I lay with my head on the great collie’s curved, sleeping body, and she didn’t mind at all. Her name was Duchess; she belonged to our neighbors, the Bauer family, and I loved throwing my schoolboy arms about her, petting her, or lying as I was that day right next to her on the floor.
The grownups were all watching television. A man was picking up little balls with numbers stuck inside them, breaking them open, and reading their numbers aloud. It was a boring show, and I might have forgotten about it completely if I hadn’t sensed a complete mood swing in the room when the man read Bubby’s birth date on national TV. No one said a word. I looked up. Ray Bauer, Bubby’s father, was shaking his head. Bubby, I learned, was going to war.
That was in early December, 1969—a few days away from my birthday. There was a war going on somewhere on the other side of the world. In fact, Sister Mary Hope had mentioned it to us. That was where Bubby was going. I also learned (by eavesdropping) that two of the teachers at my school—men—did not have to go to war like Bubby did. I had mixed feelings about this, because I partly wished that they would go and come back to tell us about their adventures.
The only real connection I had with war was my dead uncle’s photograph hanging in the pink hallway of my grandmother’s house. He smiled, and said he “really wasn’t far away.” He had died in a really big war while fighting the Japanese on an island somewhere. But neither my mother (his sister) nor the rest of her family ever said much about it.
We received a small check from the veterans office monthly, and I knew that had something to do with war too. My father had been in a little war before marrying my mother; that was in Korea. Once a year a little flag appeared mysteriously beside his low, slanted gravestone, stuck into the ground on the side opposite the red votive candle.
In my little boy’s world I thought wars were inevitable, natural occurrences in the course of human activity. I didn’t know we also had the power to prevent or stop them. Then came junior high, and I began hearing more and more about that faraway war that had been sucking some of our neighbors away (though Bubby, I found out, had ended up in Germany instead). Our president, Richard Nixon, was going to end the war for us. He was bringing all the guys home. But those people over there in Vietnam were not so lucky. We were killing them.
I wrote a little editorial, typed it up neatly so that my handwriting wouldn’t give my age away, and mailed it off to the Pittsburgh Press. I wrote that I didn’t think it was good for us, the Russians, and the Chinese to be involved in that war. We were causing more death and destruction than those poor people would have brought on themselves without anyone’s help. The Press printed it. I was thirteen years old.
Outside of history classes, my friends and I in high school didn’t speak much of war. There was no History Channel at the time. A few wartime classics, such as Bridge on the River Kwai or Stalag 17 surfaced in TV programming occasionally. But mostly war was not on our radar. It was nothing remarkable to know someone currently serving in the military, and war veterans (especially from Vietnam) seemed to have descended into a class of untouchables. My only real interest in war came by way of literature. Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, as well as Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings trilogy stirred me deeply: one for the force of love surfacing among chaotic destruction, and the other for the enticing, ageless contest between good and evil. I also came upon All Quiet on the Western Front and, somewhat later, William Wharton’s Birdy. I cared very little for war stories eulogizing tactical moves, victories, or conquests. The stories that held my attention were the ones that revealed the indomitable human spirit. After all, wars are not much different in their objectives and means. In the end, they appear to result from the greed and selfish concerns of a very few in power. But the stories of selfless heroism, of individuals overcoming insurmountable odds just to survive these artificially-induced catastrophes—these kept me up at night. I learned of the bone-chilling struggles of entire cities during World War II: Leningrad, Warsaw, Nanking, Stalingrad, London. Likewise, I boggled a the courage of masses of soldiers embarking on two of the most dangerous and unpredictable offensives in history: Normandy and Iwo Jima.
In 1986 I traveled extensively in Eastern Europe: the Soviet Union, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary. In Russia I slept in a quiet room overlooking a small medieval Orthodox church, which I noted shining in moonlight through my lace-curtained window. In Poland I looked up friends of friends of friends, who sheltered me and showed me sights in town and country. In Prague I drank the best beer I had ever tasted, a pilsner tapped straight from its aged oak barrel. I had been coaxed to the bar (rather easily) by an acquaintance from Yugoslavia I had met at the train station. The two of us, along with a Spanish girl, had found an inexpensive room for three in the Old Town. “Mark,” said Nebojsa, “in Prague you must drink lots of beer.”
