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. War, any war, is for us a contemptible death trip, a relic of lizard-brain machismo, a toxic by-product of America’s capitalist military system — one more covert and dishonorable crime we commit in the third world. All my life I’ve heard people say “war is insanity” in tones of dramatic insight and final wisdom, and it took me a long time to realize that what they really meant was “war is an activity I don’t want to understand, done by people I fear and despise.”
But there’ve been places and times where people have thought of war as the given and peace the perversion. The Greeks of Homer’s time, for instance, saw war as the one enduring constant underlying the petty affairs of humanity, as routine and all-consuming as the cycle of the seasons: grim and squalid in many ways, but still the essential time when the motives and powers of the gods are most manifest. To the Greeks, peace was nothing but a fluke, an irrelevance, an arbitrary delay brought on when bad weather forced the spring campaign to be canceled, or a back-room deal kept the troops at home until after harvest time. 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.
In our own culture the people who know what war is like find it almost impossible to communicate with the children of peace. In the last election Bob Dole was defeated in large part because of World War II — what he thought it meant, and what he didn’t see it meant to people of a later generation. To Dole, World War II was a teacher of positive values: courage, self-sacrifice, respect for authority, dedication to a common goal — values he thought were signally absent in the soft and cynical selfishness of Clinton’s generation. But it was just that cynicism that Dole couldn’t crack. Everybody knew that if those values had ever really existed in America, they were only the result of some Norman Rockwell collective delusion. We’re smarter now — smart enough to see through war, anyway. We think it’s a sick joke to suggest that war could ever teach anybody anything good.
Out of idle curiosity, I’ve been asking friends, people my age and younger, what they know about war — war stories they’ve heard from their families, facts they’ve learned in school, stray images that might have stuck with them from old TV documentaries. I wasn’t interested in fine points of strategy, but the key events, the biggest moments, the things people at the time had thought would live on as long as there was anybody around to remember the past. To give everybody a big enough target I asked about World War II.
I figured people had to know the basics — World War II isn’t exactly easy to miss. It was the largest war ever fought, the largest single event in history. Other than the black death of the Middle Ages, it’s the worst thing we know of that has ever happened to the human race. Its aftereffects surround us in countless intertwining ways: all sorts of technological commonplaces, from computers to radar to nuclear power, date back to some secret World War II military project or another; the most efficient military systems became the model for the bureaucratic structures of postwar white-collar corporations; even the current landscape of America owes its existence to the war, since the fantastic profusion of suburban development that began in the late 1940s was essentially underwritten by the federal government as one vast World War II veterans’ benefit. (Before the war there were 3 suburban shopping centers in the U.S.; ten years after it ended there were 3,000.)
Then too, World War II has been a dominant force in the American popular imagination. In the mid-1960s, when my own consumption of pop culture was at its peak, the war was the only thing my friends and I thought about. We devoured World War II comic books like Sgt. Fury and Sgt. Rock; we watched World War II TV shows like Hogan’s Heroes and The Rat Patrol; our rooms overflowed with World War II hobby kits, with half-assembled, glue-encrusted panzers and Spitfires and Zeroes. I think I had the world’s largest collection of torn and mangled World War II decal insignia. We all had toy boxes stuffed with World War II armaments — with toy pistols and molded plastic rifles and alarmingly realistic rubber hand grenades. We refought World War II battles daily and went out on our campaigns so overloaded with gear we looked like ferocious porcupines. Decades after it was over the war was still expanding and dissipating in our minds, like the vapor trails of an immense explosion.
So what did the people I asked know about the war? Nobody could tell me the first thing about it. Once they got past who won they almost drew a blank. All they knew were those big totemic names — Pearl Harbor, D day, Auschwitz, Hiroshima — whose unfathomable reaches of experience had been boiled down to an abstract atrocity. The rest was gone. Kasserine, Leyte Gulf, Corregidor, Falaise, the Ardennes didn’t provoke a glimmer of recognition; they might as well have been off-ramps on some exotic interstate. I started getting the creepy feeling that the war had actually happened a thousand years ago, and so it was forgivable if people were a little vague on the difference between the Normandy invasion and the Norman Conquest and couldn’t say offhand whether the boats sailed from France to England or the other way around…
Granted, children always get the child’s version of war. But the child’s version is the only one readily available. It’s no problem of course, if you have sufficient archaeological patience, to root out a more complicated form of historical truth; bookstores offer everything from thumpingly vast general surveys to war-gaming tactical analyses of diversionary skirmishes to maniacally detailed collector’s encyclopedias about tank treads. The best academic histories — such as Gerhard L. Weinberg’s extraordinary A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II — document and analyze in depth aspects of the war that even the most fanatical buff may not have heard of before: the campaigns along the Indian border, for instance, or the diplomatic maneuvering about Turkish neutrality. But reading almost all of them, one has the sense that some essential truth is still not being disclosed. It’s as though the experience of war fits the old definition of poetry: war is the thing that gets lost in translation.
When I was taking my survey a friend told me that he was sitting with his father, a veteran of the European campaign, watching a TV special on the 50th anniversary of D day. My friend suddenly had the impulse to ask a question that had never occurred to him in his entire adult life: “What was it really like to be in a battle?”
His father opened his mouth to answer — and then his jaw worked, his face reddened, and, without saying a word, he got up and walked out of the room. That’s the truth about the war: the sense that what happened over there simply can’t be told in the language of peace.