This special archive document includes both parts of this story, which ran on March 7 and March 14, 1997.
Man is a bubble, and all the world is a storm.
—Jeremy Taylor, Holy Dying (1651)
My father owned a gorgeous porcelain tiger about half the size of a house cat. He kept it on a shelf in our family den, where for years when I was a kid it roared down at us—unappeasably furious (or so I always thought) at being trapped up there on its high perch, with no company except some painted beer mugs and a set of purple glass swizzle sticks. Then one day it got broken; I don’t remember how. Probably my brother and I were having a skirmish and a shot went wild. I thought my father would be furious, but he didn’t say a word. Carefully, almost reverently, he wrapped up the tiger and the shards of its shattered leg and put them away in a box in the basement.
A long time later, years after my father died, my mother and my wife found the box when they were clearing out some old family junk. My wife knows how much I like big cats and all other varieties of predators and raptors, and she painstakingly glued the tiger back together and gave it to me as a present. It’s roaring at me again as I write this: it stands on a shelf in my study, surrounded by what I hope is more congenial company—grimacing windup monsters, maddened dinosaurs, a couple of snarling dragons with their wings outspread, and a sullen rubber shark opening wide to take a bite at passersby. The tiger seems to fit right in, but I sometimes suspect it feels shanghaied. My father hadn’t got it because he was fond of tigers or because he had any interest in nature. He’d bought it in Korea, where he’d been a bomber pilot during the Korean war; his squadron had been called the Flying Tigers.
My wife hadn’t known that; I barely remembered it myself. My father didn’t like telling war stories. He’d accumulated fistfuls of medals over there, and he kept them stashed in an anonymous little plush case at the back of his closet, where they went unseen for decades. That was all part of the past, and he had no use for the past. He used to wave off any question I asked about the world before I was born, irritatedly dismissing it as if all of that were self-evidently too shabby and quaint to interest a modern kid like me. “It was a long time ago,” he’d always tell me, which was as much as to say, “It’s meaningless now.”
And yet every night, whenever he’d sit down in his easy chair, he’d be confronted by the tiger glaring at him. What did he think about when he saw it? Did it remind him of the distance he’d traveled from that war, or of how incongruously bland and safe his life was now, now that he’d amassed a commercial-perfect suburban family in the depths of the American heartland? I don’t know, because he wouldn’t say. Whatever patina of private associations the tiger had for him is gone for good.
If my wife hadn’t rescued the tiger it would have been cut loose to make its own way in the world—to languish in rummage-sale boxes and end up with new owners who’d never suspect how far it had wandered through the world to reach them. But I have the feeling my father wouldn’t have minded that; he never liked other people knowing his business.
That’s the common fate of mementos. They’re never quite specific enough. No matter what their occasion was, they sooner or later slip free and are lost in a generic blur: a Day at the Carnival, a Triumph at the State Finals, a Summer Vacation, My First Love. It’s particularly true, I think, of the mementos of soldiers, because nobody other than a soldier remembers the details of any war once it’s safely over. What really happened in Korea? I don’t have the slightest idea; war just isn’t an experience I’m up on. I was barely young enough to miss the Vietnam draft, and I’m old enough now that the only way I could figure in a future war is as a victim. The tiger can’t preserve the memory of the bombing missions my father flew. Its odd rippling surface doesn’t correspond to the landscape of North Korea, terrain my father knew by heart—which had once saved his life: on one mission his plane malfunctioned, and he’d had to find his way back to his base with no instruments, no radio, and fuel fumes filling his cockpit. Nor does that frozen roar speak to the complex of murky policies that had sent my father into battle in the first place, thousands of miles from home. 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.
People my age and younger who’ve grown up in the American heartland can’t help but take for granted that war is unnatural. We think of the limitless peace around us as the baseline condition of life. War, any war, is for us a contemptible death trip, a relic of lizard-brain machismo, a toxic by-product of America’s capitalist military system—one more covert and dishonorable crime we commit in the third world. All my life I’ve heard people say “war is insanity” in tones of dramatic insight and final wisdom, and it took me a long time to realize that what they really meant was “war is an activity I don’t want to understand, done by people I fear and despise.”
