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Jenn Fabian
Rhetorical Criticism #2
COM 225 – Von Burg
November 20, 2018

Telling an Untellable Story:


Viewing War Narratives Through the Lens of Public Sphere Theory

War is really, really good at stealing. It steals time away from lives and land from

innocent civilians. For those who go to war and never return, it steals their stories. Stories that

would be both continued and told are at once curtailed by a single bullet, bomb, or barrage. The

loss of individual stories may only affect a family; collectively, this loss fundamentally affects a

nation. The story of Private First Class Wayne L. Johnson of Company C, 8th Infantry Regiment,

4th Infantry Division in World War II demonstrates the importance of sharing stories that end

prematurely. The letters he sent and received during the course of his time in the Army—from

his initial deployment overseas in December 1943 to his death in Germany’s Hürtgen Forest in

December 1944—were certainly never intended to inhabit anything other than the private sphere

between him and those to whom he wrote. But through the efforts of his ancestors (namely his

daughter, my grandmother, and his great-granddaughter, me) and the ancestors of the men with

whom he fought, his story has proliferated, crossing generations and oceans all the while. In this

paper I discuss my great-grandfather’s letters through the lens of the public sphere theory and

analyze how my family’s actions have brought his story from the private to the public sphere.

Ultimately, the public sphere has brought this story and other war stories into the public

consciousness and ensured that the values of sacrifice and democracy are not forgotten.

The goal with war stories is to bring them into the public sphere to form a public opinion

that values these narratives as an intrinsic part of history—a history that merits being brought

into the present. The public sphere is defined by scholars Kevin Michael DeLuca and Jennifer
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Peeples as “a social space wherein private citizens gather as a public body with the rights of

assembly, association, and expression in order to form public opinion” (DeLuca and Peeples

128). While DeLuca and Peeples discuss the public sphere as a physical space, I posit that it can

also exist in a metaphorical way, as a metaphorical space inhabited by citizens. Scholar Robert

Rowland also discusses the public sphere, defining the public sphere as “the place where

democracy happens. In a very real sense, it is the place where ‘We the people’ establish the rules

and make the policies to guide our society or fail in those efforts” (Rowland 281). The public

sphere as a place where democracy happens, then, should include the stories of those who have

fought to preserve that democracy.

My great-grandfather’s story began firmly in the private sphere, as letters that constituted

conversations between a husband and wife. What strikes me when reading these letters is how

universal his story is; though my family suffered through his death privately, all across the

country the same telegram carrying the knowledge that a husband had made the ‘Supreme

Sacrifice’ was being delivered, the same story told—a life ended too soon. He was a father and a

friend, a husband and a helper, a man from a central Minnesota town of less than a thousand. All

he wanted was to be home again: “Had to leave my love and give my life for my country…oh

how I wish this war was over so I can think about coming home again” (W. Johnson). In

another: “Well it’s the same old story it’s just hard to think of what to write. There’s a lot to

write in one way but I just can’t because I want to get back home again” (W. Johnson). Her

letters, too, reflect a longing for his return:

Judy sure misses you. You were always so good to her. She always was your pet and
always will be. Apple of your eye. And I know you think the world of her and Wayne is
she growing up to be such a nice girl she isn’t half so naughty anymore either. And
Bruce doesn’t even know what a daddy is but he sure is a chip off the old block.
Everyone says he looks like his daddy. (L. Johnson)
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This story of wives and children missing their husbands and fathers is not one that is unique to

my family or this war. Rather, it is a story and a feeling understood by so many of that

generation and the ones to come. Bringing the letters into the public sphere can be construed as

part of a healing process, a reminder that our mourning is not unique or solitary, that it is part of

a greater narrative of sacrifice and democracy—and that it is a narrative that must be told.

My grandmother first brought her father’s (known affectionately to my family as ‘Daddy

Wayne’) story into the public sphere ten years ago, in 2008. She set out to gather every letter he

sent or received during the course of his time in training and overseas in an effort to compile his

story. Understanding the importance of each individual letter, she scanned each one and

painstakingly typed them all into a book, creating A Window of Time During World War II: The

Story of Wayne, Lorna, and Families (Brossard). Before this book, these letters were known

only to him, his wife, and the few other family and friends who either wrote to or received letters

from him. By compiling these letters into a book, my grandmother took the first step in bringing

her father’s story from the private sphere into the public sphere—bringing the story out of the

letters and into a shareable format that allowed for dissemination of his story into the wider

public narrative. This dissemination is a crucial part of public sphere theory, and is critical in

forming a cohesive public narrative that DeLuca and Peeples argue is the ultimate goal of the

public sphere.

I continued his story’s move into the public sphere in 2014, when I wrote a memoir for

my 11th grade English class about my experience reading this book. In my memoir I grapple

with the idea that though I’ll never know my great-grandfather, in another way, through these

letters I know him and his deepest thoughts in a very personal way. This memoir initially

brought Daddy Wayne’s story into the sphere of classmates and teachers, which is where I
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thought it would end—but it didn’t. Through connections my grandma made with family

members of men who fought with her father, my memoir ended up in their hands and eventually

into the hands of the Army Chiefs of Staff thanks to Stephen Cano, the great-nephew of Pedro

Cano, who fought in the C Company with my great-grandfather and ultimately received the

Medal of Honor as a result of his actions during the war. Daddy Wayne’s story was again

disseminated and shared, adding to the greater public narrative of war that is necessary in the

public sphere.

