Sunday, May 30, 2010

World War II Fading Into History. . .

As I get older, my perception of time changes. Interestingly, things that once seemed “contemporaneous” and “permanent” slowly begin to fade into the past and lose their reality. I’ve noticed this particularly with regard to World War II lately, which no longer seems very real. On the one hand, this is probably a good thing, as it lets us abandon ancient grudges and move on fresh into the future. But on the other hand, this represents a dangerous loss of wisdom.

Although I was born well after WWII (1970 actually), WWII was very real for me. Not only did I visit Germany growing up -- where the war was still being played out in many ways, e.g. I vividly recall riding a bike on an abandoned highway that was cut in half by a border fence -- but the remnants of WWII seemed to be everywhere in America as well. Many of the people I ran into were veterans of the war, and people still talked about it a good deal in casual conversation. References to it came up all the time in politics and in the news. It even permeated our culture. For example, the networks regularly showed WWII films on Saturday afternoons, and prime time often touched upon it, see for example The Winds of War. Plus, whenever they wanted to give a character an interesting past, they just hinted at what the character “had done during the war,” which always meant WWII.

But this seems to be vanishing. I can’t think of the last time WWII was mentioned on the news, and WWII war movies are shown less often. Magnum P.I. was the first television character I recall who served in Vietnam rather than WWII, and he stood out for this. Today, I can’t think of any television or film character who served in WWII. Instead, these characters call themselves “Iraq War Veterans,” or they make up a string of wars -- “Bosnia, Desert Storm, Iraq.” Even the old, old, old guys only trace their histories back to Vietnam now. WWII as a movie setting also has largely fallen out of favor.

I don’t know if this is a good thing or a bad thing. On the one hand, it is great that our species is capable of putting its past behind itself and moving forward. This should, except in rare circumstances, allow us to forget and to forgive and to move on without carrying around ancient grudges -- though some groups, e.g. the Balkans, simply refuse to give up these grudges and they pay a heavy price in continuous violence for it. This ability to move on is what helps us look forward to a better future rather than dwelling on the past.

But at the same time, as history becomes less real, i.e. personal, to us, we are losing a great deal of hard-won wisdom. In the 1990s, I visited Germany and, for the first time, found the Germans willing to talk about the war. My grandfather died when I was young, so he never spoke to me about it -- he had been drafted out of medical school and sent to Russia. My grandmother never wanted to talk about it until near the end of her life. But when she did finally talk, the stories were unforgettable. These were the kinds of stories you just don’t hear in America, because nothing like this has ever happened here. She spoke of friends who disappeared during bombing raids, never to be seen again -- not even a corpse was found. She spoke of the random event (an unexpected patient) that kept her working later than expected one night, causing her to miss a meeting which would have resulted in her dying the night the Allies destroyed Dresden. She spoke of the Russian soldier who, for reasons unknown, did not shoot her even though he found my grandfather’s uniform when he searched her apartment -- this normally led to summary execution. I met an old German farmer who drove a tank across Russia and told stories that were truly horrific. And there were others. But all of these people are gone now, and with their passing goes their perspective.

We can remember history through documentaries, but those are sterile and impersonal. They don’t convey the horror and the randomness of war like these stories do. Indeed, unlike a documentary, which is abstract to us, these stories personalize what happened, and they help give us pause whenever we start thinking too casually about blowing each other up. And when these stories are gone, all that we have left are facts, figures and a few photos that will never make these events as real to us as hearing about them first hand.

Moreover, these same people provide a perspective on when war is absolutely necessary that is utterly lacking in the modern debate. People who lived through WWII knew what was at stake, the life and the death of it, and they saw the consequences of letting someone like a Hitler or a Stalin come to power. To them, these were not abstract issues. Today’s generation, however, has lost touch with the wisdom that was earned at such a high price during WWII. They now think nothing of flirting with dictators and with the economic/social models that brought about hundreds of millions of deaths during the past century because they have no concept of what these types of evil men and evil ideas wrought. And if they have no grasp of the real differences between a Bush and a Hitler, then they are blind to the Hitlers in their midsts.