But there’ve been places and times where people have thought of war as the given and peace the perversion. The Greeks of Homer’s time, for instance, saw war as the one enduring constant underlying the petty affairs of humanity, as routine and all-consuming as the cycle of the seasons: grim and squalid in many ways, but still the essential time when the motives and powers of the gods are most manifest. To the Greeks, peace was nothing but a fluke, an irrelevance, an arbitrary delay brought on when bad weather forced the spring campaign to be canceled, or a back-room deal kept the troops at home until after harvest time. Any of Homer’s heroes would see the peaceful life of the average American as some bizarre aberration, like a garden mysteriously cultivated for decades on the slopes of an avalanche-haunted mountain.
In our own culture the people who know what war is like find it almost impossible to communicate with the children of peace. In the last election Bob Dole was defeated in large part because of World War II—what he thought it meant, and what he didn’t see it meant to people of a later generation. To Dole, World War II was a teacher of positive values: courage, self-sacrifice, respect for authority, dedication to a common goal—values he thought were signally absent in the soft and cynical selfishness of Clinton’s generation. But it was just that cynicism that Dole couldn’t crack. Everybody knew that if those values had ever really existed in America, they were only the result of some Norman Rockwell collective delusion. We’re smarter now—smart enough to see through war, anyway. We think it’s a sick joke to suggest that war could ever teach anybody anything good.
Out of idle curiosity, I’ve been asking friends, people my age and younger, what they know about war—war stories they’ve heard from their families, facts they’ve learned in school, stray images that might have stuck with them from old TV documentaries. I wasn’t interested in fine points of strategy, but the key events, the biggest moments, the things people at the time had thought would live on as long as there was anybody around to remember the past. To give everybody a big enough target I asked about World War II.
I figured people had to know the basics—World War II isn’t exactly easy to miss. It was the largest war ever fought, the largest single event in history. Other than the black death of the Middle Ages, it’s the worst thing we know of that has ever happened to the human race. Its aftereffects surround us in countless intertwining ways: all sorts of technological commonplaces, from computers to radar to nuclear power, date back to some secret World War II military project or another; the most efficient military systems became the model for the bureaucratic structures of postwar white-collar corporations; even the current landscape of America owes its existence to the war, since the fantastic profusion of suburban development that began in the late 1940s was essentially underwritten by the federal government as one vast World War II veterans’ benefit. (Before the war there were 3 suburban shopping centers in the U.S.; ten years after it ended there were 3,000.)
Then too, World War II has been a dominant force in the American popular imagination. In the mid-1960s, when my own consumption of pop culture was at its peak, the war was the only thing my friends and I thought about. We devoured World War II comic books like Sgt. Fury and Sgt. Rock; we watched World War II TV shows like Hogan’s Heroes and The Rat Patrol; our rooms overflowed with World War II hobby kits, with half-assembled, glue-encrusted panzers and Spitfires and Zeroes. I think I had the world’s largest collection of torn and mangled World War II decal insignia. We all had toy boxes stuffed with World War II armaments—with toy pistols and molded plastic rifles and alarmingly realistic rubber hand grenades. We refought World War II battles daily and went out on our campaigns so overloaded with gear we looked like ferocious porcupines. Decades after it was over the war was still expanding and dissipating in our minds, like the vapor trails of an immense explosion.
So what did the people I asked know about the war? Nobody could tell me the first thing about it. Once they got past who won they almost drew a blank. All they knew were those big totemic names—Pearl Harbor, D day, Auschwitz, Hiroshima—whose unfathomable reaches of experience had been boiled down to an abstract atrocity. The rest was gone. Kasserine, Leyte Gulf, Corregidor, Falaise, the Ardennes didn’t provoke a glimmer of recognition; they might as well have been off-ramps on some exotic interstate. I started getting the creepy feeling that the war had actually happened a thousand years ago, and so it was forgivable if people were a little vague on the difference between the Normandy invasion and the Norman Conquest and couldn’t say offhand whether the boats sailed from France to England or the other way around.
What had happened, for instance, at one of the war’s biggest battles, the Battle of Midway? It was in the Pacific, there was something about aircraft carriers. Wasn’t there a movie about it, one of those Hollywood all-star behemoths in which a lot of admirals look worried while pushing toy ships around a map? (Midway, released in 1976 and starring Glenn Ford, Charlton Heston, and—inevitably—Henry Fonda.) A couple of people were even surprised to hear that Midway Airport was named after the battle, though they’d walked past the ugly commemorative sculpture in the concourse so many times. All in all, this was a dispiriting exercise. The astonishing events of that morning, the “fatal five minutes” on which the war and the fate of the world hung, had been reduced to a plaque nobody reads, at an airport with a vaguely puzzling name, midway between Chicago and nowhere at all.
