I don’t often read books about war. I didn’t play with toy soldiers or enjoy war like recreations. Although it filled my childhood cultural life with movies and television shows from the glorifying myth-making movies like, Strategic Air Command and The Longest Day to farcical television situation comedies like Hogans’s Heroes, I have no nostalgia for it. World War II shaped our values, it framed our view of history and morality with a legacy of heroism, suffering and loss. The war was felt by billions of people directly impacted by its devastation.
I was born in 1955, ten years after the end of World War 2. Both of my parents were veterans of the war, my mother as a 19 year-old member of the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) and my father a meteorologist in the Navy serving aboard an aircraft carrier in the Pacific. My second father, my uncle Wesley was a career Army soldier who seldom reveled in stories about his war experience in WWII and Korea. My mother’s fiancee was killed in World War II and I have a German woman friend whose father was killed during the last week of the war. I’ve known many holocaust survivors. I had dinner last year with a French woman in her seventies who wept as she spoke of the death of her father at the hands of the Germans almost seventy years ago. We had a young second cousin killed in Afghanistan three years ago. War finds us all.
I remain thankful that in my “Call Up” year the draft ended (My lottery number that year was 8. I would have been drafted). At that time all of us young men were uncertain about the war and how to deal with the draft. Our Junior High School music teacher told us to keep practicing our instruments because it is better to play music in Military parades then die in the jungle. All of my closest friends were anti-war, though oddly all of us had stated different intentions about how we would deal with the draft. I only write these things to share my perspective. This piece has nothing to do with me.
I was twenty years old when I first read Bertolt Brecht’s anti-war play, Mother Courage and Her Children and came upon this statement: “Peace is the time between wars.” In my youthful naiveté I thought of war as an aberration, a breakdown of the natural and desired state of humanity–peace. In my youthful naiveté, I thought most people shared that view.
Grinding through Beevor’s detailed, almost play-by-play accounts of the various occupations, invasions, battles, atrocities and strategies, the war has burrowed deeply into my being. I wake in the middle of the night terrorized by dreams where I am in the war. Driving through the agrarian countryside where I live filled cows peacefully grazing in the pastures, I imagine the presence of tanks overrunning the fields and slaughtering the animals to feed their ravenous appetites. I imagine bridges blown by sappers and the order of my little town undone. When Beevor describes naval campaigns in the South Pacific, I imagine the warmth of the water and sailors swimming from their sunken vessels. Plan after plan, battle after battle, brutality after brutality, Beevor describes war in its horrifying cathartic bestiality and futile megalomaniacal cannibalism. World War II started as a crazed seizure for an empire and soon released dormant human impulses which went unchecked and uncontrolled. The blood chilling reality of death at the hands of any war mad killer scares the shit out of me. War is the manifestation of horror.
Whether the exterminating attack or defense of Leningrad then Stalingrad, followed by their mind staggering human loss of life defenses, the bombing of London, the ethnic cleansing of Jews, Gypsies, the frail or unwanted, the battle for Italy, D-Day, Iwo Jima, the strategic and vengeful destruction of cities like Dresden, the rape of tens of million of women and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, what is clear in every detail of Beevor’s telling is that in war innocents are slaughtered by the millions. Though warring parties like to distinguish between the numbers of casualties of combatants and non-combatant, the distinction is rendered meaningless as children and citizens are thrust into uniforms with no chance to refuse. There is no safe way to disengage. It matters not whether in defense or aggression; the blood spills.
It matters not whether in aggression or defense. It matters not whether defending your homeland or invading another. It matters not whether you are fighting for a noble principle or an economic advantage. It matters not whether you are the invader or the avenger. It matters not whether the puppeteer initiating death is a communist, capitalist, racist, madman, fool, or priest, the slaughter of innocents happens and the putrid stench of death envelops all.
In World War II the principle mad puppeteer of slaughter was Adolph Hitler, but Stalin was only pre-empted by his German counterpart, and the rest of the players from Emperor Hirohito, Mao Tse Tung, Chiang Kai Shek, Marshal Petain, Il Duce Mussolini, Marshall Tito, General DeGaulle, Prime Minister Churchill, and President Roosevelt, not to mention their countless generals all played their part in the slaughter.
World War II was long referred to as The Good War, this, presumably by those who might fairly frame the purpose being to stop Hitler. But reading Beevor, trying to sort through the good and the bad makes one’s head spin. While it would be unfair to deny that Hitler had to be stopped, the origins of that monster can be traced back to the lunacy of many who later resisted his aggression. Is Churchill, the defender of the declining British Empire, clean? While Hitler seduced the collective will of his people and led them to destruction, so too did Stalin insulated by being the invaded, serve up tens of millions to the cause in what would be a prelude to a reign of terror seldom that would defy reason. No one could pull out, there was no way to stop the insanity.
I owe a profound debt of gratitude to anyone who stood against Hitler, though many of the leadership who did so simultaneously plotted their own domination and influence. While some had cleaner hands than others, no one was clean. The war didn’t happen in a vacuum. The wars and massive deaths that would follow as a result of the dust settling on a new world order sullied everyone whether the Chinese and Soviet Communists and the Capitalist Cold Warriors. The killing didn’t stop at the end of the war.
