Chapter One: Grief's Silence

“I have been one of the unanchored survivors, imprisoned in silence and obstructed grief” – Gail Hosking Gilberg

At the June, 2007 exhibition of The Moving Wall in Redlands, California, event organizer and former Army advisor Bill Harden spoke to a reporter about the emotional impact of this traveling half-size replica of the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial Wall. "I'm overwhelmed. The wall was here for the mothers, wives, pals and buddies of those names who are on it. It was a time to remember, a time to reflect, a time to heal" (qtd. in Vargo A1). Undoubtedly those mentioned did find some catharsis from viewing the names of the dead chiseled into the black wall. However, there is one group of individuals affected by the Vietnam War that Mr. Harden forgot to include in his comments: the children of those fallen soldiers. I do not believe Mr. Harden intentionally neglected those children when he spoke. Instead, I believe his forgetfulness stems from an ingrained cultural amnesia surrounding those most vulnerable survivors of war.

At a posthumous Congressional Medal of Honor ceremony in 1969, a year when nearly one thousand U.S. soldiers died in Vietnam, Richard Nixon handed the medal to MSgt. Hosking’s only surviving son, Wesley Hosking, age 8. Reporter Richard Reeves said, "What can we say to fathers who give their sons, or to sons who give their fathers?" (qtd. in Gilberg 135). Reeves' ambivalence toward the pain of the surviving children rendered him speechless. His reaction is not unusual. Many people say nothing to the bereaved for fear of saying the wrong thing. U.S. citizens know how to memorialize the dead but struggle to acknowledge the bereaved. Losing a parent to war is hard, but the silence that stems from awkward reactions toward death and from the avoidance of war's aftermath deepens and perpetuates the hurt. It is natural to assume that this silence surrounding the children of the fallen originates from a desire to shield the child from further pain and the reopening of wounds. But like a shield, which both protects the vulnerable and signifies oppression, silence both protects and subdues (Foucault Sexuality 101).

Harden’s and Reeves’ comments, although spoken decades apart, signify a conflicted social discourse about the often ignored victims of wars waged by the U.S. – the soldiers’ orphans left behind. Portrayals of the grieving war widow, the anguished soldier sobbing over his comrade’s body – these are familiar tropes in American literature and media. The widow stands at center stage; her children hang by her side, peripheral to our gaze. Their fates play out as subplots, symbols of the aftermath. Perhaps their voices have been silenced into oblivion. Indeed, who gives voice to the U.S. war orphans’ special grief?

Although thousands of sons and daughters lost their fathers in WWII and Vietnam, very few memoirs have been published, and these are not readily available in libraries or bookstores. Yet revelatory memoirs about traumatic lives and books on military history steadily top the bestseller list. Where are the narratives of the thousands of Americans who have lost their fathers to war? In this thesis I claim that the scarcity of texts and the missing literature represents a self-silencing; these individuals do not tell their stories because the stories cause discomfort and stigmatize the authors as disturbed. Using Foucault’s “ascending analysis of power,” I trace the underlying civilian, military, and familial power relations that cause this silence (Society 30). I claim that the three memoirs I discuss in this project represent an emergent twentieth century U.S. war orphan literature, as these writers bravely take the first steps into uncharted waters. They may have intended to write so that others might learn from their experiences, but I claim that the essential activity of writing is a healing act for these individuals and part of their expression of delayed grief.

Although no specific studies have been conducted on how U.S. military children react to the wartime deaths of their parents, recent research on childhood bereavement due to trauma and natural disasters suggests that children commonly react to traumatic death by feeling flat or numb emotions (NYU Child Study 7). Yet resilient children are able to optimistically “manage strong feelings and impulses” (NYU Child Study 30). When a grieving child is silent, is she numb or resilient? How can we find out unless she speaks, and how can she speak unless we ask?

Gail Hosking Gilberg, the daughter of Army MSgt. Hosking, was 17 when her father was killed in Vietnam in 1967. She writes in her memoir Snake’s Daughter: The Roads In and Out of War that she "learned early on about this disease of secrets" as she made the transition from military life to civilian life (45). The culturally-induced and self-internalized silence that she experienced after her father's death obstructed her grief and caused her to build "walls around [her] heart, (163): "My silence assured everyone I was just like them – that our lives had been the same. 'Remember those high school parties?' a friend asked. I wanted to tell her about the twelve schools I attended, the housing project where I lived once… [and] about the war. I wanted to describe life in the fortress, but I never knew where to begin. I became a social chameleon instead…How imprisoned within myself I often felt – desperate for words"(162). Her silence reassured the civilians that a military pariah was not in their midst and protected her from ostracism. As civilians, who among us today would openly acknowledge that we avoid those damaged by war and prefer for them to hide their trauma?

