Copyright ©2007 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.


Commentator Kenneth Harbaugh grew up listening to World War II stories from his grandfather. As a child, Harbaugh says those stories seemed fun and full of dark humor. But as his grandfather got older, his tales became more realistic.

NORRIS: When I was little, I used to love a good war story. My grandfather flew bombers during World War II. And whenever he talked of his exploits, his tales always seemed to end with a punchline. War, for all I knew, was fun.

Like the time his crew was stationed in New Guinea, sleeping in tents, and my grandfather was awakened in the dark by his co-pilot whispering. There's a giant snake on top of me. My granddad reached for his pistol, preparing to shoot it off, but thought to lift the blanket at the last second. No snake, just a co-pilot's arm asleep on his own chest.

Or the time their plane's emergency life raft deployed in-flight and wrapped itself around the tail. And the machine gunner thought he'd deflate it by riddling it with bullets and instead nearly shot off the tail itself.

Of course, there were stories my grandfather didn't tell until I was much older. How he came home, body full of shrapnel and a hole clean through his thigh. How his plane flying solo was ambushed by an entire squadron of enemy fighters and every officer on board was wounded and bleeding with a thousand miles between them and home.

When I listened to my buddies talk now about Iraq and Afghanistan, I'm struck by how similar their tone is to my grandfather's. His war was different. We all know that. But there's a strange sameness in the telling of it, the way humor is wrung from the most awful things.

When I was 9, my family visited the American Military Cemetery in Luxembourg, near where the Battle of the Bulge took place. I had never seen my grandfather cry before. But watching his face as "Taps" was played, I finally made the connection between the tales he told and the real cost of his war. I began to ask for the other stories, as much as I knew they might terrify me. Sometimes they did. But the way my grandfather related them made me wanted to listen. He even showed me his leg, where the explosive round passed through before laying open his co-pilot's neck.

Bullets today aren't any friendlier than they were back then. I've seen what they do. And now, there are IEDs and suicide truck bombs and all manner of horrors my grandfather never faced. War stories will never sound the same to me as they did when I was little. I see past the punchlines now. Yeah, I still laugh along with the double amputee who jokes about losing $300 worth of tattoos. But I know how real the pain is when he tells me his only regret is that he didn't stop enough shrapnel with his own body to save his squad mate from getting hit.

They call my grandfather's generation the greatest. But I've seen what the best of my generation has endured in Iraq and Afghanistan, and there is greatness among them. And, you know, they tell a damn good war story, too. Even if they do, sometimes, break my heart.

NORRIS: Commentator Ken Harbaugh is a former Navy pilot who currently attends Yale Law School. He's also the executive director of The Mission Continues, a non-profit that helps wounded and disabled veterans volunteer in their communities.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.