Is it that the war was 50 years ago and nobody cares anymore what happened before this week? Maybe so, but I think what my little survey really demonstrates is how vast the gap is between the experience of war and the experience of peace. One of the persistent themes in the best writing about the war—I’m thinking particularly of Paul Fussell’s brilliant polemic Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War—is that nobody back home has ever known much about what it was like on the battlefield. From the beginning, the actual circumstances of World War II were smothered in countless lies, evasions, and distortions, like a wrecked landscape smoothed by a blizzard. 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 cheerful POWs running rings around the Nazi commandant; the soldier dying gently in a sunlit jungle glade, surrounded by a platoon of teary-eyed buddies. The truth behind these cliches was never forgotten—because nobody except the soldiers ever learned it in the first place.
I think my own childhood image was typical. For me, the war was essentially a metaphysical struggle: America versus the Nazis, all over the world and throughout time. I couldn’t have told you anything about its real circumstances; those didn’t interest me. The historical war was just a lot of silent newsreel footage of soldiers trudging, artillery pumping, buildings collapsing, and boats bumping ashore—fodder for dull school movies and the duller TV documentaries I was reduced to watching on weekend afternoons when our neighborhood campaigns were rained out. My war was a dreamy, gliding epic, a golden tidal wave of eternally cresting triumph: it was filled with Nazi spy satellites and commando missions behind enemy lines to blow up the gestapo’s new hydroelectric dam; Hitler had a supercomputer, and SS headquarters was a ziggurat looming in my nightmares like the wicked witch’s castle in The Wizard of Oz. Real battles like the Coral Sea made it into my reveries only for their poetic value: I thought they were as alluring and turbulent as the oceans of the moon. I think I was an adult before I fully grasped that Guadalcanal wasn’t a battle over a canal; I’d always fondly pictured furious soldiers fighting over immense locks and reservoirs somewhere where they had canals—Holland maybe, or Panama.
Granted, children always get the child’s version of war. But the child’s version is the only one readily available. It’s no problem of course, if you have sufficient archaeological patience, to root out a more complicated form of historical truth; bookstores offer everything from thumpingly vast general surveys to war-gaming tactical analyses of diversionary skirmishes to maniacally detailed collector’s encyclopedias about tank treads. The best academic histories—such as Gerhard L. Weinberg’s extraordinary A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II—document and analyze in depth aspects of the war that even the most fanatical buff may not have heard of before: the campaigns along the Indian border, for instance, or the diplomatic maneuvering about Turkish neutrality. But reading almost all of them, one has the sense that some essential truth is still not being disclosed. It’s as though the experience of war fits the old definition of poetry: war is the thing that gets lost in translation.
When I was taking my survey a friend told me that he was sitting with his father, a veteran of the European campaign, watching a TV special on the 50th anniversary of D day. My friend suddenly had the impulse to ask a question that had never occurred to him in his entire adult life: “What was it really like to be in a battle?”
His father opened his mouth to answer—and then his jaw worked, his face reddened, and, without saying a word, he got up and walked out of the room. That’s the truth about the war: the sense that what happened over there simply can’t be told in the language of peace.
But is it really impossible to get across that barrier, even in imagination? Mementos of war surround us, and people surely wouldn’t keep them around if they retained nothing of their truth. Sometimes when I’ve stared too long at the porcelain tiger on my bookshelf, I do get the sense that I’m looking into something deeper and more mysterious than a gaudy statuette that was once hawked to a departing soldier looking for souvenirs. 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.
One somnolent Sunday in Chicago the hush of an old brownstone apartment building was disturbed by a woman running down the hallway knocking on doors. Everybody came out to see what she wanted: back in those days people actually responded when they heard something wrong. At first they couldn’t make out why she was so excited. But once they understood, they all lingered in the hallway talking to one another. More and more people emerged from their apartments to find out what the fuss was about. Soon a tense and confused clamor was spreading in the woman’s wake—more noise than the building had heard in years, more noise maybe than there’d been in all the decorous decades since its construction. It was December 1941, and the woman was asking everybody if they were listening to the radio.
