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Losing the War
January 3, 2010 12:35 AM   Subscribe

Losing the War "From the beginning, the actual circumstances of World War II were smothered in countless lies...People all along have preferred the movie version: the tense border crossing where the flint-eyed SS guards check the forged papers; the despondent high-level briefing where the junior staff officer pipes up with the crazy plan that just might work...The truth behind these cliches was never forgotten -- because nobody except the soldiers ever learned it in the first place."
posted by deern the headlice (151 comments total) 60 users marked this as a favorite

 
Interesting link. It'll be a bit before I get a chance to read it all - due warning, I've got it counted at 60 pages, and that seems conservative - but it seems very thought-provoking.
posted by koeselitz at 1:11 AM on January 3, 2010


So far an interesting link. I will finish it soon.
posted by bjgeiger at 1:18 AM on January 3, 2010


But it seems somehow paltry and wrong to call what happened at Midway a "battle." It had nothing to do with battles the way they were pictured in the popular imagination. There were no last-gasp gestures of transcendent heroism, no brilliant counterstrategies that saved the day. It was more like an industrial accident. It was a clash not between armies, but between TNT and ignited petroleum and drop-forged steel. The thousands who died there weren't warriors but bystanders -- the workers at the factory who happened to draw the shift when the boiler exploded.

Definitely an interesting read so far, thanks for the post.
posted by Allan Gordon at 1:35 AM on January 3, 2010


In America the war lingers mostly in intimate, private memories. Yet countless mementos surround us if we're willing to look for them. Tinted photographs, punctured helmets, unused books of ration stamps, old combat maps smeared with dried mud -- mantels and display cases across America are filled with relics as evocative as the splinters of the True Cross.

Or one could just read one of the countless first-hand accounts of war. They're often found in books, which, to paraphrase Wodehouse, are instruments designed to facilitate the acquisition of knowledge.

I found that piece very hard to read - self-serving and smug in the sense of looking for romanticism. I reckon that, if the author had ever seen war, he'd be quite embarrassed by it.

Guess what - most people prefer the movie version of any human experience. War is mostly long, boring, cold, hungry and tedious . . . then every once in a while someone lobs a grenade at you or shells your house or a sniper's bullet pierces your arm or rapes and kills someone you know and you get hysterical . . . and then it goes back to being long, boring, cold, hungry and tedious for eons and eons. While I like a lot of the human experiences eschewed by many people I know, war is one in which the movie version is quite plainly preferable.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 1:36 AM on January 3, 2010 [40 favorites]


I would say that it's actually a blessing that the Americans remember so little about the war. In some sense, it's also perfectly normal, as the war never really came to them (apart from Pearl Harbor, of course, and some islands in the Pacific), it always stayed a distant thing, so there are no real "places of memory" in the mainland US to keep the memories alive. Around here, the things are unfortunately quite different: I would say that there's too much memory of the war. The war is still a matter of public discussion and these discussions often tend to get pretty heated. Even though nearly seventy years have passed, the memory of the war still affects people's lives by affecting the way they think. It's cynically used and abused by politicians. If only they could forget it like they've "forgotten" the post-war decades, but I doubt that they will.
posted by daniel_charms at 1:47 AM on January 3, 2010


Dee Xtrovert

I know it's long, but please actually read the link before commenting.

His entire point is that war is not something romantic and that is a view expressed quite lividly throughout the entire piece.
posted by Allan Gordon at 2:13 AM on January 3, 2010 [2 favorites]


I know it's long, but please actually read the link before commenting.

Allan:

Don't patronize me. I did read the entire link before commenting.

I stand by my comments. I wouldn't expect him to take the overt stance that war is romantic, but having survived war myself, I see plenty of examples of romaticization of it anyhow. It may be couched in other things, but it's there. Perhaps he is romanticizing his lack of romanticism or something, but I could see right throw it, and I thought it was tripe.

When I returned to Sarajevo, I went to the place where I stayed after my own house was destroyed. There, in the attic, I found a lot of my stuff from the war. A stash of homemade make-up. Some books I didn't want to burn at the time. A Turkish rug I used as a blanket when it got really cold. A box of Vietnam-era "biscuits" which had been stored away for decades (yes, they had dates on them) in some American Army warehouse, before being handed out to us in early 90's Sarajevo. These were mementos, I suppose, in someone's point of view. But I threw them away - happily. They're just things that I used during the war. I'd rather have them at the garbage dump than have someone refer to them later as something akin to how this author sees similar WWII objects - "relics as evocative as the splinters of the True Cross."

Because that's romanticized crap. Even if I hadn't read the article at that time.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 2:27 AM on January 3, 2010 [29 favorites]


"smug and self-serving", eh?
posted by fleacircus at 2:37 AM on January 3, 2010 [2 favorites]


I love it when people extrapolate the meaning of a 60 page article from one sentence.

Let's ignore the countless examples he uses of how the war was ill-planned chaos where so many died due to not doing the proper due diligence. I don't really see how you can call him trying to romanticize war when he uses the example of Okinawa and I guess a quote would be better, "They had to use discarded grenade cans for latrines, then empty the contents into the mud outside their foxholes. The rain washed everything into the ravines; the urine and feces mixed with the blood and the shreds of rotting flesh blown by the shell bursts from the hundreds of unburied bodies scattered everywhere. The smell was so intolerable it took an act of supreme will for the soldiers to choke down their rations each day. Sledge calls it "an environment so degrading I believed we had been flung into hell's own cesspool."


Perhaps he is romanticizing his lack of romanticism or something, but I could see right throw it, and I thought it was tripe.


I found that piece very hard to read - self-serving and smug in the sense of looking for romanticism. I reckon that, if the author had ever seen war, he'd be quite embarrassed by it.


Sorry for assuming.
posted by Allan Gordon at 2:44 AM on January 3, 2010


To me, the tiger is just a platitude -- if it means anything, it's a symbol for all the violence in life I've been spared.

this person is apparently rather sentimental if not febrile

The astonishing events of that morning, the "fatal five minutes" on which the war and the fate of the world hung

eyeroll. Coming from a person who bemoans lack of historicity, this is laughable. The Red Army eventually pushing the Germans back to the Elbe was something of a foregone conclusion (ok, in retrospect) by mid-1942. A reversal of the outcome at Midway would have delayed the defeat of Japan by a year, nothing more. Stalin would have likely ended up occupying Hokkaido and we'd have stopped at Guam and not gone on to the Philippines before dropping an a-bomb or two a month until the Japanese surrender.

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.

This is becoming a flaw in his argument. My grandfather was a basic rifleman in the Seventh Marines on Peliliu and Okinawa. It fucked him up but good mentally. Unfortunately, we never talked about it (my WW2 kick only came from finding the WW2 shelf of awesome ex-ROTC war histories at my university's library) but from this book written by a mortarman in a sister regiment of the 1st Marine Division I was able to learn the details of what modern combat is like. [edit: I see the author mentions this work later in his piece]

I can almost hear behind its silent roar another sound, a more resonant bellow -- as though war were a storm raging through an immeasurable abyss, and this little trinket preserved an echo of its thunder

He is beginning to romantize war it looks like. One of my college buds sent me to Bill Whittle's site recommending his essays, I got through half of one before he started on about "the crucible of war". Grrr.

Japan's growing dependence on foreigners to keep its industrializing economy going was leading to widespread and deepening feelings of humiliated anger and outraged national pride.

wut? Japan wanted to take over China. They had already evicted the decrepit Manchu empire and colonized Korea, Taiwan, and pushed headlong in Manchuria. They wanted to play the game that the French were playing in French Indochina, the Dutch were playing in the Dutch East Indies, we started to play in the Philippines but lost interest, and that the British were playing globally. The game worked well for them in WWI, were we fobbed off the German holdings of Micronesia, but they were frustrated and pissed that we didn't deign to let them take over the German settlement of Tsingtao.

But the depths of that seclusion were still profound. This is one of the things about America in those days that's hardest for us to imagine now: how impossibly far away people thought the problems of the world were. It's not just that there was no TV, and thus no live satellite feed from the current crisis zone. America didn't even have a decent road system back then.

good point.

A Gallup poll taken in the summer of 1941 showed that a large majority of respondents agreed that America was bound to be drawn into the war eventually

There is some confusion here. Polling was agreed that we were likely going to be dragged into the war, but isolationists could still point to polls like this one:

Isolationist Colonel Robert Rutherford McCormick, simultaneously conducted a poll in his Chicago Tribune on the same question. Of 257,484 post cards mailed to every tenth voter, 77,229 (30%) answered: Yes (for war), 14,176, or 18.36%; No (against war), 62,394, or 80.79%[1]

This was the message that was seeping through Wagner's dream of happiness on those summer afternoons in 1943. It was a stronger dose of the message that has always hurried nations into war. Our land is more precious than that of our enemies, our joys are sweeter than theirs, our losses are more deeply felt. The soldiers in that auditorium apparently believed -- or almost believed -- in the rightness of their cause and the urgency of victory, to the point of anguish. And the performance told them that this was what the music had always been intended to say: if only the ecstasy of song lasts we will be saved; if only we can hold on to this heartbreakingly beautiful vision of our true heritage, then everything we are doing in its name will be redeemed.

By Mid-1943 the war had taken a rather bad turn for the Germans. They had just witnessed the loss of the 6th Army in Stalingrad, equivalent to the N Vietnamese as part of Tet encircling and capturing all the Marines that were holding the line in North part of SVN. 10X more than that of course, since the Russian War was one of national survival for the Germans.

Of course the Germans believed in the rightness of their cause! They were fighting for the fatherland, to repulse the satanic and dehumanizing totalitarianism of the bolsheviks that was threatening Europe in the 20s and 30s.

That was a lucky thing, because right then there was no compelling military reason to expect an Allied victory [in Tunisia]. ? Rommel had been thrown back from Egypt and Libya, and was cornered on two fronts by a joint US-Commonwealth force. The German eastern front in Russia had been utterly broken and half the German army was in full retreat to avoid capture. The siege of Malta had been lifted as convoys to it could be protected from Algeria.

In the months after Pearl Harbor the driving aim of Japanese strategy was to capture a string of islands running the length of the western Pacific and fortify them against an American counterattack. mmm. Priority one was consolidation of the resource areas to the south and getting them online in the overextended Japanese war economy. The Japanese thought they had the upper hand for 1942 and were proceeding rather slowly in creating a defensive perimeter.

Coming on toward 10:30 AM, with no further sign of enemy activity anywhere near, the commanders ordered the crews on the aircraft carriers to prepare for the final assault on the island, which wasn't yet visible on the horizon.

The hell? For one, Midway was never going to be visible to the Kidobutai since they were carriers and not a surface force. Secondly, as early as 8:00 Nagumo had learned of carriers in the area, but encountered a nightmare of a plane juggling problem in landing one strike, keeping CAP up against incoming attacks from Midway (and later, torpedo bombers from the USN carriers).

That was when a squadron of American dive-bombers came out of the clouds overhead. They'd got lost earlier that morning and were trying to make their way back to base.

grrr. McClusky's squadron wasn't lost, they were flying to find the Japanese fleet, which had turned NE and thus avoided contact.

The aircraft carriers were in a frenzy just then. Dozens of planes were being refueled and rearmed on the hangar decks, and elevators were raising them to the flight decks, where other planes were already revving up for takeoff

And had been all morning. First preparing the attack strike, maintaining cap, rearming the second wave for bombs, then back to torpedoes and AP, all the while the carriers were dodging incoming high level and torpedo bombers.

From Midway till the end of the war the Japanese didn't win a single substantial engagement against the Americans. They had "lost the initiative," as the bland military saying goes, and they never got it back.

mm. At one point in late 1942 the USN was down to one half-busted carrier, reduced to serving as a plane ferry to Guadalcanal, while Yamamoto had both the Yamato and Musashi in hand (but, alas, not quite enough fuel to really move either of them, nor the strategic desire to put absolutely everything into the Solomons battle).

The thousands who died there [at Midway] weren't warriors but bystanders -- the workers at the factory who happened to draw the shift when the boiler exploded.

true, to a large extent. Serving in the Navy was comparatively a decent gig until your ship ran into serious trouble. Then it sucked.

The combatant nations of World War II were supplying their forces with armaments of such dramatically increased power they made those of World War I obsolete.

grrr. Artillery is the King of the Battlefield and the trenches served as ground zero for that, where all the greenery and much of the elevation was blasted from the landscape in a strip stretching from the channel to Luxembourg.

But nobody had stopped to consider just how vulnerable they'd be in a combat zone. Midway was the first major naval battle involving aircraft carriers, and in those few minutes the sailors on board suddenly realized the fundamental defect in their design

Goddammit. The Japanese carriers at the battle of Coral Sea survived similar attacks fine -- their onboard aircraft didn't cook off like at Midway. USN carriers at Midway had CO2 in the gaslines and were squared away for aggressive damage control. A couple of hours after taking a bomb in the stack the Yorktown was patched up and back in the fight.

An old-fashioned attack fleet would have been carrying less-powerful explosives and far less fuel (and the American planes wouldn't have been equipped with such large bombs);

This writer apparently doesn't know the revolution of Fisher's dreadnoughts, nor the major fleet action of WW I.

But the truth is that for most soldiers war is no more inherently dangerous than any other line of work.

While it is true that the tooth-to-tail ratio is rather short, this is ignoring the fact that infantry divisions go through a lot of teeth during extended combat.

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.

Dur.

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

And also throw the Germans out of the Ukraine and away from the gates of Leningrad.

[Kursk] 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.

The northern pincher didn't go anywhere and was threatened on its flank and had to withdraw. The southern pincher chewed through the first lines and was partially through the second when it got jumped by fresh Russian reserves thrown into the battle. Tactical draw perhaps, but a stinging strategic defeat for Hitler.

What was the point, for instance, of the Allied invasion of Italy in the summer of 1943?

L'audace, l'audace, toujours l'audace. You don't win wars waiting for things to happen. Though of course the degree of German resistance and terrain difficulties made the effort rather wasteful.

it was just an arbitrary way of marking time while the buildup for the real invasion went on.

Well, that's certainly true.

The battle lines, as so often happened in the war, soon froze in place.

On Okinawa? Nah.

That was the end of the greatest myth of the war: the invincibility of the German army

? The Germans formations were generally superior right to the end, but by 1943 was their year of their great defeats in detail, in Stalingrad, Tunisia, Sicily, Kiev.

And with Germany gone, Japan couldn't hope to stand up to the world alone.

Even with Germany doing better, Japan was pretty much screwed after Pearl Harbor.

In effect, they'd [the Axis] convinced themselves that they were bound to win because their enemies would never fight back.

No, the figured on making victory too costly and finding a way to an armistice or otherwise battle to a compromise that left the militarists in power and not at the end of a rope.

They still had the economic and military strength to sustain their armies in the field indefinitely, no matter how grim the strategic situation became ?

they should have begun hinting through backwater diplomatic channels that they were willing to negotiate a cease-fire.

Both Hitler and the Japanese were trying to scare up an overwhelming victory that would give them bargaining power. They realized their position of weakness.

because the Americans were trying to bluff the Japanese into thinking there was an unlimited supply of atomic bombs (there wasn't; the next bomb wouldn't be ready for several months)

Well, there was one bomb just delivered by the Indianapolis, plus about one a month coming off the lines I guess.

