have courage. take heart. bear witness.
The world is ever dangerous, and a man must be armed and vigilant if he is to prevail over his enemies.
Ed Wood learned this lesson as he grew up in the deep South, steeped in tales told and retold of generations of his ancestors who wielded rifles as citizen-soldiers— from King Philip's War (1675-1678, between English colonists and Indian inhabitants of present day New England), through the French and Indian War of 1755-1763, the American Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and World War I— accumulating, as Ed puts it, an "inheritance of weapons, wars and wounding."
So in 1943, as a growing number of US troops joined Allied forces in World War II, it was Ed's turn to join his family's long line of soldiers. He quit college and volunteered for the Army, which placed him with about 150,000 others in the Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP)—comprising intensified courses in engineering, science, foreign languages, and medicine—conducted in colleges and universities throughout the country.
But during the Allied invasion of Sicily, in July of that year, ground troops were lost at a far faster rate than the Army could replace them, prompting the War Department to end ASTP and send the trainees into combat.
Ed then qualified for an Army pre-med program at UCLA, where he might have lasted out the war. Instead, he volunteered for line duty. Three months after D-Day (the Allied forces' June 6, 1944, invasion of France), he and about thirty others were sent from a troop replacement depot to join their respective units in the 7th Armored Division of the XX Corps (part of the Third Army), which had rapidly driven German troops to retreat east, across the French countryside.
En route, Ed and his cohort passed through towns that the Corps had liberated only three days earlier. "Each village we entered started another party for us, as we shared bottles of wine hoarded since 1940 and kisses from wet-mustached men and smooth-cheeked women while we hurled cigarettes and chocolate from our armored half-track and got drunk together and laughed and cried and screamed, for we had freed them from evil. For that glorious moment, the dream of freedom lived and we were ten feet tall."
Ed didn't realize he was about to come up against an enemy that was hard to recognize and, so, all the more deadly—the troop replacement system itself.
It was designed to maintain divisions in near continuous combat, even as casualties far exceeded War Department estimates. When a soldier was killed, injured, or taken seriously ill, another was sent to take his place. The replacement might be a veteran from another division or a new recruit like Ed. In either case, he was the X factor—unknown to the tightly bonded unit he was joining. How would he react in the chaos of battle? Could he be counted on? Or would he fumble and put everyone's safety at risk? Squad members felt they could not take a chance; they kept their distance until the new guy had proven his worth.
So it happened that the esprit of XX Corps did not extend to Pvt Edward W Wood, Jr, and his exhilaration from days before was ambushed by deep alienation and fear. His "band of brothers" often ignored him or treated him with impatience and downright contempt. Virtually on his own in strange and dangerous territory, Ed was terrified—as well he should have been. More than seventy percent of US Army casualties occurred among infantrymen. Replacement soldiers, often floundering in their new assignments, were especially at risk.
Ed found himself in combat the day after he reached his division, and before that day ended, he was hit by an exploding shell that tore open his lower back and buttock and buried shrapnel in his pelvis and his skull.
Though his physical wounds eventually healed, the damage to his psyche lasted decades. Here, Ed talks about the profound impact that relatively brief event had on the rest of his life and how, at the age of fifty-four, after years of silence about his combat experience, he turned to writing as a way to come to terms with the trauma. Along the way, he broke ranks with his military heritage and, instead, came to align himself more closely with the parallel yet lesser-known American tradition of nonviolence, personified in Ed's family by a 19th-century relative, Levy Tiffany, whose opposition to the Mexican-American War (1846) was expressed in his journal entry: "Perhaps some would endeavor to apologize for war in certain circumstances, but I think it would be very difficult to justify the practice in any circumstances, and most of all at the present time in the United States."
Ed is one of five veterans profiled in the award–winning documentary film "The Good Soldier," which notes what he did not mention in his interview for Soldiers & Civilians: in recognition of his service in World War II, Ed was awarded a Bronze Star, a Purple Heart, and a Combat Infantryman Badge.
Among books written by Edward W Wood, Jr, are: On Being Wounded (from which excerpts are quoted in this introduction), Worshipping the Myths of World War II: Reflections on America's Dedication to War, and Beyond the Weapons of Our Fathers.
Recorded in Denver, Colorado, July 2009. The excerpt "Wounded" is read by actor Anthony Newfield.Photo of Edward W Wood, Jr, by photographer Nathan Fitch.
"I don't applaud war, and I think it's an obscenity. But I had to do it. And I'm not a total pacifist out of that experience. I really think that once in a while, you might have to fight. But I also think it's obscene at the same time. It's a paradox."
This excerpt from the book On Being Wounded, by Edward W Wood, Jr, is read by actor Anthony Newfield.
"We started to dig foxholes under the trees. I hit a root almost immediately. I struck at it furiously, using the edge of my shovel as an ax. The blade was too dull; the root would not snap. At any moment I was sure another artillery shell would split the air above me, send hot shrapnel tearing into my flesh. I slammed at the pulpy mass. My breath was choked. Sweat poured from my face, though a cold September mist drifted through the grove of trees."
Caution: Please be aware that this reading includes a graphic description of combat injury.
"The real problem, of course, is that the larger society has absolutely no idea of what people do who go into harm's way. It doesn't understand that it's not glory, it's not adventurous—it's terror. It's sharp, animal terror that seizes you and defines you and you're never the same again. You can't be. And until we admit that, we're not going to get anywhere, I don't think."
"One of the problems I've had because of the wound, is that you often keep a long distance from yourself. I repressed, for twenty years, that I had been in the war. I mean, I just shut it off. I can't explain it, I don't understand it. I never thought about the war. But inside me, I believe now, was this constant distance from who I really was. I think it always was there and always made life difficult."