Wartime – Understanding and Behaviour in the Second World War (2)

This will be my last post about the book. Reading the rest of the book has not changed my impression much; I’m mildly disappointed but it’s not a bad book, it’s just not as great as it could have been. At some points the priorities of the author also seems to be a bit hard to understand – for instance if “the comic-book was the book of the war” (p.250) then why would he decide to spend only half a page on them in a 22 page chapter about ‘Reading in Wartime’? The book had quite a few not-all-that-interesting parts and at some points I felt that it took a bit too much work to get to the good stuff. But there’s some good stuff in there, certainly, or I would not have kept reading. Some quotes:

i. “The war seemed so devoid of ideological content that little could be said about its positive purposes that made political or intellectual sense, especially after the Soviet Union joined the great crusade against what until then had been stigmatized as totalitarianism. After that embarrassment, the less said the better indeed. Not that there wasn’t quite a bit of trying to attach profound, noble meaning to events. […] The war might be considered to have been about bringing to light the horrors of the German extermination camps and punishing the guilty. But if that turned out to be the purpose, what about the Katyn Massacre, where the Soviets murdered as much of the Polish officer corps as they could lay hands on, and the readiness with which “denazification” and “demilitarization” were scuttled when it was found that a revived Wehrmacht could prove useful in preventing one’s former ally from advancing further west? [Or what about the elephant in the room not mentioned by Fussell, the people who lived their lives in Soviet concentration camps during the war – or died there – only a tiny minority of whom were German POWs? – US] […]

Although the Jews entertained a different view, to most American soldiers and sailors the United States, at least, was pursuing the war solely to defend itself from the monsters who had bombed Pearl Harbor without warning. For the troops the war was about avenging that event a thousand-fold. […] The feeling today that the war was in aid of the Jewish cause, the current resentment that more was not done to relieve Auschwitz and similar hell-holes, slights the Pacific, anti-Japanese dimension of the war, which was the official—and unofficial—reason America had gone to war in the first place. (Germany declared war on the United States in accord with its treaty with Japan; only then did the United States, which had been observing Nazi anti-Semitism for years without doing a great deal about it, declared that Germany was its enemy too.) […] For most Americans, the war was about revenge against the Japanese, and the reason the European part had to be finished first was so that maximum attention could be devoted to the real business, the absolute torment and destruction of the Japanese.”

Maybe this is true. But what’s certainly also true is that people tried hard to ascribe meaning to the war in whichever way they could.

ii. “The military has long known that the soldier’s morale is sustained not just by plenty of badges and medals and by ample access to alcohol and, when possible, non-infectious sexual intercourse but by the irrational conviction on the part of each soldier that he has the honor of serving in the best squad in the best platoon in the best company in the best battalion in the best regiment, etc., in the army. Modify each of these units with damned or goddamned and you would come close to what an American soldier with high morale might be led to say. […] An equally useful irrational belief is the conviction that one is invincible and indestructible because one is so uniquely intelligent, agile, and skillful. Such self-delusion seldom survives a few bombing missions or a few weeks on the line. […]

For every frontline soldier in the Second World War there was the “slowly dawning and dreadful realization that there was no way out, that … it was only a matter of time before they got killed or maimed or broke down completely.” As one British officer put it, “You go in, you come out, you go in again and you keep doing it until they break you or you’re dead.”33
This “slowly dawning and dreadful realization” usually occurs as a result of two stages of rationalization and one of accurate perception:
1. It can’t happen to me. I am too clever /agile / well-trained / good-looking / beloved / tightly laced, etc. This persuasion gradually erodes to
2. It can happen to me, and I’d better be more careful. I can avoid the danger by watching more prudently the way I take cover / dig in / expose my position when firing my weapon / keep extra alert at all times, etc. This conviction attenuates in turn to the perception that death and injury are matters more of luck than skill, making inevitable the third stage of awareness:
3. It is going to happen to me, and only my not being there is going to prevent it. […]

In war it is not just the weak soldiers, or the sensitive ones, or the highly imaginative or cowardly ones, who will break down. Inevitably, all will break down if in combat long enough. […] As medical observers have reported, “There is no such thing as ‘getting used to combat’ … Each moment of combat imposes a strain so great that men will break down in direct relation to the intensity and duration of their experience. […]
In the Second World War the American Military learned […] that men will inevitably go mad in battle and that no appeal to patriotism, manliness, or loyalty to the group will ultimately matter.”

iii. “in wartime, outright lies were not necessary. Just a little shading, a little tinting, a little withholding of unpleasant facts would do” […]
“By congratulatory songs or other means, every unit had to have its due, whether, strictly speaking, earned or not. Receiving sufficient flattery, it would perform its tasks, even if boring or loathsome, moderately well. But unflattered, its morale would sink, and it would grow melancholy and depressed, and finally unruly and even mutinous. The principle worked the same on the home front. To keep the morale of war-workers from drooping, the E (for Excellence) flag was awarded with notable lack of discrimination to shipyards and similar industrial installations. When workers at food-processing plants (makers of spam and the like) began to feel slighted, an A flag (for Award) was devised to keep them satisfied. A total of 231 was conferred before the war ended.20”

iv. “I joined the army to fight fascism,” says this man [a British soldier], “only to find the army full of fascists.”

v. “If elementary logic—the only kind wartime could accomodate—required the enemy to be totally evil, it required the Allies to be totally good—all of them. The opposition between this black and this white was clear and uncomplicated, untroubled by subtlety or nuance, let alone irony or skepticism.”

vi. “In a way not easy to imagine in the present world of visual journalism, the war was mediated and authenticated by spoken language, whose conduit was the radio. For those at home the sound of the war was the sound of the radio. […] During the war the average listener spent four and a half hours a day attending to what came out of the speaker,2 and when something especially significant was expected, one sat in front of the radio and looked at it intently. What issued from it was thoroughly censored, and it was puritan, chaste, and resolutely optimistic. […] Regardless of what it may have become later, in the 1940s the cinema delineated little but a fairy-tale world of uncomplex heroism and romantic love, sustained by toupees, fake bosoms, and happy endings. It was a medium whose conventions equipped it perfectly for the evasion of wartime actualities, and it adapted to its new requirements without in any way changing step. […]
As Eileen M. Sullivan has concluded, “There was no room in this war-culture for individual opinions or personalities, no freedom of dissent or approval; the culture was homogenous, shallow, and boring.””

vii. “The manufacture of anything made of metal was soon forbidden or drastically curtailed, which meant not only no new cars but no bicycles, refrigerators, vacuum cleaners, stoves or household appliances in general, typewriters, even alarm clocks. […] Shoes were rationed from February, 1943 […] Men’s clothing manufacturers were forbidden to supply cuffs on trousers or vests with suits […] Paper was in short supply, and Kleenex virtually disappeared, not to mention toilet paper. […] Food rationing began a month after Pearl Harbor. […] By the end of the war virtually all foods were rationed except fruits and vegetables, and many people supplied these from their own gardens. It was always possible to beat the game by turning to the black market, but this required money and criminal cunning […]
All commodities scarce in the United States were even scarcer in the United Kingdom, and there were some shortages Americans never experienced, like blankets, bottles, drinking glasses, pots and pans and cutlery, soap, paper bags, bandages and drugs, bed sheets and towels, paper-clips, needles, thermos bottles, carpets, combs, and golf balls. […] petrol and heating oil were not to be had and coal was extremely scarce, so the roads were all but empty of civilian traffic and houses and buildings were even colder than usual. […] Paper became much more precious than in lumber-rich America. Newspapers dwindled to four pages […] Wood was so scarce that the manufacture of furniture was rigorously restricted, with “utility furniture”—22 standard items only— replacing previous stocks. […] You could spend a whole day waiting in lines, acquiring the most common items.”

viii. “Disappointment threatens anyone searching in published [American] wartime writing for a use of language that could be called literary—that is, pointed, illuminating, witty, ironic, clever, or interesting. What one finds, rather, is the gush, waffle, and cliché occasioned by high-mindedness, the impulse to sound portentous, and the slumbering of the critical spirit. Here is James Truslow Adams commenting on his essay “The American Dream,” which he has selected to represent him in Whit Burnett’s This Is My Best:

Our type of civilization, the American way of life, the American dream are all at stake. I cannot go into details of prophecy here, and the entire world will be different when the war is over. Life will be altered in countless ways, but I believe that the cause of free men will prevail, and that the American dream is so deeply rooted in the American heart that it, too, will survive, translated into perhaps a greater reality than ever. It can be lost only by us Americans ourselves, and I do not believe we want to forget it or cease striving to make it real.1

It would not be easy to contrive a parody-prose at once as pretentious and incompetent as that, and yet during wartime such utterances passed for profound and ennobling.”

ix. “In a world without electronic entertainment, drunken groups singing was a staple of evening parties.”

x. “What annoyed the troops and augmented their sardonic, contemptuous attitude towards those who viewed them from afar was in large part this public innocence about the bizarre damage suffered by the human body in modern war. The troops could not contemplate without anger the lack of public knowledge of the Graves Registration form used by the U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps with its space for indicating “Members Missing.” You would expect front-line soldiers to be struck and hurt by bullets and shell fragments, but such is the popular insulation from the facts that you would not expect them to be hurt, sometimes killed, by being struck by parts of their friends’ bodies violently detached. If you asked a wounded soldier or marine what hit him, you’d hardly be ready for the answer, “My buddy’s head,” or his sergeant’s heel or his hand, or a Japanese leg, complete with shoe and puttees, or the West Point ring on his captain’s severed hand. What drove the troops to fury was the complacent, unimaginative innocence of their home fronts […] each side was offered not just false data, but worse, false assumptions about human nature and behavior, assumptions whose effect was to define either a world without a complicated principle of evil or one where all evil was easily displaced onto one simplified recipient […] The postwar result for the Allies, at least, is suggested by one returning soldier, wounded three times in Normandy and Holland, who disembarked with his buddies to find on the quay nice, smiling Red Cross or Salvation Army girls. “They give us a little bag and it has a couple of chocolate bars in it and a comic book … We had gone overseas not much more than children but we were coming back, sure, let’s face it, as killers. And they were still treating us as children. Candy and comic books.”

xi. “Thirty-four people were killed in the cellar ballroom of the Café de Paris on March 8, 1941, when a bomb penetrated the ceiling and exploded on the bandstand, wiping out the band and many of the dancers. Nicholas Monsarrat recalls the scene a few moments later:

The first thing which the rescue squads and the firemen saw, as their torches poked through the gloom and the smoke and the bloody pit which had lately been the most chic cellar in London, was a frieze of other shadowy men, night-creatures who had scuttled within as soon as the echoes ceased, crouching over any dead or wounded woman, any soignée corpse they could find, and ripping off its necklace, or earrings, or brooch: riffling its handbag, scooping up its loose change.56″

That vignette suggest the difficulty of piercing the barrier of romantic optimism about human nature implicit in the Allied victory and the resounding Allied extirpation of flagrant evil. If it is a jolt to realize that blitzed London generated a whole class of skillful corpse robbers, it is because, within the moral assumptions of the Allied side, that fact would be inexplicable.”

August 15, 2012 - Posted by | books, history

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