Aeneas, My Grandfather, and the Memory of War

August 3, 2016 | 1 8 min read


coverIn the first book of Vergil’s Aeneid, we meet the hero as he is tossed at sea in a storm sent by the vengeful goddess Juno, who hates him. He throws up his hands and, in his first speech of the epic, proclaims lucky the ones who lie dead and buried in Troy. This is a moment of great despair; with it Vergil presents Aeneas as a man constantly on the point of just giving up. So why does he go on?

Many feel he has no choice. As an agent of Rome’s imperial fate, his personal desires cannot guide him. There is no doubt that Vergil’s Aeneas is a man torn nearly in two by what he wants and what he must do, yet there are moments in the text where Aeneas’s private desires and public mission form an uneasy alliance. One of these comes just after the storm has ended and Aeneas, along with a few of his men, has washed ashore on the coast of Carthage. He needs his men to keep going despite their “grieving hearts.” Close to losing heart himself, he dons a brave face for his men and utters one of the epic’s most famous lines: “Maybe one day it will be pleasant to remember even these things.” Although this public utterance is at odds with his inner turmoil, it nevertheless helps the reader to glimpse the sort of private life he envisions if and when the mission succeeds.

When I first read this line as a teenager, I found it appalling and infuriating — Of course they will never remember any of this with pleasure! His men have experienced war, death, exile, homelessness, divine wrath, and find themselves yet again in a dangerous, unknown land. How could Aeneas offer such false hope? To me this line was blind to the full extent of their suffering. It took years for me to come to terms with Aeneas’s words here, and this happened only gradually as the result of a deeply personal reading of the text.

My reaction to this line changed profoundly two years ago in the aftermath of my grandfather’s death, an event that forever connected in my mind the story of the epic and my own family’s history. My grandfather, a veteran of some of the bloodiest combat of the Second World War, was able, decades later, to experience exactly the kind of memory Vergil’s Aeneas describes. He at last provided me with an illustration that I could really grasp of what motivates Aeneas’s desire one day to remember past sufferings with pleasure. Although my grandfather forms an unlikely parallel for Aeneas, the two are linked by their horrifying experiences of war.

John McCarter (Papaw) was born in 1922 and grew up on a small farm in the Appalachian mountains of East Tennessee. In December 1942 he enlisted (along with four of his brothers) in the army with the full knowledge that he would go to war. When asked in later years why he signed up, his answer never wavered: If he hadn’t, another boy would have been drafted in his place.

Papaw had never spent much time outside of East Tennessee before reporting for basic training at Fort Benning, Georgia. There, he made one of the great friends of his life, an Italian American from Pennsylvania named Joe Romano. Papaw later confessed to my brother that he and Joe promised each other they would get in touch with the other’s family if something happened to one of them; I imagine many young soldiers made such promises. This would be a promise simply too painful for my grandfather to keep.

In 1943 Papaw set out with the 3rd Infantry Division on a converted cruise liner to Casablanca and then traveled across North Africa, where the fighting was already over for the most part, to Tunisia. From there he went to Sicily on the heels of the Allied invasions, and thence to Salerno. It would be on the Italian mainland that he would find himself on the front lines of heavy combat as part of the Allied assault on Monte Cassino and the amphibious landing at Anzio. Papaw’s journey mirrored that of Aeneas: from Tunisia (site of Dido’s Carthage) to Sicily to Campania to Latium. Wars have a devastating tendency to repeat themselves.

The casualty numbers from Monte Cassino and Anzio are staggering by any measure. Tens upon tens of thousands of people died. Somehow Papaw survived. At Monte Cassino he and a friend named Frank (a talented card shark, according to Papaw) were separated from their unit after it came under assault. Amid the artillery barrage Frank lost his helmet, so Papaw gave him the liner from his own, which, though hardly an effective defense, calmed him. They hid in the mountains, at one stage taking cover from enemy fire in a creek bed, for two days before making it to an aid station.

Joe Romano was killed at Monte Cassino on November 5, 1943. News of his death would reach Papaw afterwards in Naples, where he was sent to train in preparation for the landing at Anzio. The allied forces would be pinned down there for months, and Papaw, exhausted, was eventually pulled off the front lines and sent to a hospital in Naples, then home. He was suffering from what we now believe was combat fatigue, and it was a fellow Tennessean named Sgt. Crawford that recognized his condition was poor and likely saved his life. There are no doubt a thousand things I do not know about what my grandfather endured and what he had to do to survive. But those are not my memories to share.

Growing up I always knew Papaw had been in the war, though he rarely spoke of it. He certainly would never have marched in a parade or invited accolades. He lived a quiet, simple life. He read, worked in the garden, played with his grandkids, argued (at times relentlessly) about politics. He loved to tinker. And he took care of my grandmother, Gladys, as she grew frail with dementia. But the war was always present in the background. My grandmother might reveal that he had awoken her yet again by shielding her from enemy fire in his sleep. It would creep out in his dismay as again and again men went to war with one another.

As a teenager I was too intrigued by my own daily dramas to ask him much about his service. Then in college I became deeply interested in the Italy of an altogether different past, that of Vergil and Horace, and embarked on my own Italian adventure at the age of 21 to study abroad for the summer. I saw some of the same places he did — Salerno, Naples, Anzio — under vastly different circumstances. A few days after my return, I went to his house, prepared to tell him all about my trip. I did not expect that he would be the one opening himself up to me.

We spent the whole day poring over my photos and maps on his living room floor, and together we compared our different paths through the same Italian soil. Although I cannot imagine that Papaw ever looked back on his experiences with pleasure, I am certain that his conversation with me that day was a source of pleasure for him. By then it had become increasingly important for him to remember, to acknowledge that part of his life but anchor it firmly in the past.

