Willie Gillis, an ordinary guy, on The Satuday Evening Post.

Because I found these two articles so pertinent, and relevant, I would like to thank this cowboy, who is not posting since 2012, so I assume he might be somewhere else. If he is still alive, he can contact me, and ask me to delete his posts, or leave them, with his courtesy.

During the WWII years Norman Rockwell created a character named Willie
Gillis — an ordinary guy from a small town who joined the army.
Rockwell chronicled his experiences in the war in a series of Saturday Evening Post
covers.  After the war, he showed us Gillis returned to civilian
life — above you see him in college, on the G. I. Bill, having
survived and put on a little weight.

It’s a poignant image, for all it doesn’t say.  Gillis is
preparing himself for a “normal” life in post-war America, with his
pipe and his golf clubs — but the war souvenirs hanging over his head
suggest that he will always be haunted by memories out of place in a
“normal” world.

One of the virtues of Ken Burns’ newest documentary The War
is that it addresses the sort of post-traumatic stress disorder that
returning vets, and the whole civilized world on some level, suffered
in the wake of WWII.  For the vets it was peculiarly disorienting,
with feelings of triumph, guilt and shame all mixed up together.
It was not something that could be talked about in the world Willie Gillis was
trying to become a part of.

All of this I think reinforces my notion that it was in art, in film noir
particularly, that such disorientation could be engaged in a safe way,
a socially acceptable way.  You can read more thoughts on
the subject here.

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A Norman Rockwell for today

POST-TRAUMATIC STRESS DISORDER AND FILM NOIR

World War Two was a “good war”.  America and its allies pulled together
and destroyed the Axis powers.  On balance, and in retrospect, it
has to be considered one of the great achievements of
humane civilization.  But human beings don’t live on balance or in
retrospect, particularly where war is concerned.  They live inside
the horror of it and it takes a toll on individuals and on societies
which can never be fully measured.

The upbeat spirit of American propaganda during the war, and the
genuine satisfactions of victory, veiled the true experience of the war
for millions — not just for those who fought it on the battlefields of the
world, but for those at home who lived in terror that their loved ones at
the front might never return . . . and of course, most especially, for those at home whose loved ones didn’t return.  On a broader level, anyone who simply witnessed
the spectacle of total war on a global scale, from whatever distance, had
to have experienced a soul-shaking anxiety about the fragility of all
social structures and cultural norms.

After WWII, the whole planet experienced post-traumatic stress disorder
— localized in this case by the fact of the atomic bomb, which ended
the war but left the world with a paradox that wouldn’t go away.
It took an act of colossal horror to finally “win” this good
war.  And the prospect of this horror being again visited on the
world was far from unimaginable.

We now know a lot more than we used to about post-traumatic stress
disorder and the ways it can be treated.  In the immediate post-war era, the
phenomenon was more elusive, and often unrecognized.  We made
meaningful social restitution to the veterans of the war, with measures like
the G. I. Bill — we reconstructed the devastated nations we
conquered.  But that just scratched the surface.

It was in art that the true psychic cost of the war was exposed and explored — nowhere more pointedly than in film noir.  The sort of trauma that engenders PTSD is identifiable by several characteristics — a sense of being out of control and confused, a sense of terror, a sense of being outside the normal realm of human
experience.  Is there a better description of the usual
predicament of the protagonist in a classic film noir?

PTSD on a broad cultural and societal level is what best explains the phenomenon of film noir, which on its surface is so mysterious.  Why should a triumphant
nation, after a great collective victory in a good war, have been
gripped by that mood of existential dread which informs so many Hollywood films of the post-war era?  Why should the most spectacular achievement of American arms have led to a crisis of manhood, a sense of impotence, a fear of powerful women
incarnated in the morbid fantasy of the femme fatale?

femme_fatale_by_kaceym

Film noir was a dream landscape where the buried costs of WWII could be recognized, reckoned and mourned, as a prelude to psychic recovery, or at least psychic survival.
Veterans of combat often report the difficulty of dealing with people
who have not shared their experience of it — people who can never
really know what it’s like.  Film noir, far more than the WWII combat film, was one of the few arenas of American life where the true legacies of war, its lingering moral and
psychological dislocations, could be engaged without apology or shame.