When we consider what would have happened to the world if the Nazis had won and had succeeded in creating the new dark age of industrialized horror Hitler had dreamed of, reverent gratitude seems like a wholly appropriate response to the Allied victory

Dunno. This assumes the German people to be permanent assholes. Having, alas, zero interaction with any Germans, I have to stay on the fence with this.

Every one of them preserves, however inarticulately, a piece of the vast and mysterious story of a whole world at war.

OK, the writing ended in a nice place. Not much of a take-away, alas.
posted by tad at 2:45 AM on January 3, 2010 [56 favorites]


I suppose the first casualty of war is reading comprehension.
posted by fleacircus at 2:58 AM on January 3, 2010 [4 favorites]


So I read the article and get bothered by many of the points made. I flip to the Metafilter tab with the intention of pointing out what I think are errors only to find that someone has delivered a fantastic breakdown of the article already. Damn good work Tad.
posted by Vaska at 3:06 AM on January 3, 2010


Allan Gordon: “His entire point is that war is not something romantic and that is a view expressed quite lividly throughout the entire piece.”

"Livid" isn't a very good mode for a historian, methinks.
posted by koeselitz at 3:08 AM on January 3, 2010 [2 favorites]



When we consider what would have happened to the world if the Nazis had won and had succeeded in creating the new dark age of industrialized horror Hitler had dreamed of, reverent gratitude seems like a wholly appropriate response to the Allied victory

Dunno. This assumes the German people to be permanent assholes. Having, alas, zero interaction with any Germans, I have to stay on the fence with this.


I'm confused here. Maybe you could explain what you mean this a bit more? Practicing Genocide and invading Eastern Europe with the intention to reduce it's population to slave labor seem to me to be pretty exactly a new dark age of horror.
posted by rdr at 3:12 AM on January 3, 2010


From the article:
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...
I'm no student of Greek history, but I've read Herodotus, Thucydides and Xenophon, and that observation doesn't really seem to gel with what those Greeks wrote about. Many, if not most, Greek men were soldiers at some point, but the attitude famously expressed by Herodotus - 'No man is fool enough to choose war over peace, for in peacetime sons bury fathers, whereas in war fathers bury sons' - seems to be the prevailing one, and isn't really consistent with the picture Sandlin paints of a society habituated to war. They seem to have had a healthy revulsion to it.
posted by Ritchie at 3:13 AM on January 3, 2010 [5 favorites]


The piece reads extraordinarily dated in the wake of 9/11. I think we are all familiar with the notion of war fever, and that war is messy, brutal, industrial, fucks you up, and depends on dehumanizing the enemy.
posted by unSane at 3:49 AM on January 3, 2010 [2 favorites]


Yeah, that's a pretty odd reading of the Greeks, Ritchie. I'm guessing that he's thinking of the Iliad - okay, it's very much about war, and the Odyssey could be said to be about coming home from war, though it's not - but if he'd read even the first seven paragraphs of Thucydides, he'd have gotten a good debunking of that view of early Greek history.

I thought this was actually a very good piece on history. It has the standard, if well-researched, reading of the war; it includes some very good (again, standard, but very good) thoughts about the Germans, their philosophy, and their motivations.

One thing I could have done without was the author's insistence that he's a revisionist. Every school child now knows that what he's saying is correct; we don't have to hide our faces from the horrors, we've have them depicted for us, from a safe vantage point, in feel-good Hollywood movies. Most importantly, our grandfathers and now great-grandfathers are pretty much all dead now; there's nobody we have to be silent about these things around in order to show respect. We are well aware, moreover, of Allied propaganda, of the haughtiness and sometime arrogance of the American military leaders; we read Catch-22 and Gravity's Rainbow in school, for god's sake, and absorb all these things early on. In short, the distance has made it much easier for us to approach these things.

So why does Lee Sandlin feel so obligated to act as though no one has ever discussed the horrors of WWII in print before - as though these things are novelties, something brand-new and never seen before?

Moreover, I feel as though his cavalier attitude toward the idea of learning lessons from the past is a bit too easy. He may feel as though "the language of peace" and "the language of war" are simply incongruent, but human beings who live in a world of war and peace have to learn to make them congruous. So, as he lectures me at length, I have no experience of war; and I'm lucky, and I grant fully that I'll never really understand what that experience is like. But he can't convince me that I don't already know the point of that experience - Dee Xtrovert can correct me if I'm wrong, but the whole point seems to be that the experience of war qua war is bad, that it's horrible and terrible and altogether unpleasant. And so, while knowing that doesn't necessarily make me an expert on what it feels like to live through a war, and I'll always need to remain respectfully aware that other people have had that experience I don't understand - do I not have plenty of space to conclude that war is to be avoided, that peace is preferable, that even fighting or waging war to secure lasting peace is worthwhile in certain circumstances?

More to the point: Sandlin really seems to underemphasize that there are conclusions we can draw from history, that there are very real political and social lessons that we have it incumbent upon us to learn as we move forward. He dismisses this along with Santayana's statement about repeating the forgotten past, saying that the past couldn't possibly repeat itself; but it does. It repeats itself all the time. Hindsight is 20/20, it's easier to look back than look forward, but very clear instances of history repeating itself can be pointed to. Here's an instance of history repeating itself that I was thinking about recently:

In 1946, in an essay about the historical establishment's attempt to revise away any real insights about the American Civil War, the historian Bernard DeVoto wrote:
As a result of a generation of revisionist concentration on "the North's blunder" we are farther from explanation [about the Civil War] than we were in 1920... But the state of the world is such that we have got to focus this crucial part of our past on our present problems—fast. There appears to be no recourse for historians except to go back to the beginning and start over. Underlying the revisionist errors were our generation's fallacies about the origins of the First World War. They have now been corrected at high cost.
This struck me deeply when I read it, because DeVoto is clearly saying that World War II can be said (at least in some sense) to have been caused by historical ignorance. Moreover he is clearly saying that, if we Americans (and perhaps anyone else in the world) had learned the lesson that might have been learned from the American Civil War, then World War II might have been prevented. He means that the Civil War was caused by a willful ignorance, by a generation of people and their leaders convinced that they could stave off the conflict over slavery by bickering about states' rights and about whether the West would be Southern or Northern. In the same way, the first World War was finished off by people who believed that the conflict had been a simple power balance, that what was needed was just a decisive victory which rewarded the victors and punished the vanquished - in other words, it ignored the growing problem of Germany, and of all of the people in the cradle of Europe who felt angry and displaced by what had happened during that war. If Ferdinand Foch, a student of history like few others, could see this so clearly in 1918 that he could make such a startlingly accurate prediction about the beginning of the second World War - that famous comment about a twenty-year armistice - then maybe a real knowledge of history can teach us lessons, and moreover must teach us lessons, about how to proceed in the future.
posted by koeselitz at 3:51 AM on January 3, 2010 [8 favorites]


I love it when people extrapolate the meaning of a 60 page article from one sentence.

It's great that you love it, but no one's doing that, Allan. Do I need to cite fifty sentences more? Tad's added several examples; there are many more.

Let's ignore the countless examples he uses of how the war was ill-planned chaos where so many died due to not doing the proper due diligence. I don't really see how you can call him trying to romanticize war when he uses the example of Okinawa and I guess a quote would be better, "They had to use discarded grenade cans for latrines, then empty the contents into the mud outside their foxholes. The rain washed everything into the ravines; the urine and feces mixed with the blood and the shreds of rotting flesh blown by the shell bursts from the hundreds of unburied bodies scattered everywhere. The smell was so intolerable it took an act of supreme will for the soldiers to choke down their rations each day. Sledge calls it "an environment so degrading I believed we had been flung into hell's own cesspool."

Sorry to break it to you, that's one of the main forms of the romanticization of war - a great example, in fact. Fervent descriptions of the utter disgusting qualities of war function quite similarly to pornography for many people. All of those terms - "unburied bodies scattered everywhere," "an act of supreme will," "hell's own cesspool" - those are gloriously evocative expressions of *intensity* which *excite* many people. The author may not be "trying" to romanticize it, but he is doing just that.

It's one of the reasons people go to see war movies and enjoy the foxhole scenes - Hamburger Hill, Inglorious Basterds, Band Of Brothers, Saving Private Ryan - the gruesome battle scenes are riveting. People love them. They talk about them, and each new movie with any sort of budget tries to outdo the last. Average folks may not want to be in those war situations exactly, but gosh, they can't turn their heads away. The quote above reeks of macho posturing . . . à la "Are you man enough to take REAL WAR?" Many people, for all their protestations, like to imagine themselves in those same situations. It is romantic to a lot of people. It's the same impulse that makes shows like that one where they eat centipedes and get put in boxes to be covered with scorpions so popular.

A memory:

I was conscripted into some faction of the Bosnian Army in order to "defend" our city. In truth, we had few arms or anything with which to defend. And as a very tall, largely starved girl, I wouldn't have made much of a soldier anyhow. So I was a "nurse." No training, of course. And no supplies, either. I was near the front line fairly often. There wasn't much you could do.

One day, some shell exploded right on or near two young soldiers and they were torn into dozens of pieces. I say "dozens" because it wasn't hundreds or millions - I'd seen that happen too, and it's totally different. You could count these pieces. They were big lumps. A fellow "nurse" and I were near enough that we got there before anyone else. There was no one to save.

As these soldiers were Bosnian Muslims whose bodies - what there was of them - would be returned to their families, we realized that we needed to collect these pieces to put the soldiers back together, kind of, because Muslims believe a body should be buried "whole" - to the extent that it's possible. With "only" dozens of pieces, it's kind of possible to do this. So we set about trying to match parts - one guy's leg get ripped off above the knee, but this leg has the knee attached, so it can't be this first guy's. That sort of thing. "Look," my fellow "nurse" said, "this one ate rice!" Rice was one of the few kinds of food that was readily doled out. Everyone hated it because they were tired of it, because it required a lot of water to cook (and no one had running water) and because it required a lot of heat to cook (and there was no gas and the trees were mostly gone and we'd already burned most of our books.) But we hadn't had rice in a while; this soldier must have been had some at home, stashed away.

This guy's stomach was blown up, so rice was all over the various parts of his body that came from his torso. And I remember being so happy, because the hardest things to connect to a specific person are internal organs, but this guy's organs had rice on them, so you could tell they were "his." Ones without rice were, presumably, the other soldier's. So the job of piecing together bodies was made much easier than it normally would have been, when you try to make each "body" weigh about the same, even if you know parts are mixed. Of course, I don't need to add that when something like this happens, it's not just people - and rice - everywhere, but uniquely awful smells, and the flies get there so fast I still don't know how they do it.

Later that day, I snaked my way to my aunt's, a few kilometers away. I remember smiling; I rarely smiled during the war. My aunt had made soup - good soup - and I ate a lot and told her and my cousins about my day. We all agreed it that things had gone pretty well, considering. I was pretty happy about piecing two young men together successfully because of the rice and having a stomach full of warm soup.

War is dehumanizing. If, as in the Okinawa quote, you still worry about getting shit and piss on you, if you can even still smell the rotting flesh, and if it bothers you enough that you consider not eating your rations, if you can still consider your situation to be something like "hell's own cesspool," well . . . then you're still pretty fucking lucky. People like to read about that stuff; that's why they make it into popular movies and comic books.

People don't make movies about the happiness of a young girl who finds she can reassemble people with ease, thanks to the fact that one of them ate a lot of rice earlier that day. Because it isn't very romantic or macho and it isn't full of hard-ass symbolism.

The thing about war, too, is that it affects many many more civilians than it does soldiers. The military-centric ideas in the article don't grasp that. War, according to romantic notions going as far back as the Greeks, is more about guys toughing it out than women and children left to pick up the pieces.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 3:56 AM on January 3, 2010 [305 favorites]


Practicing Genocide and invading Eastern Europe with the intention to reduce it's population to slave labor seem to me to be pretty exactly a new dark age of horror.

The SS largely succeeded in liquidating Europe's Jewish populations by 1944. The Reich certainly had evil designs on their new lebensraum of Poland to the Ukraine, but if this video (violent, don't look) of football hooligans is any indication of how screwed up Ukrainians presently are, perhaps German overlordship would have been an improvement, even under Koch. Maybe not, but what the Germans would have done to the surviving Slavs in peace couldn't have amounted to much more than the sum of brutalities they inflicted in the first years of war.

A generation or two going through Hitler Jugend brainwashing wouldn't improve matters, but I think over time liberalism and world opinion would result in Germans rejecting the central racial superiority and cultural imperialism tenets of Nazi socialism on their own. But the alternate history is tough to see, my main point just centers on the experience of the British, French, and Americans WRT a viable post-war Nazi state. Nazism was arguably pretty centrifugal and by the 1960s a more moderate, if non-apologetic, state would probably have been formed.
posted by tad at 3:56 AM on January 3, 2010 [2 favorites]


Sorry, my last sentence didn't make it. It was:

Those of us who were women and children in war can spot the romantic notions about soldiers with ease.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 3:59 AM on January 3, 2010 [7 favorites]


Without any Jews, gay people, Romanis, or undesirables left to be part of the new, liberal paradise.
posted by koeselitz at 4:00 AM on January 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


That's meant to be tacked on to tad's comment - sorry.
posted by koeselitz at 4:00 AM on January 3, 2010


Dee, that is one of the most interesting and insightful things I've ever seen posted on Metafilter. Thank you.
posted by unSane at 4:19 AM on January 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


If, as in the Okinawa quote, you still worry about getting shit and piss on you, if you can even still smell the rotting flesh, and if it bothers you enough that you consider not eating your rations, if you can still consider your situation to be something like "hell's own cesspool," well . . . then you're still pretty fucking lucky

yeah, this is exactly what I was trying to get at, too. It's not that we, "in peace", lack the ability to understand what war is really like, it's that the meat-grinder aspect is simply too horrific for everyone this side of Jeffrey Dahmer to begin to internalize. War fucks people up. Brutally. In batches of tens, hundreds, and tens of thousands at its historical worst.
posted by tad at 4:33 AM on January 3, 2010


... women and children left to pick up the pieces.

Yeah, my mum and her family were evacuated to Kent during the war. Kent was often bombed, but usually by accident - German pilots would fly over on the way to London, and sometimes drop their bombs early if they thought they were going to get jumped by Allied pilots. Mum's worst fear as a small child was not that they might die, but that they might not all die together. It messed her up in myriad little ways.

Someone once wrote that they went to war expecting new experiences, but instead encountered a new world. I think that would the most horrifying part about being a child in wartime - living in a kind of Invasion of the Body-Snatchers world where your environment slowly becomes more and more alien and dreamlike until one day when you can barely recognize your own parents and siblings and you don't know who you are anymore.
posted by Ritchie at 4:52 AM on January 3, 2010 [2 favorites]


Thanks Dee! You have my mental wheels spinning. I'm sorry that you endured that, but your eloquent description of your experience will undoubtedly lead to a lot of "Aha!" moments for others.

I didn't read the article, but I have read E.B. Sledge's book (which was great) and I can absolutely agree that even through his horrible, vivid descriptions of the Pacific theater, it is grossly romanticized in a fairly masochistic way. Even my professor, who was very rational and balanced, romanticized those accounts even further, waxing on about the "horrors" of war, which we sat on the edge of our chairs to hear.

