Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Psychological history of WWII

I recently came across this essay by Lee Sandlin, entitled "Losing the War." It was recommended to me by the inimitable Gerard Van Der Leun, who is certainly no slouch in the essay department himself.

Sandlin's article is well-written and insightful, and is somewhat of a psychological history of WWII, describing the reactions of those on the home front and those at the actual front. It is very lengthy--War and Peace without the "peace"--but well worth the read.

Sandlin does a phenomenal job of writing about a war we tend to think of as familiar, describing it in ways that are quite new. He shows us the war as experienced by those alive at the time, rather than the version that's been wrapped up into neat history for those of us who came later.

For those who live it, war usually is utter chaos, and WWII was certainly no exception, as Sandlin makes clear. Ever since I first heard about that war when I was a young child, I've had one overriding personal thought about it, which is that I am extremely happy I was not alive during it. I simply don't think I could have endured the fear and the uncertainty, not to mention hearing about the scale of the carnage in real time. I have often marveled at the courage of those who lived through it without knowing the outcome in advance; it was awful enough to learn about it ex post facto.

Sandlin's article is nothing if not a demonstration of Churchill's warning:

Never, never, never believe any war will be smooth and easy, or that anyone who embarks on the strange voyage can measure the tides and hurricanes he will encounter. The statesman who yields to war fever must realize that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events.

The only point of contention I can find with the article is that Sandlin calls the idea that Japan was unlikely to have surrendered prior to the dropping of the atomic bombs "preposterous"--and then he proceeds to give a fairly good argument as to why Japan was probably nowhere near surrendering at that point. His description of Midway will make your hair stand on end, and he adds new points of extreme creepiness to the familiar portrait we have of Hitler.

Illuminating and highly recommended.


At 11:03 AM, May 17, 2005, Blogger Pancho said...

There was so much text written and film footage produced about WWII very soon after it's conclusion that we of the next generation tend to have a view of those war years that is neatly packaged. Like most important eras in history, there is actually not much neat about it at all.

Thru my Father who fought his way up Italy with the 45th Infantry Division and my Mother who worked at home in an army map factory...I get a glimpse that is a little deeper.
Thankfully both are still alive.

I am also blessed to live in Midland Texas, home of the Commemorative Air Force with it's collection of WWII aircraft and our air show which draws so many of the survivors, now in their 80's, of the air war.

At 5:11 PM, May 17, 2005, Blogger gatorbait said...

Wars do suck, but Marse Robert was correct when he said it was good thing about them being so terrible, otherwise we 'd like them too much. My dad was an Army sniper in the Pacific, cold gray eyes and and absolute terrifying calm when he did anything, except when he made chocolate chip cookies, made cornball jokes and spoiled his grandchildren. He stayed on for two more wars, one his son showed up for as well. They are not neat or clean. I can say read up up on Midway arealize the Japanese were shocked by finding they were facing Samauri as well, and go to the Army's Green books for WW2 history. The Marine's are fine as well.. then open up to the more literary. Or, if you're really ready, go to Carlisle for the after-action reports. There is WW2 , nice and raw, occasionally written in pencil, with the soot stains from the candles.

At 11:53 PM, May 17, 2005, Blogger demulcents said...

They don't show up on TV anymore, but the movies made during WWII always moved me. I would watch them, especially if they dealt with the war in some way, and would think that the people watching that movie when it was first made didn't know if they would win the war; didn't know if their husbands, brothers, sons would be killed or come home; didn't know if they would live in a land of democracy or end up living under the hostile rule of a tyrannical victor.

The hopes and dreams of victory and the triumph of goodness over evil always moved me to tears watching these old movies.

At 12:13 AM, May 18, 2005, Blogger David Edward said...

that Churchill quote is terrific and scary - you can be a neocon around me
I was born into a beautiful red state family just after they had moved to Calif. I live in the moountains with my three teens, and thank God every day for our strong response to Terrorism and tyrany. God Bless America, and God Bless you.

At 2:37 AM, May 18, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jenny here,
I was in junior high and high school during WWII. My older brother enlisted. I had a paper route and always watched the windows along my route. Most had the little service flags hanging in the windows...also in businesses...with blue stars for family members serving. When one died, it was covered with a gold star. I remember how sad I felt, when I saw the blue stars turn gold.
Today the anti-war protesters would likely throw rocks through the windows of all the homes with the little service flags.

At 6:23 AM, May 18, 2005, Blogger goesh said...

We lost one cousin in France, one was disabled in N. Africa, one Uncle was in the Navy in the S. Pacific, another was in a bomber over Europe and yet another was a trainer in the States. Nothing much seems learned from war by the human species, they keep happening. I and two cousins were in Viet Nam. I had 3 great uncles in the trenches during WWI, 8 ancestors in the Civil War, 4 in the War of 1812, 3 in the Revolutionary War and there were several Indian fighters as well, including one militiaman killed in King Phillips war in 1676. I live within a hundred miles of where an ancestoral uncle and his entire family were killed by Indians and in the opposite direction a grandfather was killed by Indians. I am surrounded by death and nothing much has been learned.

At 12:24 PM, May 18, 2005, Blogger troutsky said...

Actually Goesh, alot has been learned, the lessons are just willfully ignored.The pain and hardship of these conflicts is not shared equally, in fact some do quite well during war. A structure called international law designed for conflict resolution was developed but is not popular with war profiteers or those with hegemonic ambitions. Jenny thinks anti-war protesters have no feelings for those who suffer, how sad that people still think that way.This ability to demonize "the other" is symptomatic of those who have trouble learning from history.

At 4:01 PM, May 18, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The lesson was learned ages ago.
Sufficient war and violence will, if you succeed, give you power.

It will also protect you from others who seek to overcome you.

One lesson which has not been learned well is the calculus about whether, when one starts a fight, the likelihood is that one will win, or lose.

Given the record of the last hundred years or so, the war-starters are under fifty percent.

Of course, many wars are not "won" in a larger sense, since the location of the surrender act is only a point on a path. What happens afterward may make the winner wish he'd lost. Or not begun, depending.

Just to be provocative, I suspect, a couple of historians claimed the Germans won WW I. That was, as of November 1918. The fighting was on others' soil, and they'd picked up some fat prizes under Brest-Litovsk. Had the next ten years not changed that, the history would be that they "won". The Allies had succeeded only in getting them to stop, which the Germans agreed to do.

Still, many who lament the inability to learn about war have little to say about what to do when it's somebody else, not us, who's ignorant on the subject and is attacking us.

At 3:59 PM, May 20, 2005, Blogger Knemon said...

Whenever I see someone using the why-won't-it-die phrase "the Other," my eyes glaze over.

Anti-war activists have one goal: keeping their (collective) hands clean.

It doesn't matter what's going on in the rest of the world, as long as we're not involved.

Foreign peoples massacre one another? Shame, really. Wish they wouldn't do that. Genocide is *such* a bummer.

What's that you say? Intervene to stop it? Topple despotic governments? But ... but ... then we'd have to hurt people! Hurting people is wrong!

Pacifist sentiment is an important part of our national debate, but it's no basis for running a country or the world.

"All we are saying is give peace a chance." That's right, that *is* all you're saying.

At 8:50 PM, May 20, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ever meet a pacifist who was interested in getting the other side to disarm?

If it's guaranteed that the lion/lamb thing will work, is there any objection to me being the lion?

Um. Err. Uh, well, there's....


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