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Silver Star winner poses for Norman Rockwell.

rockwell_ontimeOh well, I like the art of Norman Rockwell since my twenties.  As an artist, and painter, he moves me to tears. Here is a nice story of a vet’s daughter that I copy from Tracking the 101st Cavalry, with courtesy of. Before I leave you with this, I’d like to add my small personal experience about WWII. Of course, I am too young for having memories from the war times. But my hometown was on the yellow line, in Italy, and my mother lost his brother at 16 because of a bomb left unexplosed. Actually, she came after his death, in 1946, and she was given his brother’s name, Tonino, on the female, Tonina.
They say that your name carries a karma, so I wonder which karma my mum carries from her brother. It’s heavy for a baby to get this debt. Anyway, she comes from a family of 7, and this costume to have at least 4, 5 children was very common in the 40s. Another brother of her, Armando, left during 2 years. This story was never told. He was supposed to be in a concentration camp, maybe in Germany, but I am not sure. Nobody ever talked about his time in the camp. He came back home, once the war was finished, walking along the Adriatic Coast, near Rimini, on his own feet.
But I can’t say more, by now. Tabou. All families got their secrets, right? 
Until 90s, in Italy, Military Service was obligatory, so, my granddad choosed Navy, in 30s, he was on the beautifulAmerigo Vespucci training ship, as seal led, and my father, in 60s, in genius bridge builder. My brother was the one who didn’t give a damn of it, and he was invalided from army. First, because of his flat feet, and second, they didn’t accept shortsighted.
Me, as a child, in 80s, I was serving as a proud boy scout, on the Romagna hills (Sant’Agata Feltria, in a windy night a tent fell down, at 3pm, and I admit, that was my biggest adventure as Ladybug that I recall except hiding in the woods in the dark, and get lost, of course, or dish washing in the river), but still too shy to become a team leader. Such a shame.
My youth education was based on war stories books. Not only at school, but also, at home. Granddad, il nonno Ristin, liked strategy and big leaders biographies (Stalin, Lenin); we had this massive cultural propaganda against Communism, despite my family came from farmers and workers. At Christmas time, I remember dad, uncle and granddad having huge controversial conversations on politics, as well as football topics.
Tourism boom was the service industry which made people rich and individualist.
Personally, I have been captured by Primo Levi biography and books (If this is a man – Survival in Auschwitz), so when I saw Schindler’s List, I finally put images on what I read. And this shocked me (the scene where they run, naked, in circle and the physicians visit them or the achitect lady who was shot building the hut because she warned the Officer that the hut was going to fall down and more). Levi, I felt much empathy for him, especially, after his suicide in Turin. He fell from third apart’s floor, but someone says it was accidental. What I couldn’t understand as child was how could he can commit suicide, in 1987, after 40 years back home.
Sorry, I guess, I’ll stop here.
****

Vincent Kelly, Company F, 116th Squadron, 101st Cavalry, posed for this Normal Rockwell illustration. It is used courtesy of the Army Art Collection, US Army Center of Military History.

I interviewed a few veterans who told me that “some guy in the unit” posed for Normal Rockwell. No one knew his name, no one could provide any details, and no one confessed to being that mystery soldier. It was a real dead end, so I didn’t include anything about it in Tracking the 101st Cavalry.

I had, in fact, almost forgotten about it, when I heard from the daughter of Staff Sgt. Vincent A. Kelly, Company F, 116th Squadron. She (regrettably, she didn’t sign the email, so I don’t have her name and recent emails have been returned) wrote that her father, who was originally from Brooklyn, was asked to pose for Rockwell while the troops were still in the U.S. Kelly was seated behind a machine gun for the painting, which was called “Give ‘um Enough and On Time.”

“Norman Rockwell walked over to him and tore his shirt,” she wrote. “He paid him $5.00 in a check that he wished he had never cashed. He was also given some sketches from Norman Rockwell.”

Her father didn’t talk much about the war, she wrote, just a few random comments like many of the men. “He did say that while they were waiting to land in France, he almost passed out from the fumes building up in the tank. He said another time that he was taking a picture of something, and a sniper shot at him. At first, he thought he had been shot in the face, as the bullet tore through the bellows of the camera, and he fell back into the tank yelling, ‘I’ve been hit! I’ve been hit!’ Then he realized that he had goop from the camera on his face instead of blood. He laughed about that.”

On April 1, 1945, Sgt. Kelly was under heavy enemy sniper fire in the vicinity of Distelhausen. Although he was wounded and facing continuous sniper fire, Kelly rushed into danger to give first aid to seriously wounded personnel and help evacuate them. For that bravery, he earned the Silver Star.

“He didn’t talk about winning the Silver Star very much,” his daughter wrote. “He did tell me that he felt bad because one of the men he was trying to rescue was shot in the head as my Dad picked him up. The bullet went through Dad’s leg as well. Dad wondered if maybe he had left the man on the ground, maybe he would have been saved. I know my Dad was a hero, and our entire family is proud of him. He passed away in 1998, at the age of 85.”