I read a great primary source book of the bystanders of the Holocaust (name escapes me). It captures the more "mundane" aspects of the Holocaust through firsthand accounts, which are engrossing all their own, but it's doubtful you could make a blockbuster of those, as you said. It gave me many of those epiphanal moments that I had while reading your comment, Dee. I think your interpretation of your experience is spot-on. Thanks again for sharing.
posted by jstef at 5:07 AM on January 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


I found the article engrossing and mostly well written, a real effort to get to terms with something immense and supra-personal.

I did not really understand the response from Dee Xtrovert. First she criticises the author of this piece for sensationalizing/romanticizing the topic (a distinction that seems lost on her):

Fervent descriptions of the utter disgusting qualities of war function quite similarly to pornography for many people. All of those terms - "unburied bodies scattered everywhere," "an act of supreme will," "hell's own cesspool" - those are gloriously evocative expressions of *intensity* which *excite* many people.

... Then she proceeds to describe in graphic detail how she had to reassemble bodies. I don't see what the relevance of that story is, except to bludgeon the reader into a kind of reverent piety, but mostly I don't see how that kind of story-telling differs from the alleged romanticizing by the author.

War, according to romantic notions going as far back as the Greeks, is more about guys toughing it out than women and children left to pick up the pieces.

And some warriors tilt at windmills.
posted by eeeeeez at 5:12 AM on January 3, 2010 [3 favorites]


You know what I would like? I would love to live in a world where people wouldn't assume that using war as an argument somehow gives them the moral high ground.
posted by daniel_charms at 5:15 AM on January 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


eeeeeez: “I don't see what the relevance of that story is, except to bludgeon the reader into a kind of reverent piety, but mostly I don't see how that kind of story-telling differs from the alleged romanticizing by the author.&rdquol

The difference is that Dee Xtrovert wasn't spending most of her time telling us all about how wrong we were, how little we understood history, and how everything we know is lies. That's the bit that's annoying about this guy - does that make sense? He gives a perfectly good reading of history - one which is no less true in that it's one which every sane historian today would give - but he seems hung up on pointing out that he's better than everyone else and that he understands history more because he's tried to understand "the language of war." That seems more mystical to me than anything else.
posted by koeselitz at 5:29 AM on January 3, 2010 [3 favorites]


[... and I hate it when historians get mystical. The whole point is to explain and discover history, not to use it as a truncheon or make it seem inaccessible.]
posted by koeselitz at 5:36 AM on January 3, 2010


The author was certainly romanticizing war in the sense that he positioned it as a mysterious event which people are incapable of understanding and whose real nature is masked by fictitious quasi-historical accounts which sheeple have internalized, but whose arcane mysteries he had penetrated by, you know, reading about it.

I thought Dee's account made the good point that war is not just about more or less frequent horrors, but more troublingly about the normalization of such horrors. That is what has struck me from talking to relatives like my Mum, who was bombed in her bed, my grandfather, who laid the tables for Guy Gibson's returning bombers, never knowing how many of the breakfasts would ever get eaten, and who in India just after the first world war tried to frag a Sergeant Major who had made their lives a misery, by pulling him under water in a swimming hole and drowning him. These did not at the time seem like abnormal events.
posted by unSane at 5:47 AM on January 3, 2010 [5 favorites]


tad
The SS largely succeeded in liquidating Europe's Jewish populations by 1944.

To use the word liquidate WRT the insane practice of murdering millions of people -- not just Jews, many different populations -- is a way of detaching from what happened. Though it does comfort me when I think of my governments approach to murdering those hundreds of thousands in Iraq, and contemplating murdering who knows how many hundreds of thousands more in Iran -- hey, they're not murdering in my name, they're simply liquidating the stock; I feel so much better now.

Words are powerful, and can be deceptive.

The Reich certainly had evil designs on their new lebensraum of Poland to the Ukraine, but if this video (violent, don't look) of football hooligans is any indication of how screwed up Ukrainians presently are, perhaps German overlordship would have been an improvement,
You're onto something here. And German overlordship would be an improvement in England also, as they have football hooligans there, too. Heck, we could have used their help here in the states, also, when all those wacky people were demonstrating over civil rights issues -- what a comfort it is to think of SS troops calming all these people down through their competent overlordship.

... what the Germans would have done to the surviving Slavs in peace couldn't have amounted to much more than the sum of brutalities they inflicted in the first years of war."
I'm not a historian, but what little I do know about that whole show is that their psycho government had intent on eventually wiping out mass murdering all of the Slavs, as good Germans moved in to take over the lands -- there are plenty in this thread who can straighten this out if I've got it wrong.
posted by dancestoblue at 5:56 AM on January 3, 2010 [2 favorites]


If you made a movie of the real war, it would be 27 years long. The first 23 years of which were a bright, colourful promising life with a wife and children and a good career, the next 3 years of which grew bleaker and more chilling, with awkward then fearful glances at one's neighbors. Then the power goes off at night, and you cook what food you can with whatever fuel you can find. You rarely go outside. People you know disappear occasionally, and you find out they died. Heavy machines roll into town one day and blow shit up and knock things down, including your house and your parents. They keep on going and you never see the people inside. Then you get shot in the arm by a sniper, and a rough amputation costs you everything below the shoulder. You eke out a life like a stray dog for the next nine months and then another sniper gets you in the gut and you are dying of blood poisoning for the next three days, getting colder and more delerious, and nothing can help but morphine. The final morning you wake up shivering in agony, you find a pistol on the pillow next to your head and curtains around your bed, which is now in the basement. Then no credits roll.
posted by seanmpuckett at 6:05 AM on January 3, 2010 [6 favorites]


So ... after all the death and pain and fear which Sandlin evokes as the waste product of a terrible machine relentlessly turning out the modern atomic age by devouring the previous era; in the end I'm supposed to ... feel gratitude? To whom? For what?

If I believe that war is 'normal' or 'inevitable' or 'necessary' the experiences of it could be seen as comic, the 'fey' attitude makes perfect sense. I could be grateful to those who 'paid the price' or simply grateful to be one who gets to experience peace for a stretch while some other unlucky guy does the warring.

But if I believe that war is more like an extreme weather event in 'ordinary' human conflicts then it becomes tragic, I feel fear and pity for those who have been caught up in it. But I can investigate it's circumstances and causes and see what I can do to avoid or mitigate those things. I can make informed choices, live my life differently, in such a way that promotes peace, or at least non-escalation of conflict into violence. Who am I grateful to then? For what?

also: based on a true story
posted by wobh at 6:15 AM on January 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


there are plenty in this thread who can straighten this out if I've got it wrong.

No, that's entirely correct. The Nazis revelled in their intentions to keep the Slavs only educated enough to read road signs. My general point with this that while this would be bad for the Slavs during the middle of the twentieth century, I don't think it would have stuck as a long-term policy, and the region was already largely destroyed anyway by the tide of battle, as depicted in the sand painting last year, with both sides practicing scorched Earth retreats and fighting major battles for every transportation center from Lvov to Rostov.

In the global scheme of things, had Hitler "won" after invading Russia, I just don't see much of a big difference after Hitler and his coterie faded from the scene. This is basically because I think Nazism isn't a viable ideology and the chaotic totalitarianism of the NASDAP was a candle burning on both ends, in historical (and metaphorical) terms.

I also have some perhaps misplaced faith in the decency of the German people to shake off the Nazi programme of nastiness. The great majority of them weren't fighting for the sort of dark world domination alluded to in the essay.
posted by tad at 6:49 AM on January 3, 2010 [2 favorites]


Wow, I can;t believe this has never made it to Metafilter before, it's one of my faovirte essays on the internet.
posted by The Whelk at 6:52 AM on January 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


NASDAP? Sorry!
posted by tad at 6:55 AM on January 3, 2010


We all have short memories. Ask a kid today (high school) when Viet Nam took place, or what the Korean "police action" was all about etc and you will draw a blank. Those that were there know something about it. Those that study military history know about such things. And there are repositories for survivors of our wars, such as the oral history project at Rutgers.

as for the back and forth taking place in these comments:
We see things not as they are but as we are.
posted by Postroad at 6:59 AM on January 3, 2010


I thought this was going to be a tightly-written argument about the loss of memory and how the shocking lessons of WWII in general have been forgotten. But alas, it turned out to be a rambling, stream-of-consciousness thing. The editor should have slapped Sandlin and made him re-write it at no more than a fifth of its current length. As a rule of thumb, if Alexander the Great appears in your essay about WWII, you know you're rambling.

I also have some perhaps misplaced faith in the decency of the German people

You must be a kindly soul, but with WWII and the Holocaust as the main items of evidence, I think I would vote misplaced.
posted by Phanx at 7:21 AM on January 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


but with WWII and the Holocaust as the main items of evidence

The Germans didn't start WW2 -- the French and British declared war on them. All Hitler wanted was further revision of the Versailles "Diktat" at the expense of Poland. Plus of course a general willingness to bloody the German people again as a mechanism to purify and exalt his rule.

The Germans themselves weren't exactly clamoring to liberate Poland. The march to war in 1939 shares rather uncomfortable parallels with the march to war in 2003, when Bush decided to go in without getting the requisite UNSC approval he had tried to win in late 2002.

The Holocaust was dirty business but it's a credit to the Germans that they recognize it so, unlike say the Turks and Japanese, or us (non-native) Americans.
posted by tad at 7:54 AM on January 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


I don't see what the relevance of that story is, except to bludgeon the reader into a kind of reverent piety, but mostly I don't see how that kind of story-telling differs from the alleged romanticizing by the author

I think you have missed Dee's point, which, as I understood it, that many of what we consider to be "realistic" and "frank" descriptions of combat are actually characterized by particular kind of sensationalism -- one that distorts the experience of war, is characterized by a particular variety of machismo and muscle-flexing, and serves as a sort of voyeuristic catharsis for us viewers and readers. Could you, they ask, still choke down your rations in the trenches? Think of the feces!

And that, Dee shows, is not the point. As the most effective accounts of extreme wartime conditions demonstrate -- I'm thinking here of some accounts of trench warfare in WWI, Anthony Beevor's accounts of the battles of Berlin and Stalingrad, descriptions of conditions in Nazi concentration camps, and some stuff by Solzhenitsyn -- when you cannot bathe yourself properly, are in a state of semi-starvation, and are surrounded by improvised graves, various uncollected fragments of human bodies in various stages of decay, and human waste, there is absolutely no room for sentimentalism or sensationalism. As Dee wrote,

"if you can even still smell the rotting flesh, and if it bothers you enough that you consider not eating your rations, if you can still consider your situation to be something like "hell's own cesspool," well . . . then you're still pretty fucking lucky."

posted by foxy_hedgehog at 7:55 AM on January 3, 2010 [3 favorites]


The thing about war, too, is that it affects many many more civilians than it does soldiers.

but that's not the american experience, of course - not since the civil war have we actually endured a war on our own territory, and even that war was confined to a specific region of the country, for the most part

sandlin's difficulty in understanding the war stems from this - not only doesn't he have any experience, but his civilian elders don't either - and unfortunately, while pointing out that younger generations are gradually forgetting about ww2, he himself seems to have forgotten ww1 and how, at least to europeans, the horrors of artillery barrages and trench warfare were not in fact anything new - and as isolated as americans may have seemed in those days, they were much more aware of being part of the world in that time than they were in 1914 - sandlin forgets that over a million soldiers went overseas in ww1 and they were hardly ignorant of what war was really like

But the news they got of the outside world came in through newspapers and radio -- which is to say, through words, not images.

newsreels were common back then and were seen by millions of americans

sandlin's problem isn't just that he doesn't understand the war, which was of course, the point of his essay - and what is romanticism but a failed attempt at understanding? - but he doesn't understand the times in which the war happened and hasn't made much of an attempt to do so
posted by pyramid termite at 7:57 AM on January 3, 2010 [3 favorites]


Of course, re-reading it (I read it when I was a teenager) I get alot of the same irks that posters here are talking about,

The piece reads extraordinarily dated

Ditto. There was a heavily edited version in The New Kings Of NonFiction that mostly kept the essay to stories and anecdotes - things that caused me the teenager to do much more reading about the WW2 era when I had previously ignored it because of the heavy All-Hilter-All-The-Time! nature of some of my history classes.
posted by The Whelk at 7:58 AM on January 3, 2010


The Germans didn't start WW2 -- the French and British declared war on them.

invading poland with the full knowledge that such invasion would cause france and britain to declare war pretty much qualifies as starting a war

and the main theater of the european war, the eastern front against russia, was most certainly started by the germans
posted by pyramid termite at 8:00 AM on January 3, 2010 [7 favorites]


koeselitz: I didn't get that at all from the article. My impression is that he has made an honest effort to describe and understand his father's experience, while acknowledging the limitations inherent in such an effort - both from a practical perspective (records are simply missing, the records that are available are slanted) but also from a more metaphysical perspective (records, in so far as they are available, do not and cannot convey the experience).

The experience of war is virtually incomprehensible because it warps and obliterates categories of meaning. The distinction between "language of peace" and "language of war" seems entirely appropriate to me. If that is mystical, then I am a mystic.
posted by eeeeeez at 8:03 AM on January 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


invading poland with the full knowledge that such invasion would cause france and britain to declare war pretty much qualifies as starting a war

dunno, the Western powers had backed down before. Plus the main point was there was no clamor for war over Danzig, outside of the Nazi press organs.

the eastern front against russia, was most certainly started by the germans

Sure. Same war we were fighting for 40 years, no? Those Russkies didn't have many friends, outside of Hollywood and other communist front organizations, in the 1940s. Well, if you go by comic book history at least.

My general point with this is that the German people didn't wake up on Sept 1 all happy that they were going to be slaughtering some millions of Jews and some tens of millions of Russians and other peoples of E Europe. Shit kinda happened on the way, like Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and whatever other torture sites we had going.
posted by tad at 8:10 AM on January 3, 2010


The reason Sandlin thinks he's a revisionist is that any time you suggest that any result of WWII was in any way bad or wrong, you are excoriated by hordes of standard bearers reminding you that in the Good Wars the allies saved the world from a fate worse than death. Years ago I wrote an essay about visiting the Trinity test site in which I drew the same conclusion Sandlin does -- it was an unnecessary waste of resources and life, one which almost certainly wouldn't have been pursued in any other context -- and I got the same reaction in miniature, many people simply refusing to accept that the expected invasion of Japan could have been avoided any other way.
posted by localroger at 8:16 AM on January 3, 2010 [2 favorites]


foxy_hedgehog: when you cannot bathe yourself properly, are in a state of semi-starvation, and are surrounded by improvised graves, various uncollected fragments of human bodies in various stages of decay, and human waste, there is absolutely no room for sentimentalism or sensationalism.

Thanks for the elaboration, but I don't know that I agree. This in itself strikes me as a kind of hard-boiled realism fantasy, no less distorting than the macho sensationalism it disparages. More to the point: nowhere in the article can I find evidence of this alleged sensationalism.

And that, Dee shows, is not the point.

What is the point of war? It is unknowable.
posted by eeeeeez at 8:17 AM on January 3, 2010


War, according to romantic notions going as far back as the Greeks, is more about guys toughing it out than women and children left to pick up the pieces.

Iliad is largely about women and children left to pick up the pieces. Ditto the Odyssey, ditto Antigone, ditto The Trojan Women, ditto Seven Against Thebes, etc, etc. Greek literature is plenty graphic on war, but leaves no illusions as to its horror to everyone, and as important, to everything involved. They noted more I think than we do the damage it does to civil discourse and good government.