My mother told me that story when I asked her what she remembered about the war. This is the sort of story everybody who was around in those days could tell; it was a defining moment in their lives, the way the Kennedy assassination would be for a later generation—where they were when they learned that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor. They remember stopping by an isolated roadside diner to find it in an uproar, or coming into their corner grocery and seeing a worried knot of customers gathered around the cash register, or hearing a rumor racing through the crowd outside a nightclub, or falling into conversation with a stranger in a snowbound train station, who asked if they’d heard what had just happened in Hawaii. The news went fanning out everywhere, in millions of unforgettable flashes of dread: it was as though the entire country was being jerked awake by the same backfiring truck.
So great was the shock of that moment that even now Americans think of Pearl Harbor as the real beginning of World War II. Maybe it’s a sign of how invincibly provincial we are, how instinctual is our certainty that the war, like every other big event in the world, was something that happened mainly to us. The truth was that by December 1941 the rest of the world had had enough of the war to last the millennium.
In any orthodox history you can find the standard autopsy of the causes. Germany was falling apart after the decades of social and economic chaos that followed its defeat in World War I. 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. In both countries extremely racist and xenophobic parties had come to power and begun an explosive military expansion: throughout the 1930s the Germans and Japanese built up huge new armies and navies, amassed vast stockpiles of new armaments, and made lots and lots of demands and threats.
All of this is true enough, yet there’s something faintly bogus and overly rationalized about it. The approaching war didn’t seem like a political or economic event; it was more like a collective anxiety attack. Throughout the 30s people around the world came to share an unshakable dread about the future, a conviction that countless grave international crises were escalating out of control, a panicked sense that everything was coming unhinged and that they could do nothing to stop it. The feeling was caught perfectly by W.H. Auden, writing in 1935:
From the narrow window of my fourth-floor room
I smoke into the night, and watch the lights
Stretch in the harbor. In the houses
The little pianos are closed, and a clock strikes.
And all sway forward on the dangerous flood
Of history, that never sleeps or dies,
And, held one moment, burns the hand.
For instance, in China—to take one arbitrary starting point—a war had been going on since 1931. This was a nagging turmoil at the edge of the world’s consciousness, a problem that couldn’t be understood, resolved, or successfully ignored. When the Japanese army invaded the city of Nanking in December 1937 they killed tens of thousands of Chinese civilians—some say hundreds of thousands—in the space of a couple of weeks. It was one of the worst orgies of indiscriminate violence in modern times, and as the news of it spread around the world everybody began saying that Nanking would be remembered forever, just as the Spanish civil war’s Guernica (the first town to be bombed from airplanes) would be: shorthand landmarks for our century’s most horrible atrocities.
But that just shows how little anybody really understood what was happening to the world. Nobody outside of China remembered Nanking a couple years later when the German Reich began its stunning expansion through Europe. The Wehrmacht stampeded whole armies before it with its terrifyingly brutal new style of tank attack (the European press called it “blitzkrieg,” and the name stuck), and rumors immediately began circulating of appalling crimes committed in the occupied territories—wholesale deportations and systematic massacres, like a vast mechanized replay of the Mongol invasions. A story solemnly made the rounds of the world’s newspapers that storks migrating from Holland to South Africa had been found with messages taped to their legs that read, “Help us! The Nazis are killing us all!”
It was in September 1939, in the wake of the German invasion of Poland, that the phrase “the Second World War” began turning up in newspapers and government speeches. The name was a kind of despairing admission that nobody knew how long the war would go on or how far the fighting would spread. Over the next two years the news arrived almost daily that battles had broken out in places that only weeks before had seemed like safe havens. By the time of Pearl Harbor the war had erupted in Norway and Mongolia, on Crete and in the Dutch East Indies; the Italian Army had marched on Egypt, and the German army was pushing into the outskirts of Moscow; there had been savage fighting in Finland north of the Arctic Circle and sea battles off the coast of Argentina. The United States was one of the last secluded places left on earth.
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. Any long trip across the country was a fearsomely ambitious undertaking—and foreign travel was as fanciful as an opium dream. People grew up with the assumption that anything not immediately within reach was inconceivably far away. It wasn’t unusual for them to spend every moment of their lives within walking distance of the place where they were born—and to die thinking they hadn’t missed a thing.
