Everyday entropy: shock and awe

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Lee Sandlin, Losing the War

Another Viking term was “fey.” People now understand it to mean effeminate. Previously it meant odd, and before that uncanny, fairylike. That was back when fairyland was the most sinister place people could imagine. The Old Norse word meant “doomed.” It was used to refer to an eerie mood that would come over people in battle, a kind of transcendent despair. The state was described vividly by an American reporter, Tom Lea, in the midst of the desperate Battle of Peleliu in the South Pacific. He felt something inside of himself, some instinctive psychic urge to keep himself alive, finally collapse at the sight of one more dead soldier in the ruins of a tropical jungle: “He seemed so quiet and empty and past all the small things a man could love or hate. I suddenly knew I no longer had to defend my beating heart against the stillness of death. There was no defense.”

There was no defense — that’s fey. People go through battle willing the bullet to miss, the shelling to stop, the heart to go on beating — and then they feel something in their soul surrender, and they give in to everything they’ve been most afraid of. It’s like a glimpse of eternity. Whether the battle is lost or won, it will never end; it has wholly taken over the soul. Sometimes men say afterward that the most terrifying moment of any battle is seeing a fey look on the faces of the soldiers standing next to them.

But the fey becomes accessible to civilians in a war too — if the war goes on long enough and its psychic effects become sufficiently pervasive. World War II went on so long that both soldiers and civilians began to think of feyness as a universal condition. They surrendered to that eternity of dread: the inevitable, shattering resumption of an artillery barrage; the implacable cruelty of an occupying army; the panic, never to be overcome despite a thousand false alarms, at an unexpected knock on the door, or a telegram, or the sight out the front window of an unfamiliar car pulling to a halt. They got so used to the war they reached a state of acquiescence, certain they wouldn’t stop being scared until they were dead.

It was in a fey mood that, in the depths of the German invasion, Russian literary scholar Mikhail Bakhtin took the only copy of his life’s work, a study of Goethe, and ripped it up, page by page and day by day, for that unobtainable commodity, cigarette paper. It was because feyness poisons ordinary life that British writer Walter de la Mare could in 1943 begin a poem about the English countryside with the line “No, they are only birds” and not bother to say what he’d first thought they were. Everyone knew; they had learned the reflex of sudden terror, followed by infinite relief, triggered by the sight of small black forms moving quickly against a bright sky. And it was out of a fey despair that French composer Olivier Messiaen, while in a POW camp, wrote a work that may best define the war’s particular horror. He scored it for the only instruments available — two violins, a clarinet, and a battered upright piano — and it received its world premiere before an audience of prisoners (the most attentive and respectful audience Messiaen said he’d ever had). It isn’t a composition filled with nostalgia for what the war had destroyed or hope for what might survive; it gravely moves from bizarre turbulence to an agonized stillness, a prayer for relief from life and the cruelty of hope. Quatour pour la fin du temps, he called it, “Quartet for the End of Time.”

Feyness might also explain the deepest mystery of the war: why the surrender everybody expected never came. The Germans and Japanese refused to surrender even though they knew the war was lost.

It’s possible to quibble about the exact point at which the war was decided: Midway, Stalingrad, Falaise, Okinawa. In one sense, of course, the Axis never had any real hope of winning, because their whole strategy depended on a hopelessly idealized assessment of their chances. In effect, they’d convinced themselves that they were bound to win because their enemies would never fight back. The Americans would surrender after Pearl Harbor, the Soviet Union would crumble as soon as German troops crossed the border — the whole world would bow down before their inherent racial superiority. But by some unmistakable point — the autumn of 1942 at the latest — they should have understood that they’d been wrong and that their prospects for long-term victory were inexorably zeroing out. They still had the economic and military strength to sustain their armies in the field indefinitely, no matter how grim the strategic situation became, but by any rational calculation of the odds, they should have begun hinting through backwater diplomatic channels that they were willing to negotiate a cease-fire. Neither Germany nor Japan ever did so. Not until the last days of the war did either government even begin to consider the possibility of a negotiated settlement — not until they had absolutely nothing left to negotiate with.

But then, that’s the point. A rational calculation of the odds is a calculation by the logic of peace. War has a different logic. A kind of vast feyness can infect a military bureaucracy when it’s losing a war, a collective slippage of the sense of objective truth in the face of approaching disaster. In the later years of World War II the bureaucracies of the Axis — partially in Germany, almost wholly in Japan — gave up any pretense of realism about their situation. Their armies were fighting all over the world with desperate berserker fury, savagely contesting every inch of terrain, hurling countless suicide raids against Allied forces (kamikaze attacks on American ships at Okinawa came in waves of a hundred planes at a time) — while the bureaucrats behind the lines gradually retreated into a dreamy paper war where they were on the brink of a triumphant reversal of fortune.

They had the evidence. Officers in the field, unable to face or admit the imminence of defeat, routinely submitted false reports up the chain of command. Commanders up the line were increasingly prone to believe them, or to pretend to believe them. And so, as the final catastrophe approached, strategists in both Berlin and Tokyo could be heard solemnly discussing the immense weight of paper that documented the latest round of imaginary victories, the long-overrun positions that they still claimed to hold, and the Allied armies and fleets that had just been conclusively destroyed — even though the real-world Allied equivalents had crashed through the lines and were advancing toward the homeland.

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