Worth noting as well the British distinction between those who had a good war or a bad war. Americans current tend to stress the latter- tight lipped silence and walking out of the room, that sort of thing. Plenty of those around, of course. But I've met veterans and heard lectures from plenty of men and yes, women, for whom the second war was clearly the time of their lives - and I mean front line soldiers and civilians in harms way. Perhaps it was tricks of memory, perhaps it was perverse pleasure of discomfiting their audiences, but not entirely. For them, clearly, the long boring bits were overshadowed by the exciting bits - hair breadth escapes from Nazis (and from Russians), the beauty of London burning during the blitz (this from Englishmen) or Rotterdam (this from Germans), the excitement of picking off a line of orderly Japanese soldiers one by one, the strange freedom that utter chaos can give you.

You must be a kindly soul, but with WWII and the Holocaust as the main items of evidence, I think I would vote misplaced.

People are mutable. In some defense of the German people, they have shown a good deal more contrition than other nations guilty of comparable evils.
posted by IndigoJones at 8:18 AM on January 3, 2010 [7 favorites]


I didn't read the whole article - the following quotes respond more to the comments here:

“I’ll never forget the experience I had escorting the late Samuel Fuller, the much-decorated World War II hero and maverick filmmaker, to a multiplex screening of Full Metal Jacket, along with fellow critic Bill Krohn, in Santa Barbara 13 years ago. Though Fuller courteously stayed with us to the end, he declared afterward that as far as he was concerned, it was another goddamn recruiting film — that teenage boys who went to see Kubrick’s picture with their girlfriends would come out thinking that wartime combat was neat.” — Jonathan Rosenbaum, Movie Wars

“"There’s no such thing as an anti-war film.” — Francois Truffaut

posted by anshuman at 8:19 AM on January 3, 2010 [8 favorites]


There was a thread last week about historian Tony Judt. I cannot stress enough the importance of reading his work. I'm about to dive into "Postwar". "Reappraisals" changed how I see the past sixty years of collective human history.

I think it's the kind of adjustment that most could use... the we must make.

If we are not to fade into the darkness.

We MUST learn, dammit.
posted by PROD_TPSL at 8:22 AM on January 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


Wow, tad. You're not a kindly soul after all.
posted by Phanx at 8:22 AM on January 3, 2010



but with WWII and the Holocaust as the main items of evidence

The Germans didn't start WW2 -- the French and British declared war on them. All Hitler wanted was further revision of the Versailles "Diktat" at the expense of Poland. Plus of course a general willingness to bloody the German people again as a mechanism to purify and exalt his rule.


Hitler was quite clear (see the 'second book') that he wanted to (and I'm not America bashing, this is what he wrote) follow the example of America and the 'red Indian' and take a large amount of lebensraum for the German people that did not stop at Poland. The French and British declared war on Germany ... after Germany invaded Poland. Germany also did a lot of militarizing and invading Czechoslovakia for a country that didn't particularly want war.

In fact, during the war, there was a kind of seesaw battle:

'How is it that Germans are starving while we hold Ukraine, the breadbasket of Europe?'
'Well, it turns out that, er, people are kind of using that food already ...'
'Well, let them starve!'

TIME PASSES

'Why are the production numbers so low? We need tanks and shells and planes and guns and steel!'
'Right, so most of the German workers are actually in the army? We tried to replace them with workers from occupied territories, but it turns out that doesn't work so well if they are starving. The SS policy of replacing workers who have starved to death with half-starved workers also does not work very well for trained machinists and that kind of thing."
posted by Comrade_robot at 8:23 AM on January 3, 2010 [2 favorites]


I really enjoyed this essay, but it is a double, I'm afraid.
posted by The Card Cheat at 8:31 AM on January 3, 2010


Then she proceeds to describe in graphic detail how she had to reassemble bodies.

And then she describes how she was happy, because on of them had eaten rice, which made it easier for her and her friend to assemble to bodies. And that she had gone home happy because of that and a bowl of soup she was going to eat. The point is, had she said "I had to push the bloody parts together with my bare hands! It was pure horror and hell." then she would also be romanticizing the war. That's not why she's saying that.

Her point is that everyone understands that war is terrible, it's just that some people think that it being horrible is also kind of cool and romantic.

I see that you're having a hard time understanding what Dee Xtrovert is saying (although for some reason it's clear as day to me). So let me explain it as I understand it: it's not just that she has an issue with the author's smugness. That's a factor, for sure. It's that the author's stance is "War is hell!" when a more appropriate position might be "War is bleak, boring, and horrible."
posted by Deathalicious at 8:33 AM on January 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


Hitler was, to the last degree, a self-taught explainer. He was one of those guys you hear droning on and on while you're standing in line at the post office or stuck on a train between stations -- the monologuist who can't stop explicating, to anybody who looks like he might be listening, everything that's wrong with the world and exactly who's to blame. He's the walking embodiment of all the free-floating anger behind the mask of civilized behavior

and the new Hitlers are Limbaugh, Hannity, Beck, O'Reilly et al. and instead of the Jews their scapegoats are liberals, gays and Mexicans. It Can't Happen Here.
posted by caddis at 8:37 AM on January 3, 2010 [2 favorites]


The Holocaust was dirty business but it's a credit to the Germans that they recognize it so, unlike say the Turks and Japanese, or us (non-native) Americans.

Only because denial wasnt an option when youve just lost a war and your enemy is exposing your deeds.
posted by damn dirty ape at 8:40 AM on January 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


A superb read, thanks 'headlice'.
posted by Duug at 8:40 AM on January 3, 2010


"There’s no such thing as an anti-war film.” — Francois Truffaut

thanks! i was thinking of that quote too, but couldn't remember exactly how it went or who it was by :P
posted by kliuless at 8:42 AM on January 3, 2010


The Germans didn't start WW2 -- the French and British declared war on them.

This is mind boggling stupid. If Obama invades Canada tomorrow and the NATO powers bomb the US, guess what, NATO didnt start the war. Obama did.
posted by damn dirty ape at 8:42 AM on January 3, 2010 [3 favorites]


Haven't read the whole thing yet, sorry.

I asked my grandfathers what it was like to be in The War. The fighter pilot told me about when he heard about Pearl Harbor and then regaled me with hilarious tales from flight training. The tank driver didn't say anything, and had never said anything to anyone about it.

Later I found out that the pilot had perhaps fathered a child in Germany. "If you were twenty years old, being shot at every day, seeing your friends die next to you, what would you be doing?" his daughter, my mother, asked me. The tank driver's contributions to and losses in the European Theatre are consigned to ignorance, just as he wanted.
posted by infinitewindow at 8:46 AM on January 3, 2010


Dee Xtrovert: "War, according to romantic notions going as far back as the Greeks, is more about guys toughing it out than women and children left to pick up the pieces."

Indeed, World War II killed more civilians than it did soldiers. Thanks in large part to the remorseless bombing campaigns of "the good guys".

It's a primate thing. John Gray quotes E.O. Wilson as saying "If hamdryas baboons had nuclear weapons, they would destroy the world in a week."

In time, so will we. Then new species will evolve to exploit the niches our passing has left. And after a few dozen more orbits around the center of the galaxy, the Sun will die.

These things happen.
posted by Joe Beese at 9:03 AM on January 3, 2010 [5 favorites]


damn dirty ape: "Only because denial wasnt an option when youve just lost a war and your enemy is exposing your deeds."

This.

If Germany had won, they'd treat the Holocaust with the same "No, we're not proud of it but let's look forward not backward" attitude that Americans have towards the Indian genocide.
posted by Joe Beese at 9:06 AM on January 3, 2010 [3 favorites]


I would say that it's actually a blessing that the Americans remember so little about the war.

I disagree. Being sheltered from the horror and devastation of World War II made Americans too eager to be involved in conflict almost continually since 1945 and contributed to the overwhelming shock of the September 11 attacks, which threw us into invading a country on false pretenses and torturing prisoners.

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

They weren't so much holding their positions as recapturing huge areas of Eastern Europe.

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.

If "their country" is the Soviet Union, that's correct. The bloodiest battles were all on the Eastern Front.
posted by kirkaracha at 9:07 AM on January 3, 2010 [4 favorites]


War is mostly long, boring, cold, hungry and tedious . . . then every once in a while someone lobs a grenade at you or shells your house or a sniper's bullet pierces your arm or rapes and kills someone you know and you get hysterical . . . and then it goes back to being long, boring, cold, hungry and tedious for eons and eons.

So what you're saying is war is a lot like baseball.
posted by notyou at 9:10 AM on January 3, 2010


If JONNY GOT HIAS GUN IS NOT AN ANTI-WAR FILM, THEN THERE IS NONE. BUT THERE IS ONE. AND THIS IS IT

Joe Bonham, a young soldier serving in World War I, awakens in a hospital bed after being caught in the blast of an exploding artillery shell. He gradually realizes that he has lost his arms, legs, and face, but that his mind functions perfectly, leaving him a prisoner in his own body. He tries to die by suffocating himself but he has been given a tracheotomy, which he cannot remove or control. He successfully attempts to communicate with his doctors by banging his head on his pillow in Morse code. His wish is that he may be put in a glass box and tour the country, to show people the true horrors of war. His wish is never granted, however, and it is implied that he will live the rest of his natural life in this condition.

As he drifts between reality and fantasy, he remembers his old life with his family and girlfriend, and reflects upon the myths and realities of war. He also forms a bond, of sorts, with a young nurse who senses his plight.
[edit] Title

The title comes from the phrase "Johnny get your gun",[7] a rallying call that was commonly used to encourage young American men to enlist in the military in the late 19th and early 20th century.
posted by Postroad at 9:11 AM on January 3, 2010


I agree with those who think that Germany would have ultimately, and possibly rather quickly, rebelled against Hitler had Germany emerged from the war victorious. 'The German People' were responsible for Hitler to exactly the same extent that 'The American People' were responsible for Bush II and all that followed. Hitler would have been left with a bunch of entirely ungovernable territories (one can only imagine what trying to occupy England would have been like, ditto Russia) and the extremities of the Holocaust would have come out sooner or later.
posted by unSane at 9:39 AM on January 3, 2010


I thought this was going to be a tightly-written argument about the loss of memory and how the shocking lessons of WWII in general have been forgotten. But alas, it turned out to be a rambling, stream-of-consciousness thing. The editor should have slapped Sandlin and made him re-write it at no more than a fifth of its current length

this, this, this. If the prose doesn't come into focus soonish there's no way I'm going to make it through this
posted by bonaldi at 9:46 AM on January 3, 2010


unSane: "The piece reads extraordinarily dated in the wake of 9/11. I think we are all familiar with the notion of war fever, and that war is messy, brutal, industrial, fucks you up, and depends on dehumanizing the enemy."


In September, 2001, Ira Glass apparently disagreed with you. at the bottom of the essay is this small-type line: "A 13-minute excerpt, read by actor Matt Malloy, aired on This American Life (www.thislife.org) from WBEZ Chicago with Ira Glass, Sept. 28, 2001."

FWIW, I'm a hater here: Dee nailed it, and Tad sealed the deal. The larger point, about how hard it has proven for America to construct a cohesive social narrative about wartime experience that balances public platitudes with personal experience, is not so off base. But I had a hard time staying in sympathy with this author for the exact reasons Dee outlined.
posted by mwhybark at 9:47 AM on January 3, 2010


Iliad is largely about women and children left to pick up the pieces.

No it isn't. That's an absurd reading. The only character who really does any piece-picking-up is Priam, and he's neither a woman nor a child. The mortal female characters are largely silent and passive (when not altogether absent), and I don't think there are any children explicitly named.

It's going to be pretty tough to make an argument that the Iliad does not glorify war. I mean, the word phaidimos (translated as glorious or famous) is used throughout to describe warriors; it's particularly an epithet for Hektor.
posted by mr_roboto at 9:53 AM on January 3, 2010


dunno, the Western powers had backed down before.

if your strategy for avoiding war is a reliance on the other guy backing down after you invade a country friendly to him, then it's pretty clear who the aggressor is, isn't it?
posted by pyramid termite at 10:01 AM on January 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


For them, clearly, the long boring bits were overshadowed by the exciting bits -

You know, I think (based on not much evidence) that for many of those who had a "good war" that the opposite is true. The "boring bits" were full of camaraderie, of being part of a team, united against a common enemy (your own officers, usually), of bumming smokes and stealing drink, in a state of suspended animation. I think this suits a certain mind-set to a tee -- day to day, major decisions are made for you, you have lots of friends, you are physically active, the real world is not that much on your case. In a real sense, despite the possibility of death, the army can be a very sheltered environment. Until, of course, the boiler explodes on your shift.

Also, Dee Xtrovert: thanks for so often coming to bear witness in threads in like this one.
posted by Rumple at 10:10 AM on January 3, 2010 [5 favorites]


Having a lot of relatives and friends that have fought in wars from ww2 up to current day, I always wish war could be discussed and learned about in a more serious fashion. To me, there are 2 easy ways of sensitive education:

1. Historical texts, the more primary sources the better.

2. Listening to veterans speak, and not speaking one's self.

It's not a glorious thing, its not an entertainment thing. It's a terrible and tragic and sad thing. Honestly, every time I talk to my grandpa about the Battle of Midway and others he fought in, it just makes me tear up and shut up. All I want is a few more words from him on how he's doing, if he's still okay. The last thing on my mind is opening my damn mouth to try and add something to the conversation, because there isn't a damn thing I could say that is worth the time he could be speaking instead.
posted by lazaruslong at 10:19 AM on January 3, 2010 [3 favorites]


An example of what I'm talking about is Philip Spooner speaking out in defense of marraige equality. I wish people wouldn't clap so damn much. Listen to the man. Let him speak his piece. This isn't a chance to all applaud how good we feel about having a veteran on our side in the equal rights movement. The abrupt cessation of applause which leads back into the phrase "...so much blood and guts" is heartwrenching. Shut up already! Let him speak!
posted by lazaruslong at 10:23 AM on January 3, 2010


The Holocaust was dirty business but

I have a very serious problem with any sentence that begins this way.
posted by philip-random at 10:23 AM on January 3, 2010 [7 favorites]


War is dehumanizing. If, as in the Okinawa quote, you still worry about getting shit and piss on you, if you can even still smell the rotting flesh, and if it bothers you enough that you consider not eating your rations, if you can still consider your situation to be something like "hell's own cesspool," well . . . then you're still pretty fucking lucky.

My dad (now dead) saw serious front line action in France, Netherlands and Germany during WW2. He HATED discussing his experiences (he was an artillery spotter, always as close to the "action" as he could get) but, over time (usually with alcohol involved), I got fragments of his story from him. If I could break it all down to a simple narrative, it would go like this:

Young man walks ashore at Normandy two weeks after original invasion. He's a reinforcement (ie: off to fill a dead man's shoes) and he's terrified to the point of paralysis at the mere sight (and smell and "feel") of the previous weeks' devastation as he makes his way to the front, which is the town of Caen. A fierce battle has been raging there ever since the initial invasion but it's about to end (in fact, the morning after he arrives). But even so, he has to spend one night in the ruins of the town, getting shot at, trying to do his job, but mostly just paralyzed with that aforementioned terror.

But then, strangely, at some dark point in the night, he gets over it. He gets fatalistic. "Either I'm going to die in this horrible fucking thing, or I'm not. All I can do is follow my training and hope if I do get hit, I won't suffer too much." And so on. He saw plenty of "action" over the next ten or so months and survived, pretty much unscathed (at least physically). The End.

