War and Reconciliation

In a War, No Matter Who Wins, Everybody Loses

It was just 11:00 a.m. on May 10, 1944, when the air raid sounded. Following his classmates out of the building, twelve-year-old Augustin Stranz paused, spellbound, in the street  watched as a US B17 bomber sputtered and crashed into a wooded hillside near Burg Vöstenhof, in Lower Austria, before exploding into flames. After swerving to miss a farm house, 1st Lt. Stanley Dwyer had been unable to lift the plane high enough to reach the hilltop meadow where he might have landed. The plane had been under orders to bomb the airplane factory in nearby Wiener Neustadt.

Eight crew members parachuted out, of whom five survived and finished out the war in a POW camp. Dwyer and gunner John Boros were never found.

Now, over 60 years later, Dwyer’s younger brother Harold came back to the site with his daughter and son-in-law, where a special team of archeologists and US service personnel were returning for the second summer to make one last effort to locate the two lost service men, so that they might be formally laid to rest.

While here, they would meet Stranz, a retired tailor and amateur historian, and several other witnesses and victims of the bombing raids, and find a kind of closure, a kind of reconciliation, that had long eluded them.

What is possible after all this time?

“We hope to find some sort of remains, — there’s a spot right next to Mom and Dad in the graveyard at home,” said Kay Highes. “And there’s the memorial.”

The memorial is a slab of polished granite at the base of the site, with names and dates, laid last summer in a ceremony attended by the close family, honouring all five crew members who died, and half a dozen local residents of neighbouring Pottschach and surroundings.

Each of the local attendees at the ceremony had a personal connection to the occasion. Pieringer, like Stranz, had witnessed the crash, and was first at the site, finding two of the bodies of the parachutists, one of which had been separated from his head.

Others had lost family members in this or other bombing raids and felt drawn to the event. Even after six decades, the pull is very strong. For Harold Dwyer, it has been the chance to come to terms with a loss his parents had refused to discuss. “They would never talk about it,” he said recently. “I don’t know why.”

For Inge Dörr of Vöstenhof, it was a chance to try to deal with the still-aching loss of her little brother, killed at the age of 6 ½ in a similar bombing raid before her 9-year-old eyes a, heart-breaking, pointless loss that had led her mother to commit suicide.

Reconciliation has a long history. Part of the Jewish ritual of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, and a sacrament in the Roman Catholic Church, reconciliation has entered the language of everyday speech as psychology has helped us to better understand human motivation and emotional need. We have learned to identify concepts like Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome and Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s stages of grieving, now almost universally recognized as legitimate and necessary experiences in the recovery process.

In recent years, the concept of reconciliation has moved from its place in personal relationships, involving separated spouses, broken friendships, and damaged trust of all kinds, to enter the vocabulary of the relations between nations.

Perhaps it began with the Nürnberg Trials and others following World War II, when people began to realise that their importance went far beyond the idea of punishment, or even justice, but of getting the stories told, getting the history on the record. In the more recent examples, many have recognized the importance of forgiveness, of the other and of self – and that bitterness cripples the sufferer most.

Truth and Reconciliation Commissions have become a feature of international politics: Following the dictatorship of Pinochet in Chile, the end of Apartheid in South Africa and the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the success of these commissions helped convince the international community of their crucial role in allowing nations to survive and recover from a brutal past.

However, the healing of reconciliation has to take place in the end between individuals, and these society-wide efforts can only be an extension of what each of us must live through alone.

As Hannah Arendt explained:

“Amongst men, forgiveness can only mean to give up vengeance, to keep quiet and do as if nothing happened, which means, to walk away by principle, while vengeance will always remain with the other, and does not put an end to the relationship.

“Reconciliation, on the other hand, originates with an acceptance of what befalls us… who ever reconciles with the other, just accepts to carry on his shoulder the burden that, anyhow, weighs on the other. This means that it re-establishes equality. … That is why reconciliation i s the exact opposite of forgiveness, which establishes inequality.”

In a war, no matter who wins, everyone loses. In this B17 bomber crash in Vöstenhof, a minor foot note to World War II, a dozen people sought out another chance for reconciliation, for relief from unresolved pain and loss still lingering after 60 years.

How long, we can’t help asking, will it take in Iraq?

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