Neb and I kept up a correspondence for a few years after my trip. My wife and I even saw him during our honeymoon, which we had elected to spend in beautiful, autumnal Yugoslavia. We traveled in a wide circle from Zagreb down to the coastal cities of Split and Dubrovnik, then back towards Zagreb by way of Bosnia. It was in Sarajevo, Bosnia’s capital city, that we met up with Nebojsa. In the fall of 1987 we found Sarajevo old, polluted, multi-ethnic, and completely fascinating. Our hotel room (for $25/night) was a suite as large as the main floor of my parents’ house, with a grand marble bathroom, balconies overlooking the main street, and honey-colored art deco furniture. In the lobby we had a breakfast of poached eggs in elegant silver holders and Turkish coffee, surrounded by tall windows shrouded by dark red velvet drapes.
Neb would not hear of us staying another night in this hotel, much to our chagrin. We must come directly to his parents’ apartment, where his mother had already determined sleeping arrangements to accommodate us for as long as we might stay. For the next couple of days, then, Neb led us through the crooked streets of Sarajevo’s Old Town, with its bazaars, cafés, and minarets. We drove up to the mountains, passing the ski jumps of the 1984 Olympics; we met an old beekeeper and a group of Serbian men distilling slivovica, a fiery plum brandy, by the side of the road. One evening we went out to a bar with Neb and his friends. Seated around the table with us were Croatian Catholic, Serbian Orthodox, and Bosnian Muslim natives—virtually indistinguishable as ethnic types. “You see,” Neb explained to me, “we are all different, but we get along.”
Years later, as is now evident, that would not be the case. A few months after the Yugoslavian war broke out I received a phone call—out of the blue—from Neb. He was safely in Toronto with his wife and baby girl. He spoke of his harrowing work as courier for the United Nations, during which he drove for miles around the city, as bullets either flew past or made holes in his car. One had made a hole in his father, who was, thank God, recovering. And what of his friends? Most of them had found ways to leave. The city had suffered an intellectual brain drain. And who, I asked, was responsible for this war? The older generation, he said, had implanted these crazy nationalistic ideas in the heads of the young. It had been going on like this for hundreds of years, just as I’d recently read in Rebecca West’s memoir of her travels in Yugoslavia, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.
I invited Neb and his family to Pittsburgh for Christmas, where my wife and I celebrated every year with our families. I drove alone to Toronto to fetch them, and Neb and I sat talking in his twenty-first floor temporary apartment overlooking the city—provided gratis by the Canadian government. From the window I could see Lake Ontario curve all the way down to Hamilton, where mills let out a thin smoke on an otherwise clear day.
We spoke of the war. I had little to say, baffled as I was over the whole thing, and sensitive to the fact that Neb was a Serbian: the international scapegoats of this conflict. He said that the atrocities we’d heard about were being committed by all three sides—Croatians, Serbians, and Bosnians—but that we were only hearing about what the Serbs were doing. “You have to understand,” he said, “that the Croatians have always had Western Europe, the Catholics and the pope behind them. The Muslims had the Ottomans, but the Serbs—who do we have? The Russians, but they are far away and not interested in us any more. The Muslims were once Serbs who turned away from their religion rather than suffer under the Turks. So they were rewarded with social status by their conquerors for being traitors. The rest of the Serbs, those who didn’t surrender themselves, have never forgotten this. But they have remained mostly poor and stupid…”I listened intently, my head aching. It was hard to sift through media propaganda on any issue, but I felt that I was at last getting a grip on the complexities of this war through this intimate contact of mine who had actually been living it. Neb’s wife, Dajana, an attractive Croatian woman, offered me Turkish coffee before we bundled up their baby girl and headed for Pittsburgh, where we stayed with my wife’s Croatian-American family. There, during the annual big Christmas party, my wife’s grandmother (who could still speak some Croatian) looked deeply into Dajana’s eyes as she recounted their story. She squeezed Dajana’s hand and lapsed into English: “I’m so sorry, honey.” Dajana smiled back across the language barrier.