Reading about war challenges any belief that humans are inherently good: individuals may be but humans…?
I struggle with a pang of conscience here because I do not want to overlook or minimize the sacrifice made by so many who fought to stop the war though they had nothing to gain from it. And sadly, Beevor’s account only mentions a few of the countless individuals who held to their best human core and acted against the violence in great and small ways. There were many.
The Second World War has tortured me for a month: real war tortures its victims for the rest of their lives. Compared to what any of the hundreds of millions of people who endured the war, my experience is trivial. At times I asked myself why continue reading something so horrible? Beevor must have understood this impulse himself and provides an answer in Chapter 19, which deals with the Wansee Conference, the well chronicled meeting by the German High Command where the Final Solution of how best to fulfill Hitler’s plan for the annihilation of the Jewish race. Beevor cites Journalist Vasily Grossman’s war reportage upon the discovery of the extermination civilians in Babi Yar, a ravine near Kiev in the Ukraine where the Germans exterminated tens of thousand. Grossman wrote, “It is the writer’s duty to tell this terrible truth, and it is the civilian duty of the reader to learn it.”
I am a civilian. I accept the duty. I finished the book.
I am not an historian nor am I scholarly enough to evaluate the war by its military or geopolitical terms. I prefer not to do so because once you entwine yourself in war’s internal rationale it is hard to escape. I want to look at war in another way.
It would be foolish to retrofit history into today’s morality, but I will consider what the world might have been had if the prime moving force behind any single one of these men been to protect and serve the welfare of their people? Beevor’s account of the machinations of the leaders of the war makes one think of a room full of mad men in the asylum playing a heated game of Stratego. Even as they confront the horrific loss of life of their own people, if not their allies and enemies, the plotting continues. The seeds of the next war are sown in the midst of the cruel cultivation of this one.
Beevor cites a Soviet Soldier, Leonid Rabachev’s account of the mass rapes and murders committed by conquering Soviet troops entering East Prussia during the final push to Berlin. “…This is not an initiation rite, and it has nothing to do with revenge against the accursed occupiers, this is just hellish diabolical group sex. This represents a complete lack of control and the brutal logic of a crowd gone mad…”
The savagery of the Soviet troops come to pay back the Germans for their equal savagery is legendary. No matter the nationality of the savage, it is women who are savaged the worse. How can one not see war as the manifestation of pathological male energy?
In Beevor’s own words he adds, “It is far too sweeping to ascribe this pitiless behavior simply to lust or vengeance. For a start, there were many officers and soldiers who did not take part in the rapes and were horrified by the actions of their comrades. Devoted communists were shocked by the disorder, and the controlled nature of Soviet Society made such indiscipline hard to imagine. But the extreme harshness of life at the front had created a different community, and many became surprisingly outspoken in their hatred of the collective farms and the oppression which had dominated their lives. Soldiers bitterly resented the pointless sacrifice caused by so many futile attacks, as well as the demeaning treatment which they had to endure. …So, although a strong desire for revenge existed against the Germans who had violated the Motherland and killed their families, there was also a strong element of the same knock-on theory of oppression which had conditioned Japanese troops. The temptation to work off past humiliations and suffering which they had endured was overwhelming, and now it was worked off on the vulnerable women of their enemies.”
Once the war was on, it had a force with little connection its initial catalyst.
There are not a lot of clean hands in this cast. Not that I needed further evidence that all ideology is corrupt, Reading of the actions committed by proponents of every imaginable ideology, it is impossible for me to believe that any might ever mean anything to me again. And when the slaughter stops, the powerful remain so as the powerless bury their dead and try to feed themselves and rebuild their lives absent their loved ones.
One thing that comes up repeatedly in Beevor’s book is the constant fear by leadership that they could lose the support of the people, whether the citizenry or the soldiers pressed into service. War ultimately derives its power from the consent of the people.
Propaganda, the art of telling people what to think is an essential ingredient of any war. Whether a massive campaign to create fear and heighten tension, demonize the enemy or to lie about how casualties or battle defeats, war relies on our participation. Demagogues fear only that we may choose not to play.
I struggle to grasp the inner dynamics of history and have to rely on those who tell its story. Perhaps this puts me at a disadvantage, or perhaps it allows me to see war for the perverted game of power and ambition waged to advance the sick desires of those who would rule the world. From my view, war does nothing but destroy and waste lives and when it ends, nothing is achieved, nothing is gained, all is loss.
I didn’t write this as a book review but as a visceral reaction to something that affects our lives and from which we need protection. Sharing my reaction to the book with an old friend who lives in Europe, I wrote that I feel fortunate that we were never soldiers swept into the madness. His sangfroid reply was helpful, “Keep your guard up, wars are breaking out all over in places I never would have suspected.” His point is clear. War doesn’t end, it lurks at all times until we lower our guard and then it pounces. And once unleashed, it is hard to control and even harder to stop.