At the same time my grandmother was reading her father’s letters and piecing together

his story, Stephen Cano was doing the same thing across the country in California. His research

also culminated in a book, entitled Unsung Hero: Private Pedro Cano, WWII Medal of Honor

Recipient, published earlier this year. The book focuses less on individual letters and more on

Pedro’s journey across Europe, through the Hürtgen Forest and beyond and the men with whom

he fought—including my great-grandfather. Stephen Cano writes about Wayne’s relationship

with Pedro: “These men undoubtedly knew each other, having fought side by side from the

beginning. To know their story is to remember their sacrifice. And to remember their sacrifice

is to honor their memory” (Cano 48). The goal of bringing these stories into the public sphere

just that. Through the act of publication, the stories are removed as only a product of the private

sphere and instead continue in DeLuca and Peeples’ public sphere, placing into public

consciousness the value of the sacrifice made by these individual men and women so far from

their homes.

The theme of sacrifice is continued at the Remember Museum in Belgium, which was

built to honor the Americans’ role in World War II and to remember their sacrifice

(usembassybrussels). That, really, is the goal of bringing war narratives into the public sphere—
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to honor and remember their sacrifice. Through the connections my grandma made, Daddy

Wayne’s story—with her book, my memoir, and the few family photographs they were able to

take before Wayne was sent overseas—is now one of hundreds highlighted in the museum,

bringing his letters into greater public consciousness than ever before. The museum functions as

a public space for people to think about the values of freedom and democracy and the sacrifice

required for those values to persist. As my grandma visited the museum, the story truly came

full circle—letters that she brought from the private sphere into a narrow public sphere were now

firmly established as part of a greater, international, permanent public sphere of a museum

exhibit about not just him but about everyone who fought with him.

Based on the model of the public sphere, I argue that these letters constitute a public

moment. My great-grandfather’s story is firmly established in the public sphere, one of many

stories that together tell the larger story of what war and peace mean. His letters remind society

collectively that people who go to war are just that—people. They have wives and children and

families and homes and mundane lives in rural Minnesota and across the world. Democracy

takes on a more nuanced meaning when it is bolstered by the understanding that it exists and

continues because of the sacrifice of countless men and women.

These letters function as communication that we as family members brought into the

public sphere to keep the stories alive. DeLuca and Peeples remark that “the public sphere is

imagined as a place of embodied voices, of people talking to each other, of conversation. This is

a deep impulse and a beautiful dream and it is endemic to our vision of the public sphere, of

democracy, of even communication itself” (DeLuca and Peeples 129). Their vision of the public

sphere is one of people in conversation—of people sharing stories of what it means to be human.

This “deep impulse” they discuss is one that we as citizens feel; it is a deep impulse to share in
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community with those around us. This community is created through the act of conversation—

both the oral conversation we might expect as well as the slower, more methodical conversation

through war letters. DeLuca and Peeples argue that “although the public sphere includes written

forms of communication, embodied conversation functions as the ideal baseline” (DeLuca and

Peeples 130). These letters take the place of embodied conversation in a time when it was not

possible. The 4,000 miles between Lorna and Wayne was made smaller through the simple act

of written letters. Conversations, too, can be lost to the ravages of time and space. These letters,

on the other hand, remain part of the public sphere because we as a family have created that

opportunity.

Stories are important because they are the basis of how we understand humanity. War

stories allow us to understand the sacrifice made by men and women in a way we could never

know before. Sacrifice, democracy, and freedom are all universal values, but they are also made

both private and sensitive through these letters. DeLuca and Peeples argue that “…dissemination

reminds us that all forms of communication are founded on the risk of not communicating”

(DeLuca and Peeples 130). What is the risk of not communicating these letters, these stories?

The risk is nothing less than the loss of the very history that forms a fundamental baseline of who

we are as a family, as a country, and as a world. My family is forever altered because of the

simple act of sending letters. So too is the country—bringing them into the public sphere is a

critical way to ensure the letters are never lost or forgotten, to ensure that war can never again

steal our stories away from us.


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Works Cited

Brossard, Judith. A Window of Time During World War II: The Story of Wayne, Lorna, and

Families. 2008.

Cano, Stephen. Unsung Hero: Private Pedro Cano, WWII Medal of Honor Recipient. Linden

Publishing, 2018.

DeLuca, Kevin Michael, and Jennifer Peeples. “From Public Sphere to Public Screen:

Democracy, Activism, and the ‘Violence’ of Seattle.” Critical Studies in Media

Communication, vol. 19, no. 2, June 2002, pp. 125–51.

Johnson, Lorna. Letter from Lorna to Wayne. 5 July 1944.

Johnson, Wayne. Letter from Wayne to Lorna. 1944.

Rowland, Robert C. “A Liberal Theory of the Public Sphere.” Conference Proceedings --

National Communication Association/American Forensic Association (Alta Conference

on Argumentation), vol. 1, Jan. 2003, pp. 281–87.

usembassybrussels. Remember Museum - Full Documentary. YouTube,

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eILa-luzVvM. Accessed 20 Nov. 2018.