Our conflicted stance toward these children who have lost a parent to war is reflected by the fact that contemporary English speakers have no specific name for them. In current military parlance, soldiers with families are "sponsors," all dependents are "survivors," and the wife is the "widow." Gone from today's colloquial lexicon is the term historically used for children left fatherless due to war: "war orphan." Both Presidents Lincoln and Johnson referred to the nation’s war orphans in public speeches. The term is still used in federal and state law. Children of active duty U. S. soldiers killed in war have been provided education benefits through the federal War Orphans Education Act of 1954, a component of what is commonly known as the G. I. Bill. Several states currently have similar support programs; many still use the term "war orphan" in the law's title. For example, Virginia's program is titled "Virginia War Orphans Education Program." The term "war orphan" is based on a dictionary definition that defines an orphan as a child who has lost one or both parents. It seems a more specific moniker than “the children of the fallen” or “military dependents of soldiers who have paid the ultimate price,” or any of several other lengthy and vaguely descriptive idioms in current use (which avoid mention of the orphan, war and death itself). This conflicted categorizing and naming act reflects the greater public and cultural discomfort surrounding the recognition and identity of those American children who, because of war, are left scarred and deprived of one or both parents and of the family unit that had provided nurturing and protection.

The image of a war orphan brings to mind a starving child, abandoned, begging on the streets. This horrific reality is occurring in war-torn countries around the globe; an uncounted number of Iraqi children have lost entire families during the current war. Their suffering cannot be overstated. Their eyes have witnessed the atrocities of war firsthand. My intent in writing this project is not to ignore the immense trauma of those children, nor to conflate the level of their suffering with that of the children of U.S. soldiers. This project's focus is the specific experience of U.S. war orphans whose fathers died in two twentieth century wars fought in distant lands and the invisible home-front trauma that ensued. Although their suffering may be mild by comparison, it is still worth exploring, for the unexamined damage of war blinds us to the devastation we cause when we wage war without consequence.

In this thesis, I borrow Foucault’s theories on govermentality and biopower to explicate the underlying causes of the war orphans’ silent position. Civilian/military/familial relations are the specific power and control structures the children learn to negotiate while their soldier-parents are alive, and this negotiation continues after bereavement and into adulthood. The particular operating dynamics of these entities contribute to the orphans’ self-masking behavior by encouraging the orphans to hide their grief and their status. To understand fully the war orphan’s experience, I explore the child’s relationship to and position within the family structure, the military complex, and civilian life. A military dependent plays an integral role supporting the soldier and the military mission, yet like civilians, military dependents require protection. Soldiers are trained to believe they work and die for the benefit of their tender and innocent loved ones at home. The dependents of soldiers exist in the margins of these two cultural constructs; they are both civilian and military at the same time. One tragic twist of fate in battle, and the military family has just played a role in its own demise.

Once the sponsor is dead, the child, who had been a part of the military/war complex, automatically becomes a civilian. Hosking writes that when she had to leave the military life and become a civilian, she was "caught between two poles…two separate people who never met each other. I was divided from myself…much the same way my country was divided about the war itself"(162). The orphan is now expected to exhibit the benefits of protection and make a success of herself, first in school and later in life; she must prove that her father's sacrifice was worthwhile. Societal expectations of healing might not match the realities of grieving. The child learns to put on a mask of stoicism. This, in part, explains the dearth of published letters, memoirs or diaries of these individuals.

The lingering scars and suffering of the divisive Vietnam War and its cultural and emotional aftermath on surviving military children in the United States remain hidden, like a guilty secret. It would be easy to assume that the unpopularity of the Vietnam War and the contentious political and cultural climate surrounding it would be the clearest cause of the distressed silence and shame that these war orphans felt. To some, their fathers’ participation in the war seemed like a meaningless mistake. Many sons and daughters, including those whom I have met through SDIT, grew up rarely speaking of their loss and never knowing anyone else who had suffered a similar experience.

However, the relative popularity of WWII did not alleviate the suffering of those young survivors left behind. These orphans report strikingly similar experiences of silence and shame. Ann Mix, founder of American WWII Orphans Network, writes in Lost in Victory: Reflections of American War Orphans of World War II, "We were not cared for. We were not recognized. We were not even known. Our condition as “fatherless” was somehow to be magically fixed by a government check, a mother’s remarriage, or a stepparent’s adoption. What was our status? Who were we? We did not know. So, like society, we remained silent. We withdrew into our fears and fantasies, doing our best to ignore or accept our loss" (Lost in Victory xviii).
Although both wars were fought within different cultural contexts, the fact that orphans from both wars experienced a similar isolation and loss of identity clearly suggests that underlying systemic and pervasive cultural causes were in effect.

