime horrors from their everyday lives and as a result walled off their emotions. The occasion of the book is the imminent death of Greene's father at age 83. Their last chance at some kind of emotional connection is only partly successful. At the same time, however, Greene gets a belated (by 20 years) acceptance of a requested interview with Tibbets, who lives in Greene's home town, Columbus, Ohio. The book moves between the father's recorded memories of the war (he was a soldier on the Italian front) and the son's ongoing conversations with Tibbets.
There is sadness in the fact that Greene is able to talk openly about personal aspects of the war with Tibbets but not his father. Yet when Tibbets spends time with his namesake grandson, also a pilot, Greene notices the same emotional barrier between the two. Is it the war experience, military discipline or social taboos of men?
The book ends with Greene joining Tibbets, his bombardier Tom Ferebee and navigator Dutch Van Kirk at a reunion in Branson, where the writer tries to pry into the psyche of each, seeking scars left by the violent act that connects them. Their answers are surprisingly similar and devoid of guilt. Tibbets: "That wasn't my business to be sorry. My business was to hit (the Japanese)." Ferebee: "I would hate to think about someone in my family being down there (in Hiroshima). But it's just a part of war. If you let yourselves think those kinds of thoughts, you might end up going nuts." Van Kirk (the most self-aware of the trio): "I don't (have doubts). I never have. It's never bothered me any. I really think it was a necessary act."
Sounds monstrous, taken out of context of the rest of the book. By the end of Duty, whether they agree or not, readers will at least understand how the three old men and all survivors of World War II came to be what they are. Greene has been accused of sentimentality toward Tibbets and his team, but Greene does raise the difficult issues. He just leaves them for readers to resolve.
- Jack Reed is an editorial writer for the St. Petersburg Times.
DUTY: A FATHER, HIS SON, AND THE MAN WHO WON THE WAR
By Bob Greene
William Morrow, $25.
Meet the author
At the Times Festival of Reading, a two-day festival which begins on Veteran's Day, Nov. 11, several authors will present books that focus on the World War II generation, including Bob Greene (Duty), Peter Maas (The Terrible Hours), and Evelyn M. Monahan & Rosemary Neidel-Greenlee (All This Hell).
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