Much is necessary for such remembering to occur. Time must intervene and be filled with fresh memories of a life well lived. One has to feel that the suffering mattered. My ability to go to Italy and walk in the same places he fought gave him such assurance. These places were frozen in his mind in a state of turmoil, but my experiences of them animated them with new meaning. Somehow what he did meant that I could live a very different life, that generations of his own family flourished because of him. In the end it was the deeply personal sense that he had accomplished something for those he loved that took the bitter sting out of remembering a painful past.

What Aeneas holds out to his men and to himself is the possibility that just maybe they will have a life like my grandfather’s — the one thing that could make such suffering bearable. A life filled with family that grows across generations, defined not by the pain of the past but by the peace of mind that, with enormous luck, comes once the intensity of war’s fury has receded. Aeneas’s address to his men exposes his own personal hopes for life after war; consolation comes not from the promise that he will found an empire he knows nothing about but from the possibility that he may simply enjoy his life again one day.

Aeneas is by no means ready to remember anything with pleasure when Dido bids him to recount Troy’s fall, an act of memory that brings him, in the opening words of Book 2, “unspeakable grief.” When he finally arrives in Italy, “wars, horrible wars” await him yet again. Aeneas’s final act in the epic, his retributive killing of Turnus, shows him drinking deeply of wrath and fury, and Vergil offers us no hint that such violence can ever be mollified. We already know as early as the first book — it is unalterable fate — that Aeneas will die shortly after the epic’s conclusion. He will not live to see his son come of age or generations emerge from his acts. Rome may win, but Aeneas himself suffers profound personal loss.

And yet memory remains of crucial importance to Aeneas. As he marches out to face Turnus in the final book, yearning for battle, he pauses for one last embrace with his young son. “Remember me,” he asks, “in your ripe adulthood.” He recognizes that memory is no longer his to hope for, but he may yet bring about for his son the kind of life that was once a consolation for himself and his men. It is not Rome but a long, peaceful life that he urgently wants to bequeath to his son.

My grandfather helps me to understand this kind of remembering as well. The last time I saw him at his own home, before the final days spent in hospitals and nursing homes with heart and kidney failure, he made a similar request of me. Knowing he would die soon, he asked me simply to remember him. The task of memory had now been passed to me, and with this request Papaw, like Aeneas, signaled his readiness for his final act to begin. Whereas remembering is a pleasure only the living enjoy, being remembered is a solace left to the dying.

To me, Aeneas’s desires to remember and be remembered resonate inextricably with my grandfather’s life and death. The gulf between me and the mythology of the text contracts, and I can see the stakes faced by Aeneas with greater clarity. Viewing Aeneas through the lens of my grandfather helps me see just how poignantly human he often is. This is a humanity that readers have not always granted Aeneas; he is simply duty-bound, pious, at times merely the prototype of an ideal.

Interpreting the Aeneid in light of my grandfather’s WWII service is related to the ways in which that war influenced how so many read the poem. Viewed earlier in the century as a monument to imperialism, it was in the war’s wake that Vergil’s readers, who had witnessed firsthand the dangers of such movements, started to recognize the private cost of Aeneas’s mission, and to uncover a strand of pessimism running alongside the epic’s nationalistic trajectory.

Just as these works rarely emerge from the sweep of history with earlier readings intact, so too must they be reread as we change. The reflection of my grandfather that I see in Aeneas bears witness to the ways in which we bring our own histories to bear in our acts of reading. The Aeneid that I read at eighteen is not same one I now read twenty years later as a mother of two young children, and it is not the same one I will read if I am lucky enough to share my grandfather’s longevity. Some of the best moments of reading come when there is a mutual disclosure between reader and text and bonds are formed — both of affinity and difference — that keep bringing us back to find new meanings unlocked. One of the reasons such ancient works endure is their ability to transform along with us and to shed light on who we are both collectively and as individuals.

My grandfather never read the Aeneid, and if he were still here he could take issue with how I have read him. He might tell me that I have gotten his story all wrong. But in the end the memories we have of the dead are not that different from texts to be interpreted. How we do so depends upon who we are and our private ties to those we remember. In the end, this is my grandfather as I construe him and the meaning that I derive from his life will change as I myself change. I look forward to getting to know him again and again throughout my life. In so many ways he lives on.

Image courtesy of the author.

is associate professor of Classics at the University of the South in Sewanee, TN. Her essays have also appeared or are forthcoming in Electric Literature, Literary Hub, Eidolon, Avidly, Entropy, Gucci Stories, and elsewhere. She is the author of Horace Between Freedom and Slavery: The First Book of Epistles and is currently working on a translation of Horace's lyric poetry.

One comment:

  1. Dear Dr. McCarter
    Touching upon both World War II and an artifact from the Classical Period as profound as the Aenied, I felt your essay was almost intended for my eyes. I’m a rising sophomore at Sewanee and intend on studying the Classics and Humanities; if not this semester, I will likely have you as my professor soon.
    I must say, your essay was wonderfully written. Aligning your grandfather’s war journey with that of Aeneas’ seemed overly ambitious, but it was refreshing to watch you draw the parallels flawlessly. I especially loved your bit on how texts are interpreted differently over time. It has given me another lense in which to use while analyzing a text. For example, a text like the American Constitution was intended to be purposefully just, no matter the time period.
    Thank you for sharing such an emotional piece of your knowledge and memory.

    Looking forward to meeting you.
    Zach Zimmerman

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