Conventional wisdom assumes that U.S. culture was very different during WWII and the Vietnam War. Each war defined a generation; one was a popular war that saved the world from Hitler, while the other was an unpopular war that fomented riots and domestic unrest. Yet, orphans from both of those wars express similar emotional struggles. Children withheld their grief in an attempt to shelter their families and friends from discomfort. The causes of this discomfort stemmed not only from a reluctance to be reminded of the suffering of war, but also from a societal discomfort with grief in general. As Dr. E. James Lieberman, the former chief of the Center for Child and Family Mental Health said, “We are a death-defying, death- denying culture” (“American Families” 717). The wish to avoid reminders of war casualties transcends political specifics and is systemic in public culture.By stigmatizing their grief, American society defines the image of the U. S. war orphans of WWII and the Vietnam War as unnamed and invisible damaged goods. This image forces these children to suppress their emotions and hide their status. Within the surviving family unit, the pain is often so great that the silence and shame is perpetuated and internalized. Thus, the child's overwhelming sadness is marginalized to the sidelines of the public’s perspective and hidden within the internal monologues of the child herself. In the process, the orphan learns to live inside a carefully crafted psychological construct of “silence and obstructed grief” (Gilberg 172). When the child’s grief is ignored and erased, the citizenry is absolved from facing and embracing war’s aftermath. Thus, the devastating emotional trauma of war is sanitized and glorified in the service of justifying the military mission and alleviating complicity.

Although the Department of Defense (DOD) has conducted some recent studies on military families, researchers have little information about how military children are affected by wartime casualties. The military, assuming that the civilian sector will provide support, has conducted no studies on how widows and orphans fare once their sponsor is dead. In addition, although the DOD has paid survivors’ benefits since the early 19th century (Alt 94), the department does not keep or will not provide social scientists with specific data regarding surviving dependents, citing the importance of family members' privacy. In 1969, Dr. E. James Lieberman attempted to acquire records from the Department of Defense through the Freedom of Information Act. Denying his request, the Assistant Secretary of Defense sent Dr. Lieberman this terse reply:"Our problem lies in requests for specific replies for which the inquirer has a need but for which the Department of Defense does not…we do not have funds or personnel to do research for which no requirement yet exists…this is not a case of information being withheld; we do not have the information asked for at all" Lieberman “Statement” 199). By protecting our identities, the military plays a role in keeping our trauma hidden.

Nor will the DOD publish the total numbers of surviving dependents. Although I myself am one of these individuals and a member of SDIT, the total number remains a secret. SDIT estimates that there are approximately 20,000 sons and daughters who lost fathers to Vietnam. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that around 183,000 dependent children received benefits as a result of their father's deaths in WWII (Lost in the Victory xix). As of 2005, an estimated 2,000 American sons and daughters have lost parents to the current Iraq War (TAPS). With numbers this high, the lack of information that might inform mental health professionals seems like a glaring omission of attention.

To discover how these children might be affected, I look at three published memoirs from adult children of fallen soldiers from WWII and the Vietnam War. Lost in Victory: Reflections of American War Orphans of World War II is a collection of 25 first-hand accounts from individuals who in many cases are speaking publicly about their fathers' deaths for the first time. Snake’s Daughter: The Roads In and Out of War is a memoir by the daughter of Army Master Sergeant Charles Hosking, a Medal of Honor recipient who was killed in action during the Vietnam War. Gail Hosking Gilberg recounts the shame she felt at her father’s service and sacrifice to his nation. Karen Spears Zacharias’ memoir Hero Mama: A Daughter Remembers the Father She Lost in Vietnam – and the Mother Who Held Her Family Together tells the story of how her mother, a young widow with a ninth grade education, raised three children and earned her nursing degree after her career Army husband died in Vietnam.

These three texts, all published within the past ten years, break through the barrier of encoded silence. These writers bravely express their delayed grief, no matter whom it pains. Resisting pressure to hide their trauma and engaging in the autobiographical act, these writers shape the chaos of sorrow into personal narrative and textual control. No longer withholding secrets, these memoirs are sites of revelation and self-healing. These writers revive their fathers from the ashen vaults of forgetfulness. By understanding their fathers’ deaths, they face their own lives. They defy the expectation that as survivors of patriotic fervor they will maintain the face of stoicism. Instead of surviving through numbness, they engage in the acts of painful remembering. By speaking, they gain power over a force that had overwhelmed and defined their lives. They enact their father's courage when they write their pain for all to see. By writing their stories, they renegotiate their identities and reinvent themselves.

I propose that the true cost for those who lose a parent to war is a conflicted emotional site with ramifications that can last for generations. Their deep trauma and loss are generally ignored by the very structures that are supposed to protect them: namely, the family, the citizenry, and the military. My goal is to uncover their hidden stories and to illuminate the realities of those who have had personal sacrifice thrust upon them, in the name of the security and safety of the United States. I ask: who is responsible for their trauma, and who is willing to listen to and learn from their stories?


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