So while we should celebrate the human ability to move on and start fresh, it should also give us pause that we are losing so much hard-earned wisdom, and we should take great care not only to remember the big facts and the abstract concepts, but also the personal experiences.


23 comments:

ScottDS said...

Great article. (And for the record, I thought you were a little older for some reason. We're only separated by 13 years!) :-)

Interesting twist of fate your grandmother experienced that night.

Have you submitted your grandfather's name to the National WWII Memorial's Registry? My uncle submitted my grandfather's name and it's there on the website (and I assume emblazoned on the memorial itself).

And speaking as a movie-minded person, the optimistic part of me truly believes that every budding filmmaker has a WWII film in them. I sure do; I just don't know what it is yet. :-) And if that is indeed the case, then there will always be a place for it in the popular culture. (On the other hand, I could be wrong.)

USArtguy said...

In addition to WW II, there was the (truly) Great Depression. Just one generation, before was WWI. So my father served in a world war and his father before him. (I was born in 1960).

These were life changing events for all Americans. In all three cases, the entire country was a part of it. So pretty much, as a whole, everyone pulled together. Now we have many people in this country who don't even realize we are in a war. They aren't asked to give up anything to help the "war effort" let alone each other. Many have no personal stake in Iraq or Afghanistan. Our president makes no effort to unite us in this circumstance, rather he treats the conflict as if it's a mere distraction to his social change agenda. In short we do not feel a compelling reason to come together as Americans. That is the thing from WWII that's lacking today: a sense of "ownership" of today's war... reasons to come together despite differences, reasons "to be" Americans.

Today, we have a much better appreciation for our troops than we did in the 1960s and 1970s. At the same time, though, most Americans don't have the sense of urgency that not only our way of life, but our very existence is threatened. If we did, I think the Iraq/Afghan wars would have been over years ago.

Another point is that because we have so many without "skin in the game", it's easy to mischaracterize the military as nothing more than killing machines. There is much, much more to it than that. Overall, the soldier spends little of his time shooting the bad guys. Both my father (Battle of Okinawa) and father-in-law (Battle of the Bulge) almost never talked about those instances, but they had plenty to say about everything else. Most of it good. Sadly as of 2008 they're both gone now. So it's up to me to pass what I can along to my kid.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, It's the graying hair that confused you! LOL! Actually, to quote Indiana Jones, "It's not the years, it's the mileage" that matters.

I haven't submitted my grandfather's name because he was on the other side. Half my family was. In fact, one of the interesting things about my grandmother finally talking about the past was learning about my family history, which they trace much further back than my American relatives who can only trace their history back to the 1880s when they came here from Ireland. The German (actually Austrian) side, even had an explorer who we understand to be the first honky to meet the Dali Lama.

My grandmother actually had several narrow escapes. That's the thing about that time: life was random in Germany because one moment things were there and the next they weren't. The carnage was so overwhelming in Dresden that they were still digging bodies out of basements in 1959, when my grandparents fled to the West. And when the Russians came, they killed massive numbers of civilians -- which, by the way, is also what the Germans did in Russia.

In fact, one thing that has always struck me about the American understanding of the war versus the European understanding is the difference in the brutality level. We see the war as primarily soldiers shooting at each other. The Europeans don't. We also have never understood the scope of the killing. American military casualties in all of WWII were just over 405,000. Russian lost 8-10 million. Germany lost 5.5 million. That's a fact that often seems lost in our understanding of just how significant the war was. Particularly in later generations, we tend to see WWII as much more of a "sporting" event than the mass murder it was.

In terms of films, I don't doubt that there will always be WWII films. It's the first war to be covered so thoroughly by films, it has a clear bad guy, it is one of the most interesting forks in history, and people dig the uniforms. But we are definitely seeing fewer and fewer films about it already.

USArtguy said...

To tie my above comments in with Hollywood/TV...

there's the Griffith Observatory scene in the Rocketeer that illustrates my point. When the Rocketeer tells the gang leader "Eddie" that the man he's teamed up with is actually a Nazi spy, Eddie remembers he's American first and sides with, even if only temporarily, the Rocketeer.

ScottDS said...