They weren’t wholly oblivious. But the news they got of the outside world came in through newspapers and radio—which is to say, through words, not images. This imposed even more distance on events that were already as remote as the dust storms of Mars. Their sense of heedlessness wasn’t helped by the style of journalism reporters practiced in those days, which was heavy on local color and very light on analysis. The war as it appeared in the American press was a gorgeous tapestry of romance and swashbuckling adventure—frenzied Nazi rallies, weird religious rites in Japan, hairbreadth escapes on overcrowded trains teetering along mountain ravines, nights sleeping in haystacks in the backcountry of France after the fall of Paris, journeys in remotest Yugoslavia where the reporter “spent hours watching the army, with its wagons, horses, and guns, file past the minareted village in the moonlight.” (I’m quoting, here and elsewhere, from the Library of America’s excellent anthology Reporting World War II: American Journalism 1938-1946.) It convinced people that there was no more glamorous job in the world than foreign correspondent, but it also convinced them that the war was just a lot of foreigners going exotically crazy—nothing for Americans to bother their heads about.
Still, by early 1941 most Americans had come to understand that they couldn’t stay unscathed forever. Even in the most remote towns of the heartland, people had some hint of the world’s collective terrors: by then the local schoolteacher or minister had come back from a European trip still shaken by the sight of a Nazi book burning, or a neighbor had received a letter—battered, heavily postmarked, and exotically stamped—from a long-forgotten cousin, pleading for help getting out of the old country. 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; a slightly smaller majority even agreed that it was more important to stop the Nazis than to stay neutral. (Japan wasn’t mentioned; even then nobody thought of Japan as a likely enemy.)
Yet “eventually drawn in” really meant “not now.” That was what routinely stunned travelers returning to America from the war zones, even late in 1941: how unworried everybody in America seemed. Crowds still swarmed heedlessly on undamaged streets; city skylines still blazed at night, like massed homing beacons for enemy bombers. But if you’d even mentioned the possibility of an air raid out loud, you’d have been laughed at. New Yorker reporter A.J. Liebling wrote a piece that summer about coming back to Manhattan after the fall of France and discovering just how impossible it was to get his friends to take the thought of war seriously: “They said soothingly that probably you had had a lot of painful experiences, and if you just took a few grains of nembutol so you would get one good night’s sleep, and then go out to the horse races twice, you would be your old sweet self again. It was like the dream in which you yell at people and they don’t hear you.”
It all changed of course, with a knock on the door, that weekend day in December.
There’s a phrase people sometimes use about a nation’s collective reaction to events like Pearl Harbor—war fever. We don’t know what a true war fever feels like today, since nothing in our recent history compares with it; even a popular war like the gulf war was preceded by months of solemn debate and a narrow vote in Congress approving military action. World War II came to America like an epidemic from overseas. Immediately after Pearl Harbor, recruitment offices all over America swarmed with long lines of enlistees; flags and patriotic posters popped up on every street and store window; wild and hysterical cheers greeted the national anthem at every rally and concert and sporting event. Overnight the war was the only subject of conversation in the country; it was the only subject of the movies you could see at the local theater (Blondie and Dagwood were absorbed into the war effort in Blondie for Victory; Sherlock Holmes came out of retirement to chase Nazi spies in Sherlock Holmes in Washington). War was the only acceptable motif in advertising: for years after Pearl Harbor every manufacturer of spark plugs and orange juice routinely proclaimed that its product was essential to an Allied victory.
In an earlier time poet Rupert Brooke had written that people hurried into war out of the moral griminess of civilian life “like swimmers into cleanness leaping.” In World War II the leap was perfect, complete, and profound. To the end there were none of the signs of disaffection we’ve come to expect from Americans over the course of a long war: no peace rallies, no antiescalation petition drives, no moves in Congress for compromise or a negotiated settlement. Men who appeared able-bodied found themselves harassed on the street by strangers demanding to know why they weren’t in uniform; baseball players who hadn’t yet enlisted, godlike figures like DiMaggio and Williams, were loudly booed by the hometown crowd when they came out on the field.
Why? You’d have a hard time figuring out the answer from reading the nation’s press. From the beginning the issues of the war were discussed only in the dreariest of platitudes. “America is the symbol for freedom,” Life magazine patiently explained to its readers—as though there might have been some confusion about whether the other side was the symbol for freedom. But Life firmly refused to be drawn into a debate about what “freedom” might mean: “Freedom is more than a set of rules, or a set of principles. Freedom is a free man. It is a package. But it is God’s package.”