As for "hell's own cesspool" and those "smells of rotting flesh", never a mention. All just part of the "action" ... and never as bad that first day and night's terror.
posted by philip-random at 10:52 AM on January 3, 2010 [2 favorites]


The German people responded to Hitler for a number of reasons, among which, the Versailles Treaty that left them, they felt, isolated and in poor condition; the fear of Communism, the long-standing anti-semitism rampant in Germany and in Europe, the belief that they had lost WWI because of the officers in the military (Hitler was considered an ordinary soldier who won some medals), etc. To play the "if" game is a useless enterprise at this point.
posted by Postroad at 10:55 AM on January 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


tad:"The SS largely succeeded in liquidating Europe's Jewish populations by 1944. The Reich certainly had evil designs on their new lebensraum of Poland to the Ukraine, but if this video (violent, don't look) of football hooligans is any indication of how screwed up Ukrainians presently are, perhaps German overlordship would have been an improvement, even under Koch. "

That is an incredibly creepy and fucked up attitude.
posted by kathrineg at 11:19 AM on January 3, 2010 [10 favorites]


The incredible Dee Xtrovert: is anyone going to be able to eat rice after this, and not think about her post?
posted by Faze at 11:25 AM on January 3, 2010


The SS largely succeeded in liquidating Europe's Jewish populations by 1944. The Reich certainly had evil designs on their new lebensraum of Poland to the Ukraine, but if this video (violent, don't look) of football hooligans is any indication of how screwed up Ukrainians presently are, perhaps German overlordship would have been an improvement, even under Koch.

The first and most fundamental assumption of all SS territorial planning from 1939 onwards was the assumption that the integration of Eastern European territory as German Lebensraum required the removal of the vast majority of the native population. Meyer's Generalplan did not speak specifically of the Jews, but their removal was clearly taken for granted. Only in Poland and the Ukraine did the Jews constitute a minority large enough for their removal to significantly alter the population balance. Meyer addressed himself primarily to the majority Slav population. For Poland he foresaw the removal of 80-85 percent of the native population. This was to be followed by the expulsion of 64 per cent of the population of the Ukraine and 75 percent of the White Russian population. The Russian territory around Leningrad was to be completely depopulated. The various drafts of the Generalplan differed in their estimates to the actual numbers involved, but the lowest figure was 31 million displaced people, not including the Jewish minority. More realistic estimates, which allowed for the natural rate of population increase over the period in which the programme would be implemented, put the number of victims at closer to 45 million people. There was still no absolute clarity about the final destination of the displaced populations. But what cannot have been in doubt is that the process of 'evacuation' would involve mass death on an epic scale. Only those capable of work were of any interest to the Germans. By the end of 1942 the talk was of the possible 'physical annihilation' of entire populations, not only the Jewish minority, but the Poles and Ukranians as well.

--Tooze, Adam The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy
posted by Comrade_robot at 11:30 AM on January 3, 2010 [4 favorites]


Johnny Got His Gun is one of my favorite books. Like postroad mentions, one of the key elements is what we choose to listen to about war. In the film (and then Metallica video) one of the most memorable scenes is when asks, "What is democracy?" Where his father, who admits he doesn't understand the ideal, tells his son that, "For democracy, any man would give his only begotten son."

Like the author of the article I think we revere war because we don't understand the experiences of war. This is why Joe wants to tour the country so that everyone can see the horrors of war first hand, and he'll be the Christ of the Battlefield and usher in a new age of piece. When no one will listen to him, he feels that it's because the general won't let him share this message because they are part of the system the profits off of war.

While this is probably a fair criticism, the point made in the first few paragraphs of these piece make me doubt that it's really Us vs. Them. For a generation that labeled themselves, "The greatest generation", I believe that the worst thing that most soldiers did after WWII is not talk about it. While it's great to hear Dee's story or read a "realistic account", but imagine how the world would have been if the Baby Boomers through Gen Xers had grown up hearing the horrors of war as told by their own fathers and grandfathers. That instead of allowing Hollywood portray the soldiers as hardened fighting machines crafted by the military, that 4 out of 5 riflemen admitted to their families that they could not bring themselves to fire on their human enemy though they had the bravery to risk more dangerous situations to run message or save a fallen comrade.

I expect generals and those that profit from the war to tell us lies in order to get people to fight, but when it's our own parents that instill the message war is a good thing, then what hope do we have that we will ever put down our arms?
posted by betaray at 11:31 AM on January 3, 2010 [7 favorites]


piece? wow. homophones hate me.
posted by betaray at 11:33 AM on January 3, 2010


betaray imagine how the world would have been if the Baby Boomers through Gen Xers had grown up hearing the horrors of war as told by their own fathers and grandfathers.

I completely agree with this betaray, but I thought the article had a reasonably good reason for why this could not have happened in the US. No one wanted to hear it:
"the veterans discovered the first signs of impatience when they tried to tell of the horrors they'd endured, the first delicate hints from their families that nobody cared about those grisly things, the gentle message that the world was different now and whatever they'd done in the war didn't matter anymore."
posted by Popular Ethics at 12:05 PM on January 3, 2010


Some strange reactions here. I agree with koeselitz and Phanx: there's good stuff in the article, but it's way too long (what was all that crap about Bayreuth there for?) and the author is insufferable with his "I'm telling you the truth that nobody else dares speak!" attitude. Still, there's a lot of good stuff in there (Ctrl-F for Midway, Italy, Okinawa, Speer, Vikings, for some of it), even if it's disorganized and overlong, and some people in this thread (not Dee) are just nitpicking for the fun of it.

> the author's stance is "War is hell!" when a more appropriate position might be "War is bleak, boring, and horrible."

There is no contradiction there. Hell is bleak, boring, and horrible.
posted by languagehat at 12:39 PM on January 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


Lee Sandlins's article was already posted by digaman back in 2004 and comment posted many more times. This is a reply to a post that said why this was never post before. digaman's post was betta. Well it was.
posted by anyokerin at 1:06 PM on January 3, 2010


I also have some perhaps misplaced faith in the decency of the German people

You must be a kindly soul, but with WWII and the Holocaust as the main items of evidence, I think I would vote misplaced.

Cool. Does this mean I get to write off all American as mass-murders on the strength of the native American genocides, the tolerance of slavery, and the appalling brutality of the Phillipines?

All Hitler wanted was further revision of the Versailles "Diktat" at the expense of Poland.

You need to actually go and study some about Hitler.

The Holocaust was dirty business but it's a credit to the Germans that they recognize it so, unlike say the Turks and Japanese, or us (non-native) Americans.

Only because denial wasnt an option when youve just lost a war and your enemy is exposing your deeds.


Seems to still be working pretty well for the Japanese. Try getting any acknolegement of the Rape of Nanjing, the Korean rape brothels, the use of Formosans to 'practise' jungle warfare tactics, 'medical experiments' or any other of the the long list of atrocities. What you're more likely to hear about is whining about American racism.

The German people responded to Hitler for a number of reasons,

A small minority - a third - responded to Hitler. Once he gained power via appointment as an anti-Communist bulwark he set about killing Germans likely to oppose him.

Those of us who were women and children in war can spot the romantic notions about soldiers with ease.

The women who hand out white feathers and cry "come back with your shield, or on it"? Those women?

I guess claiming superiority for one's own group in face of facts has a timeless appeal.
posted by rodgerd at 1:40 PM on January 3, 2010


I found the article really interesting and the responses equally as fascinating. This is the reason after 10 years I still visit this site daily, even if I rarely comment any more. Thank you to all of those who have commented.

My grandfather served in the Navy, mostly inside a submarine in the Pacific in WWII. He hated war movies, war books, war-profiteers, war-enthusiasts, etc. He never spoke about his experience until a few years before his death, when he was invited to speak at the University where he was a professor. His central message was that there was nothing worth discussing about the war except its outcome, as invariably even the "war is hell" accounts from soldiers had a way of romanticizing the experience in ways he felt weren't consistent with reality. Needless to say, he was not a history professor.
posted by cell divide at 1:50 PM on January 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


I also have some perhaps misplaced faith in the decency of the German people

You must be a kindly soul, but with WWII and the Holocaust as the main items of evidence, I think I would vote misplaced.


This wrankles me a bit. Or shall I say, a LOT.

My family moved from Germany in '38 after being Jewish wasn't so popular anymore. They were lucky to coincidentally (or if you want to roll that way, stereotypically) be a family of bankers who had saved well enough that all of my great-grandmother's immediate family got out. (Obviously, a lot of officials in a lot of various countries were bribed along the way is what I'm getting at here.) Some went to Britain, others - including my great-grandparents and their family - to the US. My grandmother was 14 when she moved to the US and has tried to spend the rest of her life convincing the world that she's as American as the next person with a moderately thick German accent. Works for me, but there's more than a little bit of denial going on.

In any case, having been descended from some German People, I happen to think that they're, y'know PEOPLE.

Which I can confirm having spent some time living in Germany. You may think it's just a funny bit on Fawlty Towers, but DON'T TALK ABOUT ZE VAR is still a pretty big thing. People get a little squirmy about it. Not people my age who weren't alive and tend to view it as a giant embarrassment - the best I can think of as an analogy is the US and slavery, though of course, that was much further back in history. One of the simultaneously sweetest and most AWKWARD moments of my entire life is when my host-grandmother wanted to make me feel at home, so she started telling me how she and my own grandmother are from the same small town near Bonn.

Yes, yes, it was very sweet... but... if MY grandmother had stayed in that small town, she wouldn't have lived long enough to have children, let alone grandchildren. Kind of, yeah, squirmy to think about - at the same time, it wasn't this woman's fault. This woman was also just a teenager at the time. She was no more in control of things than my nana was.

ANYHOW. THE GERMAN PEOPLE ARE JUST PEOPLE AS DECENT OR NOT AS THE REST OF US. GRAR.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 1:53 PM on January 3, 2010 [6 favorites]


WAR!

HUH!

GOOD GOD Y'ALL

WHAT IS IT GOOD FOR?

HAMFISTED ANALOGIES!

SAY IT AGAIN!
posted by tehloki at 2:41 PM on January 3, 2010


> The women who hand out white feathers and cry "come back with your shield, or on it"? Those women?

Don't be a dick.
posted by languagehat at 3:10 PM on January 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


Echoing cell divide's appreciation for both the posted essay and the many useful comments here; I feel enriched and sobered by the lot. And, fortuitously, nicely cleansed after just last night suffering thru and feeling sullied by the embarrassingly, revoltingly awful experience that is Inglorious Basterds.

Thanks.
posted by dpcoffin at 3:16 PM on January 3, 2010 [2 favorites]


I think Dee Xtrovert and Lee Sandlin need to have a beer summit. I really don't think their views are as far apart as their experiences are.
posted by dhartung at 3:20 PM on January 3, 2010 [2 favorites]


tad: “I also have some perhaps misplaced faith in the decency of the German people to shake off the Nazi programme of nastiness. The great majority of them weren't fighting for the sort of dark world domination alluded to in the essay.”

Phanx: “You must be a kindly soul, but with WWII and the Holocaust as the main items of evidence, I think I would vote misplaced.”

grapefruitmoon: “In any case, having been descended from some German People, I happen to think that they're, y'know PEOPLE.”

All respect to our various ancestors and opinions about the decency of people, but see here, friends: we're talking about these important and significant things in the way we'd ordinarily talk about unimportant and insignificant things, and we're ignoring the implications of them, when we speak in this way. How does the 'decency' or 'indecency' of the German people even enter into the slaughter of millions of 'outsiders' by a whole nation? How can 'decency' or 'indecency' encompass the moral question that lies in that event?

To begin at the beginning: tad, I'm sorry, and I understand you're coming to this conversation with all honesty and forthrightness, bearing no malice. But though you've made a few very interesting and sometimes insightful comments, you should know that a few of the things you have said have sounded very biased, and one thing you've said was even offensive, in fact highly so, though I understand that you might not have meant it as such. Some of this is stuff that I don't mind debating, as I think it's worth thinking about; but there's one bit which I'll tell you probably shouldn't be repeated if you don't want to offend people highly.

from article: “When we consider what would have happened to the world if the Nazis had won and had succeeded in creating the new dark age of industrialized horror Hitler had dreamed of, reverent gratitude seems like a wholly appropriate response to the Allied victory”

tad: “Dunno. This assumes the German people to be permanent assholes. Having, alas, zero interaction with any Germans, I have to stay on the fence with this.”

This isn't the offensive bit, of course, but it's an extreme simplification, tad. To say that the Nazis were attempting to create a "dark age of industrialized horror Hitler had dreamed of" is pointedly not to assume the German people to be "permanent assholes." His point, and indeed the point, is that the Nazis, and the German people who elected and supported them, were doing something tremendously evil. And it's very, very important to keep this moral distinction at the fore when we're talking about this: it's possible for a good, even a great, people to commit such massive crimes; this do not negate the benefits which they've given mankind, but neither can their crimes be forgotten or ignored.

“A generation or two going through Hitler Jugend brainwashing wouldn't improve matters, but I think over time liberalism and world opinion would result in Germans rejecting the central racial superiority and cultural imperialism tenets of Nazi socialism on their own. But the alternate history is tough to see, my main point just centers on the experience of the British, French, and Americans WRT a viable post-war Nazi state. Nazism was arguably pretty centrifugal and by the 1960s a more moderate, if non-apologetic, state would probably have been formed.”

I tried to make this point before: the viability of any post-war Nazi state doesn't even begin to be an issue here; the inevitability of a 'dark age of horror' is assured even if the Nazi state had crumbled immediately. To suggest that by the 1960s the National Socialists in Germany would have liberalized somewhat is to miss entirely the whole difficulty. My god - what do you think happened during the war? If the Nazis managed to kill upwards of 9 million people in the seven years between 1938 and 1945, what exactly do you think they would have done given fifteen more?

“I also have some perhaps misplaced faith in the decency of the German people to shake off the Nazi programme of nastiness. The great majority of them weren't fighting for the sort of dark world domination alluded to in the essay.”

This is simply historically false, and I'm not going to devote a lot of time to proving, for example, that average Germans, while they may not have witnessed Auschwitz or Dachau directly or seen those horrors in the flesh, had an idea of what was going on, and saw their Jewish friends and neighbors put out of business, put out of their homes, put out of their neighborhoods, and finally hauled off to die. That this could and did happen was clear not only to Germans at the time but to all Europeans - to suggest otherwise is to pretend that Warsaw never existed - and the complicity of the mass of Germans in what happened is beyond dispute, I think.

To address where I think you're coming from: I say all these things not because I think Germans are evil, but in fact because I have such a fondness and love of German culture and the things Germans have given us. Don't you see that it's not an act of hatred but in fact an act of decency and respect that we hold people accountable for the things they've done? In saying that Germans - out of bitterness, out of a sense of displacement, out of the tragic loss they went through in the twenty years after Versailles - did what they did knowingly, I'm not saying that they are not human beings, or aren't worthy of dignity or respect; I am saying that they committed a tremendous sin, a terrible crime, and that nothing anybody says will take that fact away. And no matter how we choose to see it, that's a legacy Germans have had to face, and to learn to live with, since 1945. Many of them, in fact, have shown extraordinary bravery in doing so.

tad: “The SS largely succeeded in liquidating Europe's Jewish populations by 1944. The Reich certainly had evil designs on their new lebensraum of Poland to the Ukraine, but if this video (violent, don't look) of football hooligans is any indication of how screwed up Ukrainians presently are, perhaps German overlordship would have been an improvement, even under Koch. Maybe not, but what the Germans would have done to the surviving Slavs in peace couldn't have amounted to much more than the sum of brutalities they inflicted in the first years of war.”

