Thursday, March 12, 2015

No second acts for most war veterans - except in booming NY ?

F Scott Fitzgerald's most famous line is also his most misquoted line.

For Fitzgerald - like his character Jay Gatsby - was ever the eternal optimist , never the cynic.

For in fact, in a published essay written just after the Stock Market Crash, "My Lost City", Fitzgerald admitted that while he once thought there are no second acts in America , the exception had to be for those living in eternally booming New York City.

I thought of this while reading, in passing, literally hundreds of brief biographies of WWI veterans in the British and Commonwealth media, to mark this the one hundred anniversary of the start of WWI.

For these biographies tend to offer a twisted take on the true reality of WWI veterans.

For the relatively few lives taken up, from a choice of the literally millions of possible lives, and put in the newspapers almost always are of those men who were in the infantry frontlines and among those who died during the war.

Died as either notable heroes --- or as happenstance victims.

My home province of Nova Scotia, for example, has made much of  its first and last soldiers to die in the Great War : both men died undramatically in routine frontline activities when almost randomly shot by snipers.

But maybe only a third of WWI veterans occupied the most forward infantry trench and actually went 'over the top'.

The rest served in the Navy and Air Force, in the Artillery, Engineers, Pioneer and Forestry Brigades, in Supply, in the Medical Corps and as battalion musicians - on and on, in situations more to the rear of No Man's Land.

Death and injury was almost as common to them as to the infantry but their living conditions did tend to take less of a toll on their lifelong general health.

And in pure statement of fact, most frontline infantry soldiers in almost all WWI armies did come home alive.

Alive, but broken to some degree  - suffering losses in both mental and physical health.

Wounded limbs and scarred lungs did tend to heal, for  you had to be relatively young and healthy to even make it to the tough frontline life.

But the damage doesn't really ever go permanently away and can lead to a lessened capacity to enjoy life and an earlier than expected death.

Many WWI veterans did not simply return to humdrum lives that failed to ever match the achievements of this  brief youthful experience, to sound the old cliche - instead they became even more distinguished in their later civilian careers.

I have often thought it worth detailing whether those WWI vets with the most noted successful civilian careers were also the ones who suffered the least wretched physical conditions during the war.

Because success is often measured as much by sheer quantity (length of time doing an activity) as by quality while doing that activity.

Frequently Genius dies young and unknown while the more ordinary figure can achieve fame by having a long career and merely doing their job competently.

To be honest, I am thinking now of the twice-wounded war vet and penicillin pioneer Martin Henry Dawson who died tragically young and relatively unknown at 48 versus his rival Howard Florey who successfully avoided war service, kept his health and died age seventy world famous.

Dawson - I would hold - was never the conventional scientist or much admired by his more ordinary and conventional fellow scientists - but one more likely to break old paradigms and create new ones.

But he didn't live long enough, in good enough health, to do more than start down this path.

By contrast, Florey was highly conventional in both his lifestyle and in scientific thought -no ground breaker here - but nonetheless a hard worker, ambitious, a life-long striver.

The early death of his more successful penicillin rival ensured Florey ended up showered in honors and a baron, rewards more for his science administration skills than for his science experiments.

But back to Dawson - he might well have had a moderately successful life if he had stayed in Canada after the war - nothing perhaps to ever match the glory of his war record.

But instead he went to booming 1920s New York City, where among other things, he became the person to ever work with DNA in a test tube , ushering in our era of microbiology and also the first to ever inject penicillin into a patient, ushering in our era of antibiotics as well.

A notable second act .

F Scott Fitzgerald would have been proud indeed ....

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