End of discussion. Hard to believe anybody was moved to go to war by such tripe, but it was typical. When they’re consumed by war fever, people don’t need considered rationales for the use of military force; they don’t even bother with the appearance of logic. As it happened, a purely cynical and cold-blooded calculation of the world crisis could have suggested to Americans that they could easily have stayed out. There were no treaties compelling the nation into the war, no overwhelming strategic or economic pressures; it was self-sufficient in food and raw materials, and it was geographically impregnable. Neither the Japanese nor the Germans would ever have been able to mount an invasion—and, in fact, neither ever seriously considered the possibility; Hitler at his most expansive still thought any transoceanic war was a century away. But none of that mattered. The war was about the furious, implacable determination to destroy America’s attackers—and behind that, a kind of half-articulated patriotic poetry: “A green meadow stretching down from a whitewashed barn to the brook that bubbles through an American valley; an elderly man climbing up a ladder in a ripe American orchard; a stout, gray-haired woman pulling out of the oven an American apple pie; a red setter asleep on the sunny porch dreaming of American birds…”
Life magazine again, reporting an inventory it took of the soul of the typical American soldier. I’ve cut it down quite a bit—the original rhapsodizes on for several more pages—but the drift should be clear. The war wasn’t about ideas, or principles, or history, or culture. The U.S. was going to war to defend some kind of untranslatable primal experience available only to citizens of the heartland.
It’s one of the constants of war: a conviction that the people on the other side don’t have the same soul we do. Evidently those Nips didn’t give a damn about the fruit orchards of Japan, and you’d never find the pet dogs of kraut soldiers dreaming about local prey. When the Germans and Japanese looked across the ocean at America, what they saw was no more flattering: to them America was a nation of weaklings and cowards, with no honor or fighting spirit. One of the reasons behind the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor—apart from the obvious military necessity of taking out the American fleet so that the Japanese military could conquer the western Pacific unopposed—was the unshakable conviction that Americans would collectively fold at the first sign of trouble; one big, nasty attack would be enough to get a negotiated settlement, on whatever terms the Japanese would care to name. In the same way Hitler and his inner circle were blithely sure that America would go to any lengths to stay out of the fight. Hitler’s catastrophic decision to declare war on America three days after Pearl Harbor was made almost in passing, as a diplomatic courtesy to the Japanese. To the end he professed himself baffled that America was in the war at all; he would have thought that if Americans really wanted to fight, they’d join with him against their traditional enemies, the British. But evidently they were too much under the thumb of Roosevelt—whom Hitler was positive was a Jew named Rosenfeldt, part of the same evil cabal that controlled Stalin.
As fanciful as that was, it shows the average wartime grasp of the real motives of the enemy. It was at least on a par with the American Left’s conviction that Hitler was an irrelevant puppet in the hands of the world’s leading industrialists. Throughout the war all sides regarded one another with blank incomprehension: the course of the war was distinguished by a striking absence of one of the favorite sentimental cliches of the battlefield (which was afterward said to have marked World War I)—the touching scene in the trenches where soldiers on opposed sides surreptitiously acknowledge their common humanity. For the soldiers, for the citizens at large, and for all those churning out oceans of propaganda, the enemy was a featureless mass of inscrutable, dishonorable malignity.
This wasn’t a good time in America to be thought a foreigner. The great rage against Japan was what prompted the 1942 roundup of more than a hundred thousand Japanese-Americans on the west coast into internment camps—an unconstitutional and flagrantly racist act, since nobody proposed setting up similar camps for German-Americans (though thousands of German and Italian nationals were interned). But internment may have saved some people from being lynched, given the venom about the camps displayed throughout the war by newspapers and politicians. The view was routinely offered with outraged assurance that conditions in the camps were too soft, that the internees were being coddled, that they were getting rations denied to “real” Americans. (About a quarter of the internee families were quietly released from the camps and resettled in places where anti-Japanese bigotry wasn’t thought to be as strong.) One celebrated newspaper cartoon carefully explained how round, friendly Chinese faces could be distinguished from narrow, insectoid Japanese faces—the assumption being that real Americans had an ongoing, urgent need to know, for when they got the lynching party together. Children across the country began playing a new kind of sidewalk game, a version of hopscotch with overtones of an exorcism: they would draw foreign faces in chalk on a pavement square, leering Japanese devil masks, scarred and monocled Nazi beasts, pastel gargoyles of Tojo and Hitler—and then take turns stamping them into smudged ruins.
