Some time ago I was speaking to a church in California on the subject of vicarious suffering (i. e. the kind of suffering someone does so someone else doesn’t have to; see 1 Peter 3:18; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Isaiah 53:4-6). To illustrate this sort of suffering I mentioned the fight for Iwo Jima, February 19-March 16, 1945.
From among 20,965 total casualties suffered in 26 days of hellish fighting on that island , 6,821 Marines died, hundreds upon hundreds were physically maimed, and thousands bore away eradicable psychological scars. I think of the men who fought, bled, and died on that wretched volcanic altar as exemplars of vicarious suffering because they (and the heroes of Midway, the Coral Sea, Leyte Gulf, Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Peleliu, Okinawa, and a score of other horrific sites of the war in the Pacific) set me free — free from the terror of enemy invasion of my childhood home in the 1940’s — free to enjoy the gift of “Happy Days” in the 1950’s.
As a child I lived in mortal fear that we in San Diego would experience what the now deceased Iris Chang described in her book The Rape of Nanking. From the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941, and onward, we expected the Japanese Imperial Army to come; and we entertained no illusions about what would follow. But I and my neighbors were spared that fate by way of vicarious suffering. Others went down to the sea in ships, met the enemy, drove him back — and paid the price of our freedom with their lives, their wounds, and their lingering nightmares.
Finished with my sermon I greeted people as they filed out of the evening’s assembly. An old friend approached me with tears streaming down his cheeks. He shared something with me I had never guessed about him. Hands trembling he took mine and said, “Thank you, Don, thank you — I thought every one had forgotten us, forgotten Iwo Jima. I was there. Thank you. Thank you.”
Vicarious suffering — the kind of suffering someone does so someone else doesn’t have to. Don’t thank me, Wendell. I THANK YOU — and I thank the thousands of brave warriors who have sacrificed and are sacrificing the best years of their lives, that I and millions of my fellow Americans may enjoy the best years of ours. DB