Wartime – Understanding and Behaviour in the Second World War

I mentioned the book before. I liked the article I linked to back then a lot, and in a way I’m a little disappointed with the book so far. On the other hand there’s still ~130 pages to go. I should note that the book is not actually bad (or I wouldn’t have read 170 pages today); it’s just not as great as I’d imagined. A few quotes from the book:

i. “In the first German raids on London, when 500 tons of boms were dropped, only half fell on the land at all, and only 30 tons hit London.”

ii. “sanguine misapprehension about the possibilities of aerial bombardment was not the only misconstruction useful to the rationalizing intellect unable to confront the messy data of actuality. And here the troops were no more exempt than the non-combatants from the tendency to look on the bright, or orderly, side. Such a habit, indeed, was indispensable if soldiers were to keep their psychic stability and perform their duties at all. An imaginative infantryman might have inferred what the battle was going to be like from the presence in each 36-man platoon of a medic carrying a full load of morphine and bandages, but before experience had enforced understanding, hope rationalized the medic’s presence as a precaution against sprains, cuts, insect bites, and heat-stroke. If confronted openly with the things the medic was going to be faced with, few could have gone on.”

iii. “Among the British, Bomber Command was the branch of service most in need of the consolations of superstition, for there the odds of surviving were the worst: out of 100 men, only twenty-four, on an average, could expect to live. When thirty missions constituted a tour, releasing an airman from further obligation, the average number of missions completed was fourteen. No wonder golliwogs were required. No wonder bomber crews chose to believe that empty beer bottles dropped from their planes had the power to blank out German searchlights. “It was unwise to laugh at this practice,” reports Hector Bolitho, “so widely and deeply was it believed.””

iv. “the awesome reality that we were training to be cannon fodder in a global war that had already snuffed out millions of lives never seemed to occur to us. The fact that our lives might end violently or that we might be crippled while we were still boys didn’t seem to register.” [quote by Eugene Sledge]

v. “Waiting itself and nothing else becomes a large element in the atmosphere of wartime, for both soldiers and civilians. You are waiting for induction into the services, waiting for D-Day, for someone to come home on furlough, for a letter, for a promotion, for news, for a set of tires, for the train, for things to get better, for your release from POW camp, for the end of the war, for your discharge. Attention—as always, but with a special wartime intensification—focuses not on the present but on some moment in the future. […] If you were a civilian, daily life was boring. If you were a soldier, daily life was very boring. But it was most boring to be a prisoner of war. By establishing the principle that captured officers were to do no work and that NCOs could only work as supervisors of the work of privates, the Geneva Convention guaranteed that life in POW camps would be for many an experience of unprecendented ennui, against which some often fantastic defences were required. In one German Stalag, an American lieutenant with nothing to do “counted the barbs in one section of the barbed wire fence and then estimated the total number of barbs around the encampment. When he announced this number, his fellow kriegies not only didn’t consider him mad, they formed teams to check him out with a barb-by-barb count.”

vi. “Drinking to “overcome” fear was a practice openly admitted by all hands. […] The Canadian bomber pilot J. Douglas Harvey testifies that “fear of death … was so strong in some of the aircrew that no form of discipline was effective. These were the ones who had convinced themselves that they would be killed and everything else was therefore trivial.” […] as in the earlier war, the British dispensed rum freely to stimulate their infantry before the demoralizing tasks they were obliged to perform. Recalling Tunisia, one soldier says of the rum analgesic: “Eventually it became unthinkable to go into action without it. Rum, and morphia to silence our wounded.”

vii. In Europe the U.S. Army Medical Corps discovered that the troops were so eager for drink that numbers of them consumed captured buzz-bomb fluid (i.e., methyl alcohol) and died. Most were ground combat troups, and the Official History reports that “During the period October 1944 to June 1945 … there were more deaths in the European theater due to a single agent, alcohol poisoning, than to acute communicable disease.” The History draws the inevitable conclusion: “In future operations the problem of alcoholic beverages … needs serious consideration. The American soldier will find a substitute which may be poisonous, if a supply is not available.”24 [“24. Preventive Medicine in World War II (Washington, 1955), III: 247, 263-68.”]

viii. “Although not widely publicized in the civilian world, very heavy drinking of hard liquor had been a notable custom in the peacetime American army. […] Army public relations labored to conceal the facts about military drinking from the public, stressing that the beer served at the training camps contained only 3.2 per cent alcohol and glossing over the ease with which you could get fighting drunk on it if you tried. Public relations omitted also to disclose the officers’ two-bottle-a-month hard liquor issue, doled out whether wanted or not.”

ix. “If drink was indulged in freely, the other traditional comfort, sex, seemed often in short supply. The reasons were social and legal, and they sound so quaint today that anyone trying to indicate the public view of sex in the 1940s hardly expects to be believed. […]
In wartime […] the American Postmaster General was empowered to act as a moral censor of anything sent through the mails, and in the United Kingdom the Lord Chancellor made sure that the minimum of sexually exciting material reached stage or screen. […] In the United States, films were regulated morally by the “Hays Office,” which went to work in a strictly binary way. There were no classifications like G, PG, R, and X. A film was either acceptable or unshowable. […] Sex before marriage was regarded as either entirely taboo or gravely reprehensible. “Most of the girls said it was either marriage or nothing,” one woman remembers.31 There was of course no Pill […] In this ambience of public puritanism and sexual anxiety, literature didn’t have to go very far to be thought highly provocative.”

x. “Sexual deprivation and inordinate desire generally did not trouble men on the front line. They were too scared, busy, hungry, tired, and demoralized to think about sex at all. Indeed, the front was the one wartime place that was sexless.
Behind the lines, desire was constantly seeking an outlet it seldom satisfactorily found. […] Acquiring a venereal disease was a punishable offence, and the services labored to keep the rate of infection under control”

xi. “For the war to be prosecuted at all, the enemy of course had to be severely dehumanized and demeaned, and in different ways, depending on different presumed national characteristics. One way of classifying the Axis enemy was to arrange it by nationalities along a scale running from courage down to cowardice. The Japanese were at the brave end, the Italians at the pusillanimous, and the Germans were in the middle. This symmetrical arrangement also implied a scale of animalism, with the Japanese accorded the most feral qualities and the Italians the most human, including a love of music, ice-cream, and ostentatious dress. […] treatment of Japanese corpses as if they were animal became so flagrant as early as September, 1942, that the Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet ordered that “No part of the enemy’s body may be used as a souvenir. Unit Commanders will take stern disciplinary action…” […] Japanese skulls were not the only desirable trophies: treasured also were Japanese gold teeth, knocked out, sometimes from the mouths of the still-living, by a USMC Ka-bar knife-hilt.”

xii. “If the Japanese were type-cast as animals of an especially dwarfish but vicious species, the Germans were recognized to be human beings, but of a perverse type, cold, diagrammatic, pedantic, unimaginative, and thoroughly sinister. […] That it was the same people who were shooting hostages and hanging Poles and gassing Jews, on the one hand, and enjoying Beethoven and Schubert, on the other, was a complication too difficult to be faced during wartime. […] Germans, all Germans—Wehrmacht, SS, sailors, housewives, hikers, the lot—had to be cast as confirmed enemies of human decency. […] Whatever the Italians actually were, the myth that they were the sweetest people in the war survives.”

xiii. “although a whole book could be devoted to the sort of stereotyping necessary for Americans (and British) to see themselves as attractive, moral, and examplary, some of the conventions can be noted briefly. A good way to get a feel for the subject would be to go through any number of Life magazine, or Look, or Collier’s, or The Saturday Evening Post issued from 1942 to 1945. Attending to the display advertisements, mostly in color, one would immediately understand the wartime thrill Americans achieved by imagining themselves good-looking Aryans, blond and tall, beloved by slim blonde women and surrounded by much-desired consumer goods. If the illustrations are to be believed, all young men are in the Air Corps, where they are officers almost by definition […] If the Jews, like those in New York, liked to think the war was in some way about them, it’s clear that most people didn’t want to be like them in any way or even reminded of them. You could spend your life studying the magazine adds of wartime without once coming upon a yarmulkah or prayer shawl, or even features suggestive of Jewishness. […]
In fiction or film, the GI might be Jewish or Italian, Polish or Hispanic or “Colored,” but never in advertising, a medium where only ideal imagery can be allowed to enter. In advertising, the Allied war is fought by white Anglo-Saxons, officers or aviators, with neat, short hair, clear eyes, gleaming teeth, and well-defined jawlines. That is the wartime “we,” fighting against the beast-like yellow-skinned Japanese, the “sick” Germans, and the preposterous Italians. Naturally we won.”

August 13, 2012 - Posted by | books, history

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