Meanwhile, their older brothers were enlisting or being swept up in the draft. Millions of young men poured into the military—and most everybody not signing up was hiring on at some new war-related industry. (The American economy grew by almost half during the war; unemployment was wiped out, and skilled workers were in such short supply that wages began a steep upward spiral.) But it was the soldiers who became the natural focus of the nation’s sentimental refusal to wonder about what it was doing, as though they were a kind of collective vector for war fever. In the press and the popular imagination the whole American military was merged into one archetypical meta-soldier: the singular emblem of the mass noun “our boys.” This soldier was decent, soft-spoken, down-to-earth, and polite; he was shrewd, but he was honest; he was clever, but he wasn’t an intellectual. When asked what the war was all about he would scratch his head and slowly drawl that he guessed the Jerries and Japs had started this fight and they had to get what was coming to them. When asked what he himself most wanted to have happen he’d look sincere and say softly that he wanted to get the job done and go home.
In one of his pieces for the New Yorker A.J. Liebling caught the soldier’s style in a single word. He describes how he found a typical American soldier passing time before a battle by reading Candide—which (Liebling carefully noted) he said was by some “fellow” named Voltaire. There it is: the soldier has never heard of Voltaire but is smart enough to read a good book if he wants to. Liebling evidently never met a soldier who’d read Voltaire before the war—much less read him in French. (Nor, for that matter, would Liebling ever admit, to the troops or to his readers, that he himself had studied French literature at the Sorbonne: that was the sort of confession that could get you into trouble, like the spy caught out because he could quote poetry but didn’t know who’d won the World Series.) Our boys weren’t bothering their heads with culture or history when they were out there in foreign parts; they were going to win the war and come back as untouched by the outer world as their dogs still were, waiting loyally behind, dreaming of American birds.
As the war darkened over the years, the figure of the soldier eventually darkened as well. In magazine illustrations later in the war—where a soldier contemplated the memory of breakfast cereal or reflected on how rubber cement saved his platoon—he looked a little wearier and his face was harder, his jaw not always clean-shaven, his eyes more nakedly homesick. But his soft-spoken manner was unruffled—though in feature stories and ad copy from around 1943 on he’d sometimes coyly admit to having fudged his birth date on his enlistment forms. The reason did him nothing but credit, of course. He had to make sure he got overseas and into combat “before it was all over.”
You’d think nobody would have had to worry about that: after the first flush of enthusiasm everybody knew the war wasn’t going to be over for a long while. (The government even asked Hollywood producers not to make movies implying there was any antiwar sentiment in the Axis, because they didn’t want people to get the idea that there would be any easy resolution to the war.) But at the same time, people in America remained consistently vague about what the real status of the war was—how soon victory would come, what our boys were going through. The ordinary sources of information were closed, and not just because the news was sanitized by the government. Draftees in those days didn’t get to serve out a specified time and then go home—at which point they could tell everybody their war stories. They were in “for the duration”—that is, until the war ended or they were killed. They were swallowed up by the service and were gone, for months and then years, with only a fitful stream of officially censored letters fluttering back from the remoteness of the world to say that everything was still OK. New recruits in the later years of the war were going in essentially as innocent of the realities of combat as enlistees had been before Pearl Harbor.
During basic training, it’s true, some of them did begin to wonder what being in a war really meant. That was when they met real soldiers for the first time—combat veterans who’d been rotated home to serve as instructors. There was something odd about them. One marine enlistee later said they all had “an intangible air of subdued, quiet detachment… as though lost in some sort of melancholy reverie.” But the recruits didn’t stop to wonder what might have prompted it. They were too caught up in the glory of being soldiers, in the urgency of their imminent departure overseas, in the certainty that they were part of an unimaginably vast tide of victory.
They soon invented a ritual to be performed as soon as they were fitted with their new uniforms. They’d rush out to photographers’ studios and document the occasion for their proud families. The mantels and nightstands of America were strewn with these relics—soldiers posed with quiet dignity against a studio backdrop, half turning to face the camera with an expression both grave and proud. Some guys couldn’t help clowning and left photos that baffle people to this day: foreheads furrowed, jaws clenched, eyes fixed and furious—tinted by the studio not ordinary pink but a belligerent orange rose, like a Halloween mask. When you see these photos now, they look like antique novelty items from carnivals, or illustrations for Ripley’s Believe It or Not: “The Angriest Soldier in the World.” We don’t remember the pride behind them, the innocence, the mysterious and happy ferocity—the warning to all enemies of just how tough the American soldier would be when he got into the war.
