Everyday entropy: time at war

Escher Stairs

Lee Sandlin, Losing the War

The war was the single dominant fact in the world, saturating every radio show and newspaper. Every pennant race was described on the sports pages in the metaphor of battle; every car wreck and hotel fire was compared to the air raids that everyone was still expecting to hit the blacked-out cities on the coasts.

But who was controlling the growth of this fantastic edifice? Nobody could say. People who went to Washington during those years found a desperately overcrowded town caught up in a kind of diffuse bureaucratic riot. New agencies and administrations overflowed from labyrinthine warrens of temporary office space. People came to expect that the simplest problem would lead to hours or days of wandering down featureless corridors, passing door after closed door spattered by uncrackable alphabetic codes: OPA, OWI, OSS. Nor could you expect any help or sympathy once you found the right office: if the swarms of new government workers weren’t focused on the latest crisis in the Pacific, they were distracted by the hopeless task of finding an apartment or a boarding house or a cot in a spare room. Either way, they didn’t give a damn about solving your little squabble about petroleum rationing.

It might have been some consolation to know that people around the world were stuck with exactly the same problems — particularly people on the enemy side. There was a myth (it still persists) that the Nazi state was a model of efficiency; the truth was that it was a bureaucratic shambles. The military functioned well — Hitler gave it a blank check — but civilian life was made a misery by countless competing agencies and new ministries, all claiming absolute power over every detail of German life. Any task, from getting repairs in an apartment building to requisitioning office equipment, required running a gauntlet of contradictory regulations. One historian later described Nazi Germany as “authoritarian anarchy.”

But then everything about the war was ad hoc and provisional. The British set up secret installations in country estates; Stalin had his supreme military headquarters in a commandeered Moscow subway station. Nobody cared about making the system logical, because everything only needed to happen once. Every battle was unrepeatable, every campaign was a special case. The people who were actually making the decisions in the war — for the most part, senior staff officers and civil service workers who hid behind anonymous doors and unsigned briefing papers — lurched from one improvisation to the next, with no sense of how much the limitless powers they were mustering were remaking the world.

But there was one constant. From the summer of 1942 on, the whole Allied war effort, the immensity of its armies and its industries, were focused on a single overriding goal: the destruction of the German army in Europe. Allied strategists had concluded that the global structure of the Axis would fall apart if the main military strength of the German Reich could be broken. But that task looked to be unimaginably difficult. It meant building up an overwhelmingly large army of their own, somehow getting it on the ground in Europe, and confronting the German army at point-blank range. How could this possibly be accomplished? The plan was worked out at endless briefings and diplomatic meetings and strategy sessions held during the first half of 1942. The Soviet Red Army would have to break through the Russian front and move into Germany from the east. Meanwhile, a new Allied army would get across the English Channel and land in France, and the two armies would converge on Berlin.

The plan set the true clock time of the war. No matter what the surface play of battle was in Africa or the South Seas, the underlying dynamic never changed: every hour, every day the Allies were preparing for the invasion of Europe. They were stockpiling thousands of landing craft, tens of thousands of tanks, millions upon millions of rifles and mortars and howitzers, oceans of bullets and bombs and artillery shells — the united power of the American and Russian economies was slowly building up a military force large enough to overrun a continent. The sheer bulk of the armaments involved would have been unimaginable a few years earlier. One number may suggest the scale. Before the war began the entire German Luftwaffe consisted of 4,000 planes; by the time of the Normandy invasion American factories were turning out 4,000 new planes every two weeks.

The plan was so ambitious that even with this torrential flow of war production it would take years before the Allies were ready. The original target date for the invasion was the spring of 1943 — but as that date approached the Allies realized they weren’t prepared to attempt it. So it was put off until the late spring of 1944. But what would happen in the meanwhile? A worldwide holding action. The Red Army would have to hang on to its positions in Russia, the Americans would go on inching their way into the Japanese empire, and the Allies everywhere would commit their forces to campaigns designed only to keep the Axis from expanding further. In the years between Pearl Harbor and the Normandy invasion the war around the world grew progressively larger, more diffuse, less conclusive, and massively more chaotic.

Those were desperate years. The storm center then was in Russia, where the German army was hurling attack after overwhelming attack at the Soviet lines. To this day, most Russians think World War II was something that happened primarily in their country and the battles everywhere else in the world were a sideshow. In August 1943, for instance, in the hilly countryside around the city of Kursk (about 200 miles south of Moscow), the German and Soviet armies collided in an uncontrolled slaughter: more than four million men and thousands of tanks desperately maneuvered through miles of densely packed minefields and horizon-filling networks of artillery fire. It may have been the single largest battle fought in human history, and it ended — like all the battles on the eastern front — in a draw.

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