Sunday, 6 September 2015


Sorry, this is a long one.  Sometimes I make a picture, and then wonder what on earth I meant by it, or at least what I have to say about it, directly or indirectly.   A picture may not always be worth a thousand words, but you're going to get them, anyway.  No need to read them, of course.

The shadow cast by the Second World War is a very long one; my generation, born within a decade of that conflict's ending, will perhaps never quite escape it, despite not having experienced the War directly.  In some ways it's harder to escape from a shadow than from the thing itself; the Battle of Britain lasted for less than four months in 1940, but has been replayed and re-interpreted constantly over the succeeding seventy years.

We grew up in an environment saturated with representations of the battles our parents had fought, and played with toy versions of the weapons and materiel they had fought them with.  Dinky, Corgi, Airfix, Matchbox, Britains...  Toy manufacturers vied with each other in the variety and accuracy of the die-cast models and plastic-assembly kits we could buy with our pocket-money.  Field-guns that fired matchsticks devastated ranks of plastic soldiers on living room carpets across the country, while trucks and tanks advanced through the mown grass of suburban lawns.  In the streets, woods, and fields, children ambushed and charged, armed to the teeth by Lone Star.  You might be forgiven for thinking that a fresh generation was being made war-ready.

I was thinking about this as I watched the Ken Burns seven-parter, The War.  The Ken Burns formula will be familiar to anyone who has watched at least one of his other productions.  His signature style is based on clever rostrum camera work, panning across archival images and zooming in on a significant detail -- often an expressive face -- or zooming out to give context.  The other key elements are a resonant voice-over; a focus on the stories of a limited number of representative participants; intercut "talking head" interviews with witnesses and experts; and, crucially, the use of evocative musical leitmotifs that tie the parts together, emotionally.  It really does work, although one can feel manipulated at times.

Britons often bemoan the Hollywood tendency to rewrite WW2, recasting and slanting events to maximise American agency and to caricature the role of others.  Burns' series shows the other side of the coin: the War as experienced in the USA.  It's both instructive and a useful corrective.  In particular, we tend to regard the Pacific War as the stuff of comic books.  A veteran of dozens of TV histories, I found I was shocked anew by its brutal insanity; the absurd slaughter of hundreds of thousands of young men fighting to the death over useless atolls and tiny volcanic islands.  The sheer wasteful folly of warfare is laid bare, looking at footage of Iwo Jima.  There's really nothing else to see.

Which made me wonder how often combatants must have had intense moments of clarity:  "This is INSANE.  We're all going to DIE.  I've had ENOUGH.  I don't UNDERSTAND what we're doing here..."  Fairly often, I'd have thought, especially in the case of young Americans drafted from some Californian demi-paradise straight into hot hell.  In this regard, the Burns interview with historian Paul Fussell, an infantry lieutenant at the Battle of the Bulge, is enlightening.  Fussell later wrote extensively about men at war, and the gulf between the romantic myth and the grisly reality; in his own words he made a "career out of refusing to disguise it or elevate it".  Yet even he identifies the fear of shame in the eyes of one's peers as, in most cases, outweighing the fear of death or personal injury.  I suppose the mythicised version of that fear goes by the names of "duty" and "honour", old-fashioned ideas most of us have come to regard with deep suspicion, but which may run deeper than we think.

American writer Carl Sandburg, in his poem "The People, Yes" (1936) wrote, "Sometime they'll give a war, and nobody will come". This spoke out loud a possibility that the Peace Movement of the 1960s seized on and turned into a rhetorical question:  what if they gave a war and nobody came?  The verb "to give" implicitly compares a war with a party, attendance at which is purely optional.  Why the hell would anybody choose to dance on that killing floor?

Choice, of course, is not usually an option, when it comes to war.  Ironically, perhaps, Sandburg's phrase was taken up in post-war Germany, and often re-attributed to Bertolt Brecht: "Stell dir vor, es kommt Krieg und keiner geht hin" (Imagine, war comes and nobody goes).  However, some cynic, at some point, added a new line:  "Dann kommt der Krieg zu euch!" (then the war will come to you!).  And then some genuine lines of Brecht were appended:
Wer zu Hause bleibt, wenn der Kampf beginnt
Und lässt andere kämpfen für seine Sache
Der muss sich vorsehen: denn
Wer den Kampf nicht geteilt hat
Der wird teilen die Niederlage.
Nicht einmal den Kampf vermeidet
Wer den Kampf vermeiden will: denn
Es wird kämpfen für die Sache des Feinds
Wer für seine eigene Sache nicht gekämpft hat.

Who stays at home, when the fight begins
And lets others fight for his cause
Should take care: for
He who does not share
In the fight will share in the defeat.
You won't even avoid the fight by

Not fighting.  Since
Not to have fought for your own cause
Is to have fought for the enemy's cause.
All true enough, but a little odd, coming from a blowhard dramatist who spent most of that war in exile in Hollywood.

Luckily for us, my generation in Britain never, in the end, had to face such a choice, except metaphorically.  Pacifism is easy, when no-one is dropping bombs on your street, or packing your relatives off to camps to die.  Struggle is easy, too, when no-one need get hurt beyond a bloody nose at a demonstration, or need fear "disappearance" merely for having taken part in one.  Both are easy, when you have the luxury of picking and choosing who your enemies are, or whether to have any at all.

It all becomes a lot more complicated when someone else decides that you are the enemy.  So unfair!  At that point, "something worth fighting for" stops being a metaphor and, awkwardly -- if your self-appointed enemy decides to force the issue -- mutates into "something worth dying for".  Inevitably, I think we're all beginning to wonder, as the world changes chaotically around us, what we'd be prepared -- and not prepared -- to do, if such a time were to come again.  Or, more to the point, what we'd be prepared, or not prepared, for our children to have to do.

Watching Burns' footage of the Pacific slaughter I came to understand more viscerally the motivation behind the dropping of the atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima.  How much more senseless butchery of their children was anyone prepared to endure to bring about the surrender of Japan?  Why not at least try this new-fangled weapon, and see whether it would finally put a dent in Japan's will to fight on to the bitter end?  Perhaps it would be a simple, less costly alternative to what we have learned to call "boots on the ground"?  Even with hindsight, it is hard to characterise that decision as absolutely mistaken.

Of course, the victims of those bombs were primarily non-combatant civilians.  Even without the current news focus on the mass movements of populations fleeing conflict and oppression worldwide, the most striking thing about WW2 was the impact on non-combatant, civilian populations.  The figures speak for themselves.  France alone lost around 390,000 civilians; that's about the same figure as the British military deaths.  To prepare the way for the invasion of Europe, French cities were carpet-bombed.  As Antony Beevor writes in D-Day:
The British bombing of Caen beginning on D-Day in particular was stupid, counter-productive and above all very close to a war crime. There was an assumption, I think, that Caen must have been evacuated beforehand. That was wishful thinking on the part of the British. 
That's one way of looking at "liberation", I suppose.  Then come the big numbers: Poland lost 5.5 million civilians; the Soviet Union somewhere around 9 million; Germany, around 2 million.  It takes a real effort of imagination to imagine all those invisible civilians hidden somewhere in that familiar footage of soldiers fighting over cities reduced to rubble; dead, injured, terrified, hungry, and huddled in cellars.  Or on the road somewhere fleeing the carnage, and inconsiderately blocking the free flow of military transport, a strategic factor that fools like Montgomery failed to take into account, and which contributed to the disaster at Arnhem.

This was nothing new, of course.  Something like 1 million European civilians had died in the Napoleonic Wars, and another 2 million in WW1.  But the cold fact is that more civilians died in WW2 than combatants, either as a direct result of military action, or by starvation and disease -- around 50 million, something like 60% of the overall "butcher's bill".  Similar numbers wandered the continent, or were forcibly expelled, as "displaced persons".  "This is INSANE.  We're all going to DIE.  I've had ENOUGH.  I don't UNDERSTAND what we're doing here..."  Probably a more terrible thought to be having in the ruins of your own home than in some foxhole far away.

And yet, curiously, as far as I'm aware, no toy manufacturer ever made suitable quantities of scale-model refugees, with belongings piled on carts and children carried on their shoulders, to put alongside their tanks, trucks, field guns and military personnel.  I suppose they can be forgiven for not making "mass grave of unidentified civilians", or "assorted body parts, 1:72 scale".  Which -- who knows? -- may help to explain our inability to see refugees for what they are: the principal human fallout or "collateral damage" of our well-meaning, self-serving foreign policies involving real-life games with bombs and soldiers.


Debra Morris said...

A powerful post for these dismal, *uncivilised* days, Mike. Thank you. Glad to see the portal guy from Las Meninas re-appearing - an evocative complement to the words.

Mike C. said...

Thanks, Debra -- yes, you'll be seeing more of him. You, like me, probably see the wicket gate of an Oxford college there, more than any lisbon cathedral...


Zouk Delors said...

Are you really prepared to endorse, however hesitantly, the justification of the murder of so many thousands (not to mention the effects on the survivors and their mutant progeny) in terms of military losses on the battlefield such as at Iwo Jima?

Einstein famously sent to Roosevelt in 1939 the letter advising of the possibility of atomic bombs, and leading to the establishment of the Manhattan Project to develop US atomic weapons and their subsequent deployment. But long before that, in another (private) letter, he also wrote: "All of our exalted technological progress, civilization for that matter, is comparable to an axe in the hand of a pathological criminal."

Mike C. said...


Well, not really, I'm just being a bit provocative, asking myself what I'd have felt at the time if my son had been a marine in the Pacific...

You need to watch some of that footage, though, which -- extraordinarily -- American cinema audiences did...


Paul said...


Really enjoyed this post. Interesting that you mention Paul Fussell. Have you read his essay "Thank God for the Atom Bomb"? You can find a copy of it on the internet. Sorry I can't provide the address. Ian Buruma also wrote a good article about the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in The New York Review of Books. It's behind a paywall unfortunately. Wish I hadn't thrown out my copy. Keep up the good work.


Mike C. said...

Thanks, Paul -- I mainly know "The Great War and Modern Memory" from my spell a few years back as a WW1 buff, so I'll look that up, thanks.


Martyn Cornell said...

Zouk - since my father was one of the men fighting the Japanese, and might well have been included in an Allied invasion of Japan, personally I'm pretty unambivalent about the dropping of A-bombs on that country. All arguments against seem to be based on guesswork about what the Japanese might have been about to do next.

Mike C. said...


I read the essay by Fussell recommended by Paul, and it's a very worthwhile read -- in fact, it's pretty much the script for parts of the Burns series. A PDF (obviously scanned with OCR -- there are some odd misreads, e.g. "ride" for "rifle") is here:

Thanks again, Paul.