This, tad, is the bit that I meant when I said that you'd said something truly and highly offensive. And I know you're not speaking of these things in order to be malicious; but it surprises me that this statement was not called out here, and I have to conclude that people must have believed they weren't reading it right when they saw it. It's apparent that there isn't anyone in this conversation from Ukraine. Sincerely: to suggest that anyoneespecially the Ukrainians—would have been "better off" under the Nazis is to condemn them and their society in an unfathomable way. I know that your point is that the post-war Nazi regime would not have been so brutal, and I realize that you've immediately tried to make clear that you acknowledge the Nazi horrors perpetrated on the Ukrainian people by mentioning "the sum of brutalities they inflicted in the first years of the war." But please understand: to flippantly link to a large soccer-match brawl (which you should know is no worse than some things I've seen in the United States after football or baseball games) and indicate that maybe these people would've been better off under the Nazis is, well, beyond the pale, it must be said.

I'm trying to edit myself more, and make fewer long comments, so I'm sorry that this had to be so lengthy; but I feel it's very important to get these things straight so that we can begin to try to understand what happened in history and what's going on today.
posted by koeselitz at 4:20 PM on January 3, 2010 [9 favorites]


grapefruitmoon: “Which I can confirm having spent some time living in Germany. You may think it's just a funny bit on Fawlty Towers, but DON'T TALK ABOUT ZE VAR is still a pretty big thing. People get a little squirmy about it. Not people my age who weren't alive and tend to view it as a giant embarrassment - the best I can think of as an analogy is the US and slavery, though of course, that was much further back in history.”

Sorry - one last bit: I'd wanted to say, grapefruitmoon, that I feel strongly a kinship to these kinds of sentiments. And I think it's very important for all of us to make it a point to accept and embrace Germans as human beings, even in the light of these things; that may sound trite or silly, but the fact is very few of us did it after the war.

I have no German blood, but when I was a child, my father used to play one of his favorite records for me: a recording from 1956 of the very first performance of Die Meistersinger after the fall of the Nazis. He found it immensely inspiring, and meaningful in a very deep sense: that, though they had done so many terrible things, and though they'd lived for a decade under the weight of that remorse, a people could again come out into the light and try to find something worthwhile in their identity and their past. And no one can say that the Germans were not punished severely - we're only now coming to understand the full depth of the pain and hurt caused by the Soviet occupation of East Germany, a pain shared by generations of Germans.

These things are complex, and they require us to treat people with more than an either-or "accept/reject" approach.
posted by koeselitz at 4:37 PM on January 3, 2010


This is simply historically false, and I'm not going to devote a lot of time to proving, for example, that average Germans, while they may not have witnessed Auschwitz or Dachau directly or seen those horrors in the flesh, had an idea of what was going on, and saw their Jewish friends and neighbors put out of business, put out of their homes, put out of their neighborhoods, and finally hauled off to die. That this could and did happen was clear not only to Germans at the time but to all Europeans - to suggest otherwise is to pretend that Warsaw never existed - and the complicity of the mass of Germans in what happened is beyond dispute, I think.
I think it pays to be cautious with your language though - given the fierce internal divisions in Germany in the run-up to the Nazi coming to power and what to me is a surprising amount of resistance in a totalitarian state at war (the Leipzing Meuten, Swing Kids, Weisse Rose and the rest) you can run the risk of the sort of crude nationalist essentialism if you start talking about 'average Germans'.
posted by Abiezer at 5:22 PM on January 3, 2010


I think those of us who are not Germans have to face some uncomfortable thinking when it comes to Germany and the rise of Hitler. What are the possibilities? Either we would have done the same thing in the same circumstances, or we wouldn't.

A. If we would, then surely the Germans who supported cannot be blamed for what happened, since we would have done exactly the same in the same circumstances. German culture of the period, perhaps, can be blamed, but what does that even mean? Tout comprendre, c'est tout pardonner, mais Auschwitz?

B. If we wouldn't, then we are saying that the Germans of the era who supported Hitler were somehow unaccountably different from us. But what is the basis for saying this? Isn't it the crudest of racist sentiments, on a par with anti-semitism.

Now, (perhaps) obviously I incline to A, which is hardly a comforting thought. One can comfort oneself by saying, well *I* would have been one of those who opposed Hitler. But would I? After the defeat of 1918, the optimism of the foundation of the Weimar republic and the subsequent utter humiliation of Versailles, followed by the trauma of economic collapse, wouldn't a man like Hitler have held an attraction? And where would it have gone from there, for me?

The only way I can make sense of it to assume that most ordinary Germans had no idea what was going on behind the doors of Auschwitz, any more than Americans knew what was going on at Abu Ghraib. Bear in mind that we live in a *massively* more connected society than Germany in the early 1940s.

The alternative is unthinkable, which is that that *I*, had I been an adult in Germany in 1945, would have known on some level about the gas ovens, and done nothing. But just because it is unthinkable doesn't mean it isn't true, which is the really worrying part.

We like to imagine that in similar circumstances we would have been heroes, but most likely we would have been heroes and cowards and villains in exactly the same proportions as the people who lived through it.
posted by unSane at 5:48 PM on January 3, 2010 [8 favorites]


> the author's stance is "War is hell!" when a more appropriate position might be "War is bleak, boring, and horrible."

>There is no contradiction there. Hell is bleak, boring, and horrible.


I think the distinction is that, "War is Hell!" has a faintly implied, "Let's Storm the Gates of Hell!" behind it. Or alternately, "I've Been to Hell and Back, What the Hell Have You Ever Done!?"

>Don't be a dick.

Um, yeah. Good advice that everyone should follow.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 6:09 PM on January 3, 2010


And I think it's very important for all of us to make it a point to accept and embrace Germans as human beings, even in the light of these things; that may sound trite or silly, but the fact is very few of us did it after the war.

Yes, yes. It's actually really amazing - and I tend to forget about it until reading threads like this - the sort of "otherness" that still exists (in a lot of the US anyway) surrounding German culture. Shortly before I moved to Germany, I had a younger kid (probably about 13) ask me in all honesty: "Why do you want to go to Germany? Are you some kind of Nazi?"

Yeah, he was a dumb kid, but this sentiment obviously still exists. Yep. The German people were complicit in awful things happening, no doubt. But I know that individual Germans are the same as individual Americans or Icelanders or Portuguese or French or any other people whose home country I've hung out in. Any individuals are capable of getting together into a group and committing heinous acts. Look at us as Americans! Ok, no Holocaust, we've got that going for us... but um... slavery. And those Native Americans. Or current lack thereof.

The German people have a lot of history to live with, but they don't need my looking down my nose at them to add to it. I'm not one to throw stones. Yeah, my family was directly affected by it, but at the same time - and THIS DOES NOT EXCUSE ANYTHING - if there hadn't been WWII, my grandparents never would have met thus negating the existence of my father and by extension, me. So, on the one hand, yes, I would like to get some self-righteous hate on about the whole Nazi thing, on the other hand... history works in weird ways and I kind of enjoy existing. Not that MY existence makes up for anything.

I think I knew what I meant when I started writing this, but I will confess that by now, I've lost the plot.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 6:20 PM on January 3, 2010 [2 favorites]


If the Nazis managed to kill upwards of 9 million people in the seven years between 1938 and 1945, what exactly do you think they would have done given fifteen more?

The killing was to some extent due to the exigencies of war. "Untermenschen" in the KZs were not worth anything to the German nation while the flower of Germany was being slaughtered on the Eastern Front by the tens of thousands -- Germany was losing an average of 80,000 KIA every month in Russia. That's the equivalent of a new Vietnam Wall of KIA every week, given the fact that the population base was one-half the size of the US's in 1970.

What was considered horrific by anyone in 1939~1940 was the everyday norm in 1944. My point above sucks to spell out, but I think Germans did the bulk of the damage they were humanly capable of, 1938 to 1945. Same thing with the Japanese. Same fight we're having with the shitheads on our side, Cheney, that Blackwater whacko, Torture Yoo, etc.
posted by tad at 6:21 PM on January 3, 2010


tad: “The killing was to some extent due to the exigencies of war.”

The 9 million weren't killed on the lines; they weren't killed in the KZs; they weren't killed for food. They were killed in camps specifically designed for torture and murder on a scale previously unheard of. I think I agree with what I hope your point is - that the Allies, the mass of men fighting against the Nazis, probably did so for the wrong reasons, and out of no real understanding of what was at stake, like most men in any war - but it's a matter of pure fact that you can't chalk up those specific 9 million to exigencies of the war. There are those who did die as a result of the exigencies of war - that's why the death toll is much higher than 9 million - but 9 million is the number put on those who died for no reason beyond simple criminal slaughter.

“Germans did the bulk of the damage they were humanly capable of, 1938 to 1945.”

Three points:

(1) Comrade_robot's quotation above points out that you're, in a very simple sense, quite wrong here. Please go back and read it.

(2) If you believe that the Nazis had done everything evil humans are capable of, and if you believe they'd killed as many people as they could kill, you are invited to consider the example of Josef Stalin, who even as the war closed was beginning to do much worse.

(3) The point isn't that the concentration camps would have continued exactly the same. The point is that more people would have died.
posted by koeselitz at 6:42 PM on January 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


The killing was to some extent due to the exigencies of war.

This is very true. There was a documentary I saw in the late eighties or nineties (that I haven't been able to find since (on account of not remembering its name)) that pointed out that the Jews were at first kicked out, then demoted to slave status, and only really killed in earnest once it became clear that the Germans were going to lose. (The idea being that they would make sure their 'great enemy' was at least as decimated as they were.) It's obviously wildly more complicated than that, especially when you look at individual narratives, but the evolution of the concept of 'getting rid of the Jews' seems to be historically accurate.

C.F. Andersonville.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 6:46 PM on January 3, 2010


>Same fight we're having with the shitheads on our side, Cheney, that Blackwater whacko, Torture Yoo, etc.

False analogy. The US was not rounding up a certain ethnicity from their homes in Iraq and exterminating them in camps. You can play the "OH NOES GERMANY IS MISUNDERSTOOD, IT FOUGHT JUST LIKE ANYONE ELSE" card to yourself but you're not convincing anyone else with this poorly thought out rhetoric.

All you other examples fail this way too. Nazi apologia is tough eh?
posted by damn dirty ape at 7:03 PM on January 3, 2010


>False analogy. The US was not rounding up a certain ethnicity from their homes in Iraq and exterminating them in camps.

Wait. What?

Do you mean we weren't rounding up all of them?

Newsflash, the Nazis didn't round up all of them either (at least, before the latter stages of the war.)

Or are you just saying that we were more about torturing them, and not so much about killing them? Because that's a distinction without a (moral) difference, as far as I'm concerned.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 7:13 PM on January 3, 2010


>The killing was to some extent due to the exigencies of war.

Lets ignore the moral problem of rounding people up in camps and then deciding they must die because youre losing a war and focus on the Holocaust timeline. The extermination with gas began in 1941:
June 29/30 - Romanian troops conduct a pogrom against Jews in the town of Jassy, killing 10,000.

Summer - Himmler summons Auschwitz Kommandant Höss to Berlin and tells him, "The Führer has ordered the Final Solution of the Jewish question. We, the SS, have to carry out this order...I have therefore chosen Auschwitz for this purpose."
This is over THREE FULL YEARS before surrender. In fact in 1941 Hitler was doing ok in the Soviet Union until around December.
posted by damn dirty ape at 7:16 PM on January 3, 2010


Glad to see this essay posted. I posted an AskMe thread trying to find it a bit ago. The unedited version here doesn't hold up as well to the edited version I read in New Kings of Nonfiction.

At first I was disagreeing with what Dee Extrovert was saying, but upon reflection, I see what she means and agree with it.

RE: Inglorious Basterds
Echoing cell divide's appreciation for both the posted essay and the many useful comments here; I feel enriched and sobered by the lot. And, fortuitously, nicely cleansed after just last night suffering thru and feeling sullied by the embarrassingly, revoltingly awful experience that is Inglorious Basterds.
I took that to be the point. The movie that the audience is watching (on a surface level) is the movie that Goebbels is making: the story of a man murdering for his country. The Basterds are basically sociopaths, and aside from that, not even terribly good at their mission. But, because they're Americans, the American audience will root for them. The audience that cheers for the Basterds is the same audience that dies in the theatre fire.
posted by codacorolla at 7:21 PM on January 3, 2010 [2 favorites]


The point is that more people would have died.

to what further end? Remember, I'm looking at this from a global view, not the perspective of the surviving Poles and Eastern Europeans under the victorious German boot.

The original quote:

"When we consider what would have happened to the world if the Nazis had won and had succeeded in creating the new dark age of industrialized horror Hitler had dreamed of"

I just think "the world" as a whole would have survived the peace with Hitler not much worse off than the smoking hole that was the Europe of 1945.

Assuming the Russians were somehow no longer a present existential threat to the German people in the post-war, I just think the Wehrmacht would have finally found the balls to take on and purge the Nazi policy apparat (like it failed to do in the late 30s when it had the chance).

I don't mean to assert that the Allied cause was wasted or wrong. The British and French were amazingly brave in honoring their treaty obligations with the Poles and finally standing up to the outlaw regime of the Nazi state, at immense cost.
posted by tad at 7:21 PM on January 3, 2010


The problem with History is it never really answers a question, just keeps re-positioning it. Was there something intrinsically WRONG with German culture as it emerged from the 19th century that made the horrors of WW2 inevitable?

Two things make me think, probably yes.

1. the kind of stuff that pops up in the documentary, The Occult History of the Third Reich. ... with narration explaining the influences of alternative belief systems (occult, paganism, mysticism, etc) on the Nazi ideology and Hitler's personal philosophy. Also documents the history and development of the ideas and symbols that would be used along with eugenicist racial politics to perpetrate the murder and oppression of millions during World War II.

2. a Herman Hesse novel published in 1906 called "Unterm Rad" (Beneath The Wheel) in which a bright young boy is more or less deliberately destroyed by the German educational system for the horrific crime of showing some sensitivity. The term "under the wheel" refers to the punishments that the school masters inflict upon him (ie: psychological torture). It's a tough read which clearly speaks of a culture where the barbarians already had a firm foothold.

Do I think that there is still something instrinsically wrong with German culture? No. The fascist shadow has moved on.
posted by philip-random at 7:30 PM on January 3, 2010


>I just think the Wehrmacht would have finally found the balls to take on and purge the Nazi policy apparat

What are you a science fiction writer? Sure, everything would have been cheery if it wasnt for those pesky Allies! Really?

Not to mention, 'good people rising up against the bad' takes more faith in the lowest common denominator than I care to give. Last I checked no one overthrew Stalin, Jong-Il, Kim Il Sung, Mao, Hussein, Ho Chi Minh, Mugage, Qaddafi, al-Bashir, Tito, Gheorghiu, Suharto, or Franco. But the Germans would have definitely gotten Hitler after a victorious military campaign? Yeah, right, now pull the other.
posted by damn dirty ape at 7:44 PM on January 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


This is over THREE FULL YEARS before surrender. In fact in 1941 Hitler was doing ok in the Soviet Union until around December.