Nobody had to be told that the German soldier was tough. From the beginning the soldiers of the Wehrmacht had acquired a reputation for implacable savagery. Around the world they were known as the sadists, the storm troopers, the Nazi beasts, the stone-faced Aryan enforcers of the Thousand Year Reich. So Nazi propaganda tended to go the other way, to show what nice, normal guys they really were—unyieldingly fierce when it came to the fuhrer’s enemies of course, but otherwise kind, decent, tenderhearted, proud, dedicated, respectful, and honest: the showpiece of Aryan virtue, the young flower incarnating the eternal nobility and valor of Nordic culture.
One such product of Nazi propaganda was a movie that came out in Germany in 1942, a war melodrama called Stukas. It’s about a wholly representative German soldier, the equivalent of one of “our boys”: he’s handsome, thoughtful, troubled by the morality of war, and given to quoting Hšlderlin. Tragically, he’s shell-shocked in battle and given no chance of recovering—unless, or so his doctors solemnly conclude, he undergoes “a profound emotional experience.” He’s in luck: he receives an invitation from the fuhrer himself to attend the world-famous Richard Wagner festival, held every summer in the provincial German town of Bayreuth. In the touching final scene he sits hopelessly in the front rows of the opera house, but gradually recovers his will to live and his faith in the German cause during a rousing performance of Siegfried.
Stukas wasn’t a hit. But much of what went on in it was true to life. The Wagner festival was (and is) as described. During the war convalescing soldiers were given free tickets as a special treat. A mystique really had been built up around Bayreuth in an attempt to fix it as one of the sacred events of the new Aryan culture. And, hard as it may be to believe, the big climax wasn’t just a creation of Nazi kitsch; some of the real soldiers who attended the festival did experience something profound and transformative at performances there.
But then, isn’t that more or less what’s supposed to happen when people see great art? Recordings and photographs have survived from the wartime festivals, and they show that the productions were indeed spectacular. Bayreuth had the cream of Germany’s operatic talent, it had some of the best conductors and musicians in Europe, and it had the money to make all the sets and costumes lavish and dazzling. Who wouldn’t have been impressed? Everyone who went to the festivals in those years agreed that they’d never witnessed anything like them in their lives. It’s even possible for us now—from studies of Germany during the war such as Richard Grunberger’s The Twelve-Year Reich: A Social History of Nazi Germany and more specialized works such as Frederic Spotts’s excellent Bayreuth: A History of the Wagner Festival—to work out just what a singular experience it must have been.
First off the festivalgoers were greeted with a scene from a sinister fairy tale. The peaked medieval rooftops of Bayreuth, glinting romantically in the depths of the summer countryside, swarmed with thousands of Nazi flags. Bunting in Nazi colors—red, white, and black—was heaped in furious abundance down every narrow cobblestone street. Everywhere you looked were pictures of Hitler—on lampposts, on walls, behind gold-leafed storefront windows: Hitler in uniform regarding the viewer with stern exasperation, Hitler addressing wildly cheering crowds, Hitler inspecting mountain ranges, and, most striking of all, Hitler (distinctly ill at ease) in a suit of armor, preparing to joust with the evil hordes threatening the Reich. Big banners hung across all the streets proclaiming Wagner’s City Welcomes the Fuhrer’s Guests.
But the fuhrer wasn’t there to greet his guests. At one time he would have been: Wagner’s operas were among his deepest enthusiasms; only Mozart moved him more. He’d been a faithful attendee at Bayreuth since the 20s, and the Wagner family, who still ran the festival, had been among his earliest and most devoted backers. It had been one of his first acts after assuming absolute power to make sure the festival received a generous state subsidy. But, to his lasting regret, he’d had to stop coming after the war began. He had no choice; he was away full-time in the east, at his military command posts in Central Europe, where he was directing the invasion of the Soviet Union. His entourage too regretted his absence; his visits to Bayreuth, Albert Speer observed in his memoirs, were the only times anybody ever saw him relax.
The other prominent leaders of the new Reich were also no-shows. But they had a different reason: they loathed Wagner. They paid lip service to him as the patron saint of Aryan culture, but the truth was that they hated all culture, Aryan or otherwise. Their aesthetic was set out by the hero of a celebrated Nazi play: “Whenever I hear the word culture, I unlatch the safety on my automatic.” They particularly detested Wagner’s operas for being so long, so boring, