I've been reading an anthology of essays edited by Ira Glass, The New Kings of Nonfiction, and was struck by an essay by Lee Sandlin entitled Losing the War. He points out what over and over again history books and docudramas seem to marginalize about World War II: "what an absolutely miserable, pointless, blundering, screaming bloody hell it was," to quote one review.
What I found most interesting, after reading it, was that the piece was written in 1997. It's so relevant to the current situation in Iraq and, in my humble peacenik opinion, just about any other war that has ever been waged. War is so barbaric, so out of place on this small planet, and yet conflict smolders and burns all around us.
Sandlin does a quick run-down of what he calls "the standard autopsy of the causes" of WWII: Germany crumbling after WWI, Japan's wounded national pride, racism, military stockpiling, fear mongering. And then he hits you upside the head with this...
"All of this is true enough, yet there's something faintly bogus and overly rationalized about it. The approaching war didn't seem like a political or economic event: it was more like a collective anxiety attack. Throughout the '30s people around the world came to share an unshakable dread about the future, a conviction that countless grave international crises were escalating out of control, a panicked sense that everything was coming unhinged and that they could do nothing to stop it."
As I read that, I had to stop and remember that Sandlin was writing about the days leading up to WWII, not the current fears about which the world is currently so panicked. Not only is this not written about our current world crisis, but the article is ten years old. So many other articles in ten years would feel quaintly outdated, but war is always familiar.
He continues: "From the beginning, the issues of the war were discussed only in the dreariest of platitudes. 'America is the symbol for freedom,' Life magazine patiently explained to its readers— as though there might have been some confusion about whether the other side was the symbol for freedom. But Life firmly refused to be drawn into a debate about what 'freedom' might mean: 'Freedom is more than a set of rules, or a set of principles. Freedom is a free man. It is a package. But it is God's package."
End of discussion. Hard to believe anybody was moved to go to war by such tripe, but it was typical. When they're consumed by war fever, people don't need considered rationales for the use of military force; they don't even bother with the appearance of logic."
And with that, I was taken back to the gloomy days after 9/11, when everyone put those newspaper-printed American flags up in their windows and storefronts. Until I read this essay, I always thought of WWII as I had heard it described: "the Last Great War." But really, when I think of it, one war is just like any other war. People dying in the trenches, blown to pieces, driven to insanity by the things they've seen and done. The economic wreckage of the losing country, the economic loss of so much destruction, the forgotten mines and bombs that obliterate people up to this day and even as I type this.
Sandlin points out near the beginning of the article that "people my age and younger who've grown up in the American heartland can't help but take for granted that war is unnatural. We think of the limitless peace around us as the baseline condition of life. All my life I've heard people say 'war is insanity' in tones of dramatic insight and final wisdom. But there's been places and times where people have thought of war as the given and peace as the perversion . . . Any of Homer's heroes would see the peaceful life of the average American as some bizarre aberration, like a garden mysteriously cultivated for decades on the slopes of an avalanche-haunted mountain."
I think we get a choice though: do we want to be the gardener, or the avalanche?