The Rheinhard death camps came & went in the 1942-43 timeframe. There were various levels of inhumanity the Germans descended to, for various reasons. It is somewhat difficult to piece together a rational, consistent aim of the murdering; eg. Anne Frank is representative of what happened to Western European jews, shipped around in labor-death camp system with differing levels of brutality.

Part of the story has to include the inhuman treatment of the millions of Soviet POWs the Germans captured in 1942 and 43. The Germans had no intention of housing or feeding these prisoners and essentially left them to die in the open. Later, some effort was made to get useful work out of this population, but it's arguable that this moral failing began to spread out into wider circles of policymakers.

FWIW, AFAICT we are on this same path, potentially, WRT events in the mideast and the terrorism threat. Right now this threat is rather small-scale, but technology combined with the eliminationism among both sides can easily escalate the conflict into similar mass-scale atrocities and loss of any moral compass.
posted by tad at 7:44 PM on January 3, 2010


Every time I see this article discussed it ends up being derailed into some weird alternate history discussion...
posted by codacorolla at 7:47 PM on January 3, 2010


Alternate history is the last refuge of the Nazi apologist. Tad has done it a couple times here. The overthrow of Hitler, the holocaust not being so bad if it wasnt for the military losses, and finally the old "the US is just as bad" canard.
posted by damn dirty ape at 7:49 PM on January 3, 2010


But the Germans would have definitely gotten Hitler after a victorious military campaign? Yeah, right, now pull the other.

I didn't say Hitler, I said the Nazi policy apparat. I just think the Germany Army had more staying power than the NSDAP and its SS.

Stalin, Jong-Il, Kim Il Sung, Mao, Hussein, Ho Chi Minh, Mugage, Qaddafi, al-Bashir, Tito, Gheorghiu, Suharto, or Franco.

Yet the Communists did their best to de-Stalinize under Kruschev, Mao's Gang of Four fell in the mid-70s to be replaced by the current crop of technocrats, Spain had reconciliation after Franco. The other examples lack parallelism with the Greater Germany of the 1940s, but the Ho Chi Minh example is interesting to me, as the Vietnamese state today has fallen to utter corruption of the same capitalist impulse that Ho Chi Minh was attempting to expunge in the 1940s and 50s.
posted by tad at 7:51 PM on January 3, 2010



Assuming the Russians were somehow no longer a present existential threat to the German people in the post-war, I just think the Wehrmacht would have finally found the balls to take on and purge the Nazi policy apparat (like it failed to do in the late 30s when it had the chance).


While this is in, many ways, a silly argument, as Nazi Germany never even had the slightest chance of winning the war:

Would you say that the Wehrmacht's opposition to Hitler became greater or less once it became obvious that their war was lost?
posted by Comrade_robot at 7:55 PM on January 3, 2010


>Yet the Communists did their best to de-Stalinize under Kruschev, Mao's Gang of Four fell in the mid-70s to be replaced by the current crop of technocrats, Spain had reconciliation after Franco.

Good news unless youre one of the several million these people exterminated while in power. So in your science fiction novel you use to defend Germany in the 1940s, everything is honky dory in the 1970s or 1980s. Err, good to know.
posted by damn dirty ape at 7:58 PM on January 3, 2010


I don't care to apologize, explain away, or draw parallels -- I just took issue with the idea of a German victory in the 1940s resulting in world-wide catastrophe.

Yes, that was the wartime propaganda as churned out by Hollywood and presented so eloquently in WSC's many defiant speeches. I just think the reality of the situation was a lot more gray.

The parallels I draw are just the commonality I think I share with the Germans of the time. Eg. I foresaw the 2003 Iraq action was going to become more and more messier as our occupation continued, same thing with the 2002 action into Afghanistan. I am greatly disappointed in the immature, unprofessional, and counter-productive failings of the armed forces over the past decade.

Now, these failings aren't an order of magnitude (or three) within the moral failings of the German state and the Nazis within it of the 1940s. But they are the seeds, I think, and share commonality of qualia if not quantity of evil.
posted by tad at 8:00 PM on January 3, 2010


>I just took issue with the idea of a German victory in the 1940s resulting in world-wide catastrophe.

Everything about the regime, its actions, its values, and its goals points to some pretty grim scenarios. End of world, probably not, but the idea that 1940s Germany is a misunderstood giant who would have blossomed into a respectable world power (like your stellar example of China) broadsided by liberals in Hollywood is complete bullshit. 1940s Germany earned its reputation.
posted by damn dirty ape at 8:07 PM on January 3, 2010


Would you say that the Wehrmacht's opposition to Hitler became greater or less once it became obvious that their war was lost?

Rundstedt to Berlin, summer of 1944: "Make peace, you fools!"
Manstein: "Preussische Feldmarschälle meutern [commit mutiny] nicht".

The Germans knew they were fucked after Citadel failed in 1943, but there was always the hope that the battle of France would result in victory, giving the Germans time and resources to find some way to retrieve the East.

The Germans had the unfortunate historical example of Frederick the Great, who bumblefucked through the Seven Years War to the verge of total defeat only to have miraculous events take Russia out of the war and settle the situation to Germany's advantage.

The general atmosphere was that the Germans were in no position to ask for a settlement they couldn't win on the battlefield. There was no "opps, our bad!" card available to the Germans in 1944.

I think continued struggle and defense of the German people and homelands was considered the only rational option on the Eastern Front in 1944 and 45. Fight to win, or die trying. Such a death would be a relief from the unbearable reality of defeat and Russian occupation.

Similar dynamic WRT the Japanese Army's resistance in 1945.
posted by tad at 8:13 PM on January 3, 2010


but the idea that 1940s Germany is a misunderstood giant

I wish to make no such argument. But I think you are missing the perspective of what it was to be a Good German in this timeframe.
posted by tad at 8:15 PM on January 3, 2010


tad: “I just think "the world" as a whole would have survived the peace with Hitler not much worse off than the smoking hole that was the Europe of 1945...

I don't mean to assert that the Allied cause was wasted or wrong. The British and French were amazingly brave in honoring their treaty obligations with the Poles and finally standing up to the outlaw regime of the Nazi state, at immense cost.”


So apparently your point is this:

The British and the French were brave, and therefore they escape blame. Since you've just said that the war didn't actually make anything better - that Europe was so devastated that the Nazis could not have done worse - and since actually fighting the war cost many lives, lives which (on this premise) were apparently wasted, it's clear who you're cryptically trying to blame: The Americans. It's the Americans, in your apparent estimation, who laid waste to Europe, destroying it completely and bombing it until it was no better than the Nazis would have left it.

First of all, though this is a silly oversimplification, I'd suggest that you consider the possibility that, as an American, you're biased on this. I'm an American, too, and I too have a tendency to be reductivist about the past, as you're being here. I understand the desire to set things right by ripping into our own past leaders, but you're going beyond that and pretending something happened that didn't. You're ignoring the whole tenor and force of the war.

Second of all, on the point of you not having met any Germans: I suggest you find some. Many of the Germans I know would slap you silly for saying some of the things you're saying here.
posted by koeselitz at 8:18 PM on January 3, 2010



Rundstedt to Berlin, summer of 1944: "Make peace, you fools!"
Manstein: "Preussische Feldmarschälle meutern [commit mutiny] nicht".


Oh, I thought that you'd just said that the Wehrmacht would have taken care of Hitler after he supposedly won the war.

Strangely enough, most histories state that Hitler was 'untouchable' after the early victory in France.

Later on, of course, when the war wasn't going so well, there was that whole thing with the suitcase -- there was a movie about it, it had Tom Cruise in it? Lots of people got hanged with piano wire? Rommel had to commit suicide?
posted by Comrade_robot at 8:24 PM on January 3, 2010


>But I think you are missing the perspective of what it was to be a Good German in this timeframe.

Considering the Nazi party got into power with anti-semitic philosophies (which was a MODERATE political position at the time) that appealed to the lowest common denominator, I suspect youre the one with the overly rosy view of a 1930s German.
In 1936, Jews were banned from all professional jobs, effectively preventing them from having any influence in education, politics, higher education, and industry. There was now nothing to stop the anti-Jewish actions that spread across the German economy.

Between 1937 and 1938, new laws were implemented, and the segregation of Jews from the “German Aryan” population was completed. In particular, Jews were punished financially for being Jewish.

On March 1, 1938, government contracts could not be awarded to Jewish businesses. On September 30 of the same year, "Aryan" doctors could only treat "Aryan" patients. Provision of medical care to Jews was already hampered by the fact that Jews were banned from being doctors.

On August 17, Jews had to add "Israel"(males) or "Sarah" (females) to their names, and a large letter "J" was to be printed on their passports on October 5. On November 15, Jewish children were banned from going to state-run schools. By April 1939, nearly all Jewish companies had either collapsed under financial pressure and declining profits, or had been persuaded to sell out to the government, further reducing their rights as human beings; they were, in many ways, effectively separated from the German populace.
This was all before even one shot was fired from those "evil" French, British, and Americans nogoodnik invaders!
posted by damn dirty ape at 8:30 PM on January 3, 2010


The Americans. It's the Americans, in your apparent estimation, who laid waste to Europe, destroying it completely and bombing it until it was no better than the Nazis would have left it.

actually, no. The USAAF tried reasonably hard to limit their bombing to war plants (excepting their campaign in Northern France in strategic support of Overlord, of course). It was the British night effort that destroyed Berlin, Hamburg, and Dresden. Plus Hitler's declaration of war on the US meant that every action we took that was necessary to eventually knock in his bunker door and arrest his sorry ass was legitimate and worthwhile. Too bad the Russians got there first!

But when I was referring to the devastated Europe, I was think of the vast swath that the Germans cut through Eastern Europe from Warsaw to Rostov, where the tide of battle passed twice or four times, leaving many areas a complete wasteland. This was their new lebensraum that they risked their national existence for, and it didn't turn out so hospitable for the Germans.

First of all, though this is a silly oversimplification

Agreed. Glad I didn't write a bit of it.

You're ignoring the whole tenor and force of the war.

I have done about as much reading on this subject as is humanly possible for a person my age and language ability.
posted by tad at 8:34 PM on January 3, 2010


I also find it ironic that you are trying to debunk the 'good war' mythos by building up the 'good german' mythos.
posted by damn dirty ape at 8:44 PM on January 3, 2010


I didn't say you hadn't read anything. Indeed, you appear to have read so much that you've completely done away with any need to actually think about it.
posted by koeselitz at 8:44 PM on January 3, 2010


You're ignoring the whole tenor and force of the war.

I have done about as much reading on this subject as is humanly possible for a person my age and language ability.


And you could keep at it for the rest of your life and still have a very limited grasp of it. The complete history of WW2 is beyond measure. Too damned much happened (and most of it was damned). I think my favorite comment in this whole thread is this one from cell-divide talking about his grandfather and the talk that he gave about the war toward the end of his university career:

His central message was that there was nothing worth discussing about the war except its outcome, as invariably even the "war is hell" accounts from soldiers had a way of romanticizing the experience in ways he felt weren't consistent with reality. Needless to say, he was not a history professor.

History can be a bottomless pit, the proverbial blurry photograph. The closer you study it, the less distinct it becomes.
posted by philip-random at 8:52 PM on January 3, 2010 [2 favorites]


I suspect youre the one with the overly rosy view of a 1930s German.

See, that's what I mean. I'm not talking about pre-war Germans, but Germans thrown unwillingly into an existential battle with the bolshevik East.

I do not dispute that the Germans of the 1930s were largely racist shitheads. We had our own contingent here in the states. From father to son, we pass our prejudices and bigotries.

When I was referring to the "Good Gerrman", I was thinking of the stress they were under in the 1943-45 timeframe.

1940 and 41 were filled with happy times, putting the Poles back in their place, recovering the national honor lost in the first war, and booting the English right off the continent with the successful occupations of Norway and Greece.

Then Hitler turned the Panzers to the east. Given the miracle of the campaign in France the previous year, and the general poor showing of the Russians in Finland, most observers didn't expect the Germans would have much difficulty seizing Moscow and the general Volga line in 1941, especially after the horrendous losses the Red Army took in its hasty defensive positions forward of its fortified lines in the pre-war Russia.

But as the year ground on the casualties mounted and the forward momentum stalled. Panzer Group Guderian could invest Tula, two towns from Moscow, but move no further.

The winter counteroffensive struck, and the brave German soldiers were ordered to hold where they stood. Divisions were decimated holding the swamps between Leningrad and Moscow, the Rzhev salient, and the positions forward of the brilliant victories of the autumn on the center route to Moscow.

Entering the 1942 campaign, it was clear that ending the war -- victory over Stalin would remove England's last hope in interfering with the newly won order -- was not going to be as straightforward as it appeared going in.

Germany's KIA/MIA by month through the disaster at Stalingrad tells part of the story:

Jun-41 22,900
Jul-41 54,200
Aug-41 56,300
Sep-41 47,400
Oct-41 44,300
Nov-41 32,800
Dec-41 49,453
Jan-42 54,500
Feb-42 48,600
Mar-42 48,500
Apr-42 27,100
May-42 33,200
Jun-42 33,600
Jul-42 39,700
Aug-42 61,400
Sep-42 47,700
Oct-42 28,100
Nov-42 37,000
Dec-42 78,522
Jan-43 164,596
Feb-43 57,500

This was only about a third of the butcher's bill that was to be paid by the German people -- the battle would continue for two more years, Allied bombers would multiply and the Luftwaffe would find itself driven from the skies.

I do not post these arguments to necessarily explain and certainly not to justify any German action, just to provide a bit of background that I think is missing here. Trauma changes people, a possible parallel may be the craziness of the Khmer Rouge after they emerged from the jungles and years of the B-52 bombing campaign.

This was all before even one shot was fired from those "evil" French, British, and Americans nogoodnik invaders!

The strawman stuffing is getting a bit much. Could you dial it down, please?
posted by tad at 9:07 PM on January 3, 2010


I also find it ironic that you are trying to debunk the 'good war' mythos by building up the 'good german' mythos.

Ash: Good. Bad. I'm the guy with the gun.

I'm not trying to paint the Germans as victims. Shit happens. They weren't robots and were caught up in their own tragic history, cultural weaknesses, and mistaken estimates of their military and economic realities. As often comes up here, I think dehumanizing them and ignoring their experience weakens our ability to see that their evil can become our evil should the circumstances push us in similar or analogous directions.

I tend to catch a lot of heat here defending the atomic bombings. That was arguably our moral failure, slaughtering 150,000 or so men, women, and children totally indiscriminately like that, but everything has a context, contingencies that do not exculpate (from what?) but can only, perhaps, enlighten.

But perhaps there is no enlightenment to be found in the German atrocities, nor with the larger if less industrial Japanese actions in China. Just history.
posted by tad at 9:19 PM on January 3, 2010


Seconding the advice that you should actually meet some Germans sometime.
posted by Ndwright at 9:29 PM on January 3, 2010


Hey tad, thanks for disrupting an otherwise informative and interesting thread with this inane argument.
posted by codacorolla at 9:39 PM on January 3, 2010


I feel distinctly as though I've wandered into a America-slanted version of a certain roundly-discredited Patrick Buchanan book about history.
posted by koeselitz at 9:48 PM on January 3, 2010


The women who hand out white feathers and cry "come back with your shield, or on it"? Those women?

Don't be a dick.