Sorry about that. Damn my reading comprehension skills! :-)

I have some Austrian blood in me as well. My grandmother (on mom's side) once said one of my ancestors might've been one of Freud's patients, which makes too much sense.

And I agree with USArtguy's comments re: having a personal stake in Iraq or Afghanistan (or lack thereof).

AndrewPrice said...

USArtguy, Very well said, and that is exactly the point I was trying to reach -- that the WWII generation has an understand that the current generations do not. They understand evil. They understand the need to defeat evil. They understand the consequences of ignoring evil and letting it grow. And they understand the need to stand together. But they also understand that war is not a toy.

Too many people today remember the highly censored images they saw on television in Iraq or what they see in films and they think of the military as a toy that can be sent in to "surgically" eliminate a threat without any consequences to anyone. It's not. These are real people. And war isn't like that, even modern war -- it's violent, destructive and should be avoided except when absolutely necessary.

Unfortunately, because of this loss of perspective, people have come to think of the military as something other than average Americans being asked to risk their lives. Thus, some are too willing to use the military, whereas others demand restrictions that get our troops killed and then they get upset whenever our military destroys something that wasn't on the target list.

At the same time, you're absolutely right that people have lost the sense of sacrifice. Because they see the military as some sort of toy, they don't think that it should affect them that we are at war. Thus, as you put it, they don't have any skin in the game.

Moreover, because we've lost touch with the real horrors of that era, too many people today are unable to see the dangers that we face. They don't think anything of flirting with dictators. They treat Iran like a spoiled child rather than a budding Hitler. They don't see the difference between secret police who make people disappear and the local police who ask for ID when they make a traffic stop. And they spend their time looking for fake evil in our own side rather than seeing the obvious that some people out there want to destroy us.

That's what we've lost with these people passing into history.

BevfromNYC said...

Thanks Andrew. That was spot on. It can be so touchy to speak of Germans during the War.

Those who were born after 1955 have not been forced to sacrifice anything for citizenship. When Nixon disbanded the draft in 1972, we lost more than just a conscripted military. We lost a sense of the bigger picture. That sometimes one has to sacrifice for the greater good. It has everything to do with what is going on in the state of our union and our economy right now.
Everyone wants someone else to sacrifice, so they won't have to. It's always someone elses' fault. I can't be the only one who has noticed that.

AndrewPrice said...

USArtguy & Scott, Speaking of films/television, one of the things I find interesting along this line is the slow disappearance of 1950s television shows from the air. The old sit-coms and westerns from that era really were a mirror into the new American mindset.

We had beaten the Germans and, for a moment, we were the only power left standing. Our economy and military were unrivaled. We were strong, confident, and determined to remake the world in our own image -- we ended empires, even those of our friends, we worked to create free and fair societies everywhere, and we wanted to spread our culture.

And our television was a reflection of that. All of these shows were about the hero who had been forced into action, but now was determined to set the whole world right now that they had been given this task by history. The towns people all pulled together, and good and evil were very clear.

Even the sitcoms reflected these new values. Agrarian America was gone, in it's place was international cop America, where businessmen would roam the earth remaking the world into American-style capitalist and pushing American-style values.

But these have all faded now, with a few exceptions. In their place, we are left with modern sitcoms which are about self-doubting loners, bumbling family man with no dreams or influence, and uber-commercialism. And our dramas are about the seediest parts of our society. It's like we stopped caring about the dreamers and the builders and instead all we care about now are the dregs.

It's kind of sad.

StanH said...

Great story Andrew, and like so many who lived through the horror that was WWII, and as they die, so shall the real time memory…the urgency is non-transferable. However, it becomes the duty and obligation of the children, and the grandchildren of the greatest generation to preserve their sacrifices.

AndrewPrice said...

Bev, Very true about the Germans. They were the bad guys, no doubt. And they know that. And that's why until the 1990s, as a people, they really didn't talk about the war. But in the 1990s, with reunification, things began to change and they began to examine the war much more closely. What they found was that too many were far too willing to turn a blind eye or to participate in the evil things they had done, but also that many more were simply victims of being born in the wrong place at the wrong time. (Prior to then, in my opinion, they never looked honestly at the war -- they just repeated a standard apology and then pretended it never happened, while also using it as an excuse to take no role in international affairs. All of that began to change in the 1990s and they're still working it all out today.)

What I think is so important about the German perspective (and the Russian perspective is probably similar) is a realization of just how brutal and how random the war really was. We don't have similar stories here. We hear about soldiers suffering, but we don't hear about towns being flattened and people being killed indiscriminately. And that's just the surface of it. Between the Russians and Germans, it truly was a fight to the death with each side seeing the other as subhuman. So you've got murders, rapes, torture, etc. Those are things we need to keep in mind when we think about what mankind is capable of doing -- and of course, we have to consider the Holocaust and how disturbingly so many people went along with that.

So when people downplay what Islamic terrorists are capable of or what their goals are, or they downplay the goals of a guy like Ahmadinejad, I think anyone who knows what happened in WWII in Europe can see the lie in that. People who see others as subhuman can sink to the greatest depths and will cause the greatest suffering.

In terms of the draft, as a civil libertarian, I don't like the idea of a draft. I'm also not convinced that it would give people a sense of community, because conscription certainly doesn't do that in countries like Russia. But I do recognize the problem of a loss of community, and, in all honesty, I don't know how to fix that.

AndrewPrice said...

Stan, Thanks. And you're very right. On the one hand, I'm glad that groups like the History Channel try to record as many of these memories as they can. But the real obligation lies with us to talk to our parents and grandparents, to get the real stories -- the good and the bad, and to pass that on.

StanH said...

Your story about WWII, is analogues to the American Civil War and the South. The first total war of modern times, to give us blitzkrieg (Sherman’s march to the sea just one example). The loss of life was horrendous verses the white male population of the South. My family on my mothers side sent twenty-one to the war, three returned. My grandfather had letters from the war, that were passed along to him, from his grandfather talking about the utter devastation of the South, during the war, and after…privation, starvation, overwhelming sadness. Look at some of the pictures of Richmond or Atlanta, tell me that couldn’t be Dresden or Hamburg. The point is, the two wars had a lot of similarities, a racial component (most wars do), annihilation, Reconstruction/Marshall Plan, and a long legacy that still permeates this region to this day.

AndrewPrice said...

Stan, That's a good point. When we think of the Civil War, we think of battles and uniforms, but we have no memory of the collateral damage. Atlanta today has no relation to Atlanta then, and so we have no way to remember what happened to it during the war. To us, it's just a big, thriving city. We have no personal knowledge of the destruction and the carnage.

And as the people who do have that knowledge disappear into history, the war becomes more sterile to us. We know the numbers, but they don't mean anything personal to us.

And the danger in that is that we underestimate the consequences of war and of letting situations get to a point that war becomes the best option.

StanH said...

When I was a kid, I was playing with my two older brothers and we found a cannon carriage buried in a creek bed, the Atlanta Historical Society came and retrieved it. If you know where to look you can still find trenches. These kind of things reminded me of your bike ride and the separation of East & West Germany.

AndrewPrice said...

Stan, Neat! I didn't know there was much left that hadn't been discovered, but I should have guessed.

I'll tell you, the highway was eerie. It was a long straight highway that ran east-west through the woods. And right in the middle of it, ran two metal fences with about 100 feet between them. There was no gate, nothing. It literally just cut the road in half. One side was East Germany, the other was West Germany.

StanH said...

This was about forty-five years ago, I was a little kid, and Atlanta was much smaller then.

That bridge sounds very future shock, Orwellian if you will. It’s hard to believe that the Iron Curtain came down. I know when I was a kid and young adult, I believed the Soviet Empire was eternal, however my beliefs didn’t factor in the great Ronald Reagan.

AndrewPrice said...

Stan, Same here. The Soviets seemed like a fact of life, like they would always be there, and now they are so long gone that the Soviet Union no longer seems real at all.

I had a lot of faith in Reagan, but I never would have guessed that he would eventually destroy the Soviet Union. I thought he might marginalize them, kind of like a Cuba, but I never would have guessed that the whole thing would be gone in my lifetime. That's easily his greatest achievement!

AndrewPrice said...

P.S. Regarding Atlanta's size, I'm stunned at how big some cities have gotten in my lifetime. I've seen Denver and St. Louis go from "big cities" to HUGE! Even Colorado Springs has almost tripled in size since I left high school. It's strange to drive around thinking, "this used to be a big empty field for as far as you could see."

StanH said...

Oh my goodness! Atlanta in the ‘60s was around 200,000 at the beginning, to 500,000 at the end of the ‘60s. Now we have just under six million. In my mind too many!

AndrewPrice said...

Stan, Wow! I had no idea it had grown that much that quickly! That's incredible! I wonder how big it will be in another 20 years?

StanH said...

Sorry for the late response, I just watched Mr. Roberts with my dad, great old movie.

Metro Atlanta runs about a hundred miles across from the north to the south, east or west. The thing is, you’ll have trouble finding a Southerner the influx are from all over the country, lots of rust belt transfers. The growth is staggering, the recession has slowed it down a bit, but it’s still growing. My wife and I moved about 30miles north of the city 20 years ago, my wife was very upset with all the woods, the quiet, and animals. Now the city has surrounded us. In twenty years we could add a couple million more perhaps, I’ve heard numbers higher than that, who knows really.

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Thank you Andrew for sharing what your German side of your family went through.
I would like to read more if you ever find time to write about it.

"So while we should celebrate the human ability to move on and start fresh, it should also give us pause that we are losing so much hard-earned wisdom, and we should take great care not only to remember the big facts and the abstract concepts, but also the personal experiences."

I concur with your post and comments.
It is a real tribute to our Veterans that today we can call Germany and Japan friends and allies.

The biggest reason, I think, is because of the efforts of our Veterans and patriots to rebuild those countries and to bring freedom to their citizens.

I also concur that many folks today don't really know the price war can bring to civilians and to the warriors on both sides (many Germans and Japanese were deceived and lied to), or, on the other hand, what war can be good for: the protection of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and destruction of evil.

Unfortunately, many people take their liberties for granted, not realizing what it costs, and not knowing it must always be fought for, politically, culturally, spiritually and yes, especially in wars.

Because there is always enemies of liberty, within and without.

I sincerely hope that one day that won't be the case, but I don't believe that will occur anytime soon.

In the meantime we must do all we can to wake folks up to reality, and one way to do that is to pass on the wisdom of past generations.
Wisdom many died for and fought for.

The best documentaries about war is the ones that show it, like Victory At Sea, and many others without censorship, and also the ones that let the Veterans and civilians of those wars tell their stories, unedited.

I also believe that movies can convey lots of wisdom about war if it's done honestly, and if the viewers are open to the messages.

Many WW2 films did this well, some Korean war films as well, but very few Vietnam War films did this, and a few cold war films, but I have yet to see one honest flick about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, except peripherally in Iron Man (although I have yet to see Hurt Locker, many vets have said it's unrealistic, but at least not an all out assault on our troops).

I'm looking forward to Lone Survivor which is in production now, and I'm sure that will be good since Marcus Luttrell is overseeing it.

The bottom line is, folks tend to not appreciate or take for granted things they didn't fight for or earn (and by fight I also mean politically and culturally and not just physically).

IOW's spoiled. Unfortunately, that can get the guys and gals who do appreciate their liberties killed, and can lead to a rude awakening to the spoiled who elect representatives based on looks or "feelings" and one day find their liberties fading into history.

I don't mean to be judgemental for there was a time I was so self centered I didn't appreciate my liberties, but my time in the Navy opened my eyes to the truth (reality), thank God.

It's good to see that changing. I'm thankful for blogs like yours, Breitbarts, and many others spreading the word, so to speak with integrity and honesty.
Thank you for that.

AndrewPrice said...

Ben, You're welcome and thanks for the kind words!

Your point about Germany and Japan becoming our friends is absolutely correct, and that's something that really angers me when people impune our country's motives. We don't wage war to take over countries or grab land or to oppress people. . . that's not us.

We only fight when someone threatens us. And even then, our fighting men and women have been the most civilized, decent soldiers the world has ever known. No one else in the world can say that. And for people to accuse of us fighting "wars for oil" and crap like that just angers me to no end.

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