One Soldier's Story
by Bob Dole
HarperCollins, 304 pp., $25.95
It's too bad Frank Capra died in 1991. Were he alive today, he'd be the ideal director for the film adaptation of One Soldier's Story. And one of his favorite leading men, lank, laconic Gary Cooper, who starred in Capra's Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, would have been perfect as the hero.
One Soldier's Story is the stirring tale of a small-town boy from Russell, Kansas--a star athlete and the first in his family to go to college--who serves bravely in World War II, survives crippling wounds, and, with the help of his family, friends, and his own strength of will, overcomes daunting physical handicaps to lead a productive life. Not only that; he is elected to Congress, becomes a vice presidential and presidential nominee, and serves with distinction as chairman of the Republican National Committee and majority leader of the United States Senate. Through it all, Bob Dole--for that is the name of our story's hero--also manages to maintain a refreshingly candid sense of humor rare among public figures.
Alexander Pope wrote that most old men are "like old chronicles that give you dull but true accounts of times past" and are "worth knowing only on that score." Perhaps. But in One Soldier's Story the 81-year-old Dole has given us an American chronicle that, while true, is anything but dull.
Although the author paints a warm portrait of his Depression-era childhood in rural Kansas, where his values were rooted and his character was forged, it is his wartime experience--and all that it led to--that lie at the heart of this book. Leaving college for the Army after Pearl Harbor, Dole undergoes officer training and is assigned to the Army's elite 10th Division. He sees action against the Germans in the Italian Alps, where, as a young platoon leader, he nearly dies on a grimly anonymous "Hill 913" while trying to rescue his wounded radio man:
For a long moment, I didn't know if I was dead or alive. I sensed the dirt in my mouth more than I tasted it. I wanted to get up, to lift my face off the ground, to spit the dirt and blood out of my mouth, but I couldn't move. I lay facedown in the dirt, unable to feel my arms. Then the horror hit me-I can't feel anything below my neck! I didn't know it at the time, but whatever it was that hit me had ripped apart my shoulder, breaking my collar bone and my right arm, smashing down into my vertebrae, and damaging my spinal cord.
Bob Dole's combat career ended that April day in 1945, but his gravest struggle and greatest triumph lay ahead. The critical wounds he sustained--and the way he, his friends, and family reacted in their aftermath--would shape the rest of his life. "It's said often that my generation is the greatest generation," he writes. "Truth be told, we were ordinary Americans fated to confront extraordinary tests."
Few more so than Dole himself. The enemy fire that struck his right shoulder also destroyed one kidney, cost him the use of his right arm, and deprived him of most sensation in his partially-workable left arm. For three years, he would spend most of his time in hospital beds, sometimes close to death.
Each day became a marathon of endless hours trying to exercise my legs, my left arm, and the fingers on my left hand, with Mom and the nurses cheering every small triumph. On good days, I could move a finger or an arm a little; on bad days, I struggled to move at all. I felt imprisoned in my frozen body. I still could not control my bladder or bowels; nor could I sit up in bed. . . . Often after I'd tried for hours to move my arms, Mom or Norma Jean [his sister] would suddenly hurry out of the room. A few minutes later, they'd return, their eyes red and puffy. Sometimes, after Dad and Norma Jean said good-bye, and Mom returned to her apartment for the night, I'd lie in bed staring into the darkness, asking myself again and again, Why? Why me? Why was I on that Hill 913? What did I ever do to deserve this? Why wasn't Somebody up there looking out for me? . . . In my better moments I realized, Somebody was.
"Somebody" included hundreds of friends and neighbors in Russell, who contributed their dimes, quarters, and hard-earned dollars so that the young Dole could get treatment from private specialists. One of the specialists was Dr. Hampar Kelikian, a brilliant surgeon who had come to America as a penniless Armenian refugee, fleeing Turkish massacres. Out of love for his adopted country, Kelikian refused to accept any fees from the young veteran. And he did more than operate on his patient; he gave him a fresh perspective: "We start by not thinking so much anymore about what you have lost," he said. "You must think about what you have left . . . and what you can do with it."
Slowly, painfully, Dole made the most of what was left. He learned to walk again, and to write again with his partially functioning left hand. Most important, he learned to hope again, and to believe in himself. He went back to college, earned a law degree, and, in 1950, at the urging of a fellow student, he entered politics, running for the Kansas legislature:
My entrance into politics certainly wasn't propelled by partisan fervor. The Russell County Attorney greatly influenced my decision to become a Republican. He told me, "Bob, if you really want to do something in politics in Kansas, you better declare yourself as a Republican." "Really, why is that?" "Because Republicans outnumber Democrats in Kansas." I became a Republican, pragmatically at first, and then philosophically later on.
By the time he was elected to the U.S. Senate, the transformation was complete and Dole had become one of the leading voices of traditional, essentially conservative, Republicanism. As a lawmaker, however, Dole was always more of a doer than a thinker, leaving the philosophizing to others. And he always maintained a standard of civility in the Senate based on something more than etiquette. In 1946, at Percy Jones Military Hospital in Michigan, Dole made friends with two other wounded vets, a young Japanese-American named Dan Inouye, who had lost an arm in battle in Italy not far from Hill 913, and a Michigan man named Phil Hart, who had been wounded during the D-Day assault on Utah Beach.
Looking back, Dole reflects: "I find it amazing that the three of us--Phil Hart, Daniel Inouye, and I--three wounded soldiers who became such good friends through our common suffering, would all one day serve our country as United States senators." In fact, they did more than simply serve together in the Senate; they remained close friends. "Something about World War II experiences and our time together at Percy Jones Hospital created a bond among us that no partisan politics could ever separate."
It's all part of a larger but fading picture. Except for Jimmy Carter, every president from Dwight Eisenhower to George Bush the Elder, served in World War II. From the late 1940s through the late 1970s, World War II veterans were a major presence in both the House and Senate, sometimes cooperating across party lines for the good of the nation. It is unlikely that we will ever be able to say the same of Vietnam veterans, Gulf war veterans, or American veterans of any other war fought by all-volunteer, career armed forces.
Today, and into the foreseeable future, most American politicians will be immune from both the suffering war can inflict and the quality of character it can instill. Memoirs like One Soldier's Story remind us of just how important those qualities can be.
Aram Bakshian Jr., editor in chief of American Speaker, has served as an aide to three U.S. presidents, most recently as director of speechwriting for Ronald Reagan.