I'm sorry. I hadn't realised attempting to inject a modicum of historical reality into a stereotyping rant was dickish.
posted by rodgerd at 11:45 PM on January 3, 2010


They were killed in camps specifically designed for torture and murder on a scale previously unheard of.

Moreover the killing diverted needed men and equipment away from the front. Using conquered peoples as slave labour to aid the war effort may have been a net win; setting in place an elaborate machinery specifically for the purpose of the mass-murder was irrational.

(Deighton, in Blood, Tears, and Folly argues that the whole invasion of the Soviet Union was predicated on Hitler's racial theories, not least because it was a huge loss to the Nazis in simple terms of resources - something like 40% of German trade was with the Soviets during the period of the Nazi-Soviet pact, and the Soviets were happy to load the Germans up with whatever resources they needed; the invasion diverted resources from finishing off Britain in the Middle East, which would have cut one of its major links to the Empire and Dominions. From any reasonable perspective, he argues, Barbarossa was madness that could only be justified if you went along with the Nazi notions of "purifying" the east.)

To suggest that by the 1960s the National Socialists in Germany would have liberalized somewhat is to miss entirely the whole difficulty. My god - what do you think happened during the war? If the Nazis managed to kill upwards of 9 million people in the seven years between 1938 and 1945, what exactly do you think they would have done given fifteen more?

Actually, the more relevant point, I would argue, was the period from 33 - 38. One of the first things that happened when the Nazis took power was that a squad visited the then-elderly judge who had sentenced Hitler for his part in the Beer Hall Putsch. The judge, who had applied what has been argued as a light sentence in line with the laws of the time, and his wife were taken to a forest and hacked to death with axes.

The Night of the Long Knives saw the mass-murder of Nazi party for real or imagined disloyalty.

The Nazis' first order of business was securing power with an orgy of killing Germans, even Nazi Germans, who they suspected would be a problem. It seems unlikely that an ascendant Nazi party would be more generous over time.

I just took issue with the idea of a German victory in the 1940s resulting in world-wide catastrophe.

Let's see. For German victory in the 40s you'd have to have had the subjugation of the East, which would have lead to more mass-murder of Slavic peoples and Jews.

Britain would have needed to be subdued, either by subjugation or the installation of a Vichy-style facist regime (led by Halifax and the George V, perhaps). You can pretty much write off a large portion of great English-language literature at that point, because the likes of Orwell were scheduled to be rounded up and shot if such came to pass; along, of course, with countless Jews who had fled to England over generations of eastern European pogroms and more recent Nazi atrocities, trade unionists, Labour Party members, socialists of various stripes, and so on.

Britain would no doubt be required, much like France, to hand over young men for forced labour in Nazi Germany. Dominions would either be Nazified or handed over Germany directly, as with France, unless they were able to resist forcibly; perhaps that would be the case for Canada, but it would likely simply lead to places like India, Australia, and New Zealand being swallowed up by Japan, with all the atrocities they were responsible for perpetrated in those nations. North Africa would be fully possessed by facist regimes, and with the US having no leverage, as it did over France and Britain in the aftermath of victory, I don't see why the Nazis, Italians, or Spanish would see any reason to decolonise in the 50s and 60s.

With no-one to keep the Germans busy in Europe, it's unlikely nations such as Korea and China would have been freed from Japanese occupation, leading to more decades of rape brothels and mass-murder.

It's difficult to see a United States, bereft of support from Britain, the Dominion, or the Soviet Union, able to do much about a Japanese takeover in the Pacific once German U-boat fleets were freed up to roam the Pacific as they had the Atlantic. A Japanese yoke across East Asia and the Pacific is not a pleasant thing to contemplate.

Anyway, that's enough alt-history...
posted by rodgerd at 12:19 AM on January 4, 2010 [3 favorites]


koeslitz, dda — I have no dog in this fight, but it really doesn't look to me like you're actually reading tad's posts.
posted by hattifattener at 12:34 AM on January 4, 2010


What are we missing, hattifattener?
posted by koeselitz at 1:28 AM on January 4, 2010


>our ability to see that their evil can become our evil should the circumstances push us in similar or analogous directions.

Why are your rants always about the US? Perhaps the horrible dictatorshops and theocracies in the Middle East have a lot more to learn from WWII than anyone else. You know, the countries that blame most of their problems on a certain ethnic minority and vow to reclaim the land of a certain country for sake of national pride. Hmm, sounds familiar. The countries that crack down on protestors not with firehoses and tear gas but with bullets and lethal prison beat downs after false arrest?

Or the cult of personality around Vladamir "forever in power" Putin? Or the one party state totalitarian China?
posted by damn dirty ape at 5:57 AM on January 4, 2010


I do not dispute that the Germans of the 1930s were largely racist shitheads.

they were mostly still around in the 40s, so i can't imagine why you think they were any different then

When I was referring to the "Good Gerrman", I was thinking of the stress they were under in the 1943-45 timeframe.

payback is a mother, as they say

I just took issue with the idea of a German victory in the 1940s resulting in world-wide catastrophe.

call it continent-wide, as i don't think the german reich could have gone much farther than europe - you seem to think that they might have mellowed out, once victory was assured and the damage was done - but then to argue that the germans would have liberalized in the 60s would have been like arguing that the soviets would have liberalized in the 30s and 40s

furthermore, it seems to me that the eventual world situation would be that of a nuclear armed cold war between the usa and the axis countries - it's quite possible that would end in world wide catastrophe

all this contrafactual speculation is useless anyway - the germans lost the war when they failed to capture moscow - and your argument that their atrocities were partially caused by their realization they were losing is a weak one - just how many times have countries in the process of being defeated massacred millions of people in their territory?
posted by pyramid termite at 5:57 AM on January 4, 2010


>The strawman stuffing is getting a bit much. Could you dial it down, please?

Thats rich coming from a guy who wrote "The Germans didn't start WW2 -- the French and British declared war on them" and has spent hours skirting around pro-Nazi win argument for WWII.
posted by damn dirty ape at 6:00 AM on January 4, 2010


1940 and 41 were filled with happy times, putting the Poles back in their place, recovering the national honor lost in the first war, and booting the English right off the continent with the successful occupations of Norway and Greece.

Yes, and killing loads of Jewish people, Poles, and Ukrainians.

I keep saying this, but Hitler's war was a racial war for lebensraum which required the extermination of entire populations. I am not making this up, this is what Hitler wrote and said this war was. People were being systematically starved to death long before 1943, vaguely remembered documentaries from the 1980's aside.
posted by Comrade_robot at 6:28 AM on January 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


I just think "the world" as a whole would have survived the peace with Hitler not much worse off than the smoking hole that was the Europe of 1945.

If that world was Mars... otherwise, I'm going to go ahead and continue to believe that "peace" with Hitler would not be possible seeing as how he made it perfectly clear that he was going for a Napoleonic "full world domination" scheme and any "peace" involved would certainly involve heavily anti-Semitic policies if not full on destruction of Jews. Oh, maybe they would have "only" been forced into slavery instead of gassed. Yeah, that would have been "survival" but it would have also been much, MUCH worse than the smoking hole of '45.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 7:13 AM on January 4, 2010


> The killing was to some extent due to the exigencies of war.

Are you fucking kidding me? Man, I'm glad koeselitz is addressing you so patiently and logically, because if I tried to respond to your increasingly damning posts in this thread I'd probably get myself deleted. You've read too much and thought and felt too little. Please grow up.
posted by languagehat at 7:25 AM on January 4, 2010


I just took issue with the idea of a German victory in the 1940s resulting in world-wide catastrophe.

Yes, that was the wartime propaganda as churned out by Hollywood and presented so eloquently in WSC's many defiant speeches. I just think the reality of the situation was a lot more gray.


(Apologies in advance that I'm once again forced to read the thread in chunks)

HOW CAN YOU GET "GRAY" FROM THE FINAL SOLUTION? Do you think Hitler would have stopped killing Jews if he "won" the war? What would compel him to do so? "Oh yeah, I have all of this Lebensraum. I can put my feet up. No need to kill any more Jews."

That is some nice bizarro universe there.

Second of all, on the point of you not having met any Germans: I suggest you find some. Many of the Germans I know would slap you silly for saying some of the things you're saying here.

Agreed. I know many Germans personally, as I've mentioned several times in this thread. 25% of my chromosomes originated in Germany, so yeah, a potential for bias. But still. NO GERMAN I KNOW would ever say "Yeah, the world would have been alright if Hitler had won the war." NO ONE. NOT ONE. While opinions about the "smoldering hole" of Europe may differ and yeah, the strategies of ending the war are up for debate, NOT A SINGLE GERMAN I know would make the argument that Hitler did not NEED to be brought down. NONE of the Germans I know would want to live in a Nazi state. They have differing feelings on their society's mistakes, for sure, but NONE of them would say "Oh yeah, the world would have been JUST FINE if Hitler had won the war."

As often comes up here, I think dehumanizing them and ignoring their experience weakens our ability to see that their evil can become our evil should the circumstances push us in similar or analogous directions.

This is a strange thing to read from someone who is actively dehumanizing Germans, or at least radically oversimplifying German culture and history into some weirdass apologist stance that is inconsistent with actual German experiences post WWII. Sure, we can all become evil, but that's not to say that Hitler would have been "ok" to remain in power or that Hitler would have arisen just as easily in say, 1930s France. Of course, you know about Anti-Semitism in German culture beginning in the 1700s and being a steady undercurrent all the way through the 1930s, the Anti-Semitist tracts and clubs in Vienna that Hitler discovered while attempting art school and the power vacuum of post WWI Europe and the ease of the National Socialist party to fill that vacuum and oh yeah, this TOTALLY could have happened ANYWHERE. Sure, different evils are possible all the time, but they don't tend to occur spontaneously.

Humans are in general good enough that unless an evil is specifically appealing to some kind of pre-existing base instinct, it's not going to fly as a systematic problem. See for instance, in the US we're all bent about "terrorists" and yeah, generally xenophobic in some ways, but we would be hard pressed to start a war on, say, brown eyed people. We wouldn't be rounding up brown-eyed people and killing them at a moment's notice because there's nothing underlying in our culture that vilifies brown-eyed people. Societies have specific prejudices which lend towards certain evils. In short, the Holocaust couldn't have happened anywhere - it had to be a place where it was easy for the National Socialist ideology to take over the government and where the culture already was predisposed towards Anti-Semitism.

And after that, I have to abruptly end this blather. I may or may not have actually made my point - this is a subject that I have overstudied and overthought, so it's hard to say.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 7:34 AM on January 4, 2010


> The USAAF tried reasonably hard to limit their bombing to war plants (excepting their campaign in Northern France in strategic support of Overlord, of course). It was the British night effort that destroyed Berlin, Hamburg, and Dresden.

In defense of the lobsterbacks, they were mostly bombing at night which made accurate targeting much more difficult.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 7:43 AM on January 4, 2010


If I am reading tad correctly regarding the point 'I just took issue with the idea of a German victory in the 1940s resulting in world-wide catastrophe', the key term is worldwide. A catastrophe it may well have been for Europe, and any 'non-Aryan' people within the scope of Nazi influence, but this is not the world.
posted by asok at 11:45 AM on January 4, 2010


NB. There is no chance I would ever have been born had the Allies not won WW2.
posted by asok at 12:06 PM on January 4, 2010


> A catastrophe it may well have been for Europe, and any 'non-Aryan' people within the scope of Nazi influence, but this is not the world.

I guess it depends on your definition of "catastrophe." If that's reserved for "my own house is burning down," then no, it wouldn't have been a catastrophe. If you believe no man is an island, it would look different. I'm quite sure if a totalitarian, genocidal regime took over the rest of the world, many of us would regard it as a catastrophe, and I wouldn't want to have dinner with those who didn't.
posted by languagehat at 12:09 PM on January 4, 2010


If I am reading tad correctly regarding the point 'I just took issue with the idea of a German victory in the 1940s resulting in world-wide catastrophe', the key term is worldwide. A catastrophe it may well have been for Europe, and any 'non-Aryan' people within the scope of Nazi influence, but this is not the world.

How big do you have to get to say that something is a "worldwide" phenomenon? I'm asking sincerely. If the potential results of a Hitler victory in WWII wouldn't count as having a "worldwide" impact, are there any actual events that can be said to truly be "worldwide?" I know the world is getting smaller, but it's still a big enough place that I can't honestly think of any non-natural event that really could be placed in the category of "having worldwide impact."

Also: how many hairs do we need to split before something is arguably bad? If it's "bad for Europe and its non-Aryan residents" isn't that bad enough? Stalin was a pretty bad dude to his own people, same with Pol Pot, but should we be ok with that since they weren't "worldwide" catastrophes?
posted by grapefruitmoon at 12:10 PM on January 4, 2010


> The movie that the audience is watching (on a surface level) is the movie that Goebbels is making: the story of a man murdering for his country. The Basterds are basically sociopaths, and aside from that, not even terribly good at their mission. But, because they're Americans, the American audience will root for them. The audience that cheers for the Basterds is the same audience that dies in the theatre fire.

Derail/spoilers: This is even more explicit in the DVD-included full 5-6 minute version of "Nation's Pride", wherein the American commander's big moment is an homage to Is Paris Burning? as he worries about the Italian architecture he would destroy if he hit the bell tower Zoller is firing from. The Americans die en masse but are portrayed as neutral or even good -- a baby is shown seemingly used as a shield, but the G.I. is simply returning it to its mother. The Americans in the movie, in other words, are much worse than the Americans in the movie-within-a-movie. The connection is subtly underscored by Raines bearing a hanging scar, similar to the scar he wishes to brand the Nazis with.

And of course the key German character tries to end the war. It's left ambiguous whether he succeeds.
posted by dhartung at 1:23 PM on January 4, 2010


"War is dehumanizing."

This.

And it's precisely because there's no reasoning with the situation. It shares that with natural disasters. Except it's man made.
And it doesn't much matter what happened. Other disasters don't have 'countless mementos.' I think there are always going to be people infatuated with warfare. I suspect that's why some societies had brutal rituals or games, the Mayans had Pitz, Turks (et.al) have Buzkashi, etc. Sort of a social safety valve. Not that it's worked. But that seems to be because there's a difference between the war romanticists and the drivers of it. Even in ancient Greece, it was about wealth. No one wants to hear the grisly bits of that either. And I think Eugene Sledge has a point. Tell someone straight up -'this is what happened' and it doesn't make a bit of difference.
People tend to listen to vulcanologists, weathermen, etc. Although there's that one guy who didn't want to leave Mt. St. Helens.... there's always that one guy.
posted by Smedleyman at 3:15 PM on January 4, 2010


What's with all the Germany apologizers? Weird.
posted by caddis at 6:20 PM on January 4, 2010


NO GERMAN I KNOW would ever say "Yeah, the world would have been alright if Hitler had won the war." NO ONE. NOT ONE.
Well, I know an Austrian. My uncle. He was in the Hitler Youth, and as my mom figured out recently he never really got over it. Whether refusing oranges from Isreal or the mysterious extra room she wasn't allowed to see, the cheerful mountaineer still was wishing for a return of the punctual train.
posted by qinn at 1:34 AM on January 5, 2010


You don't have to scratch very deep on the- Nazi sites before you find a few old Germans telling you how great it was under Hitler. (I only know this because I'm researching Germany 1929-33 right now and I feel like taking a shower every time I get off the internet).
posted by unSane at 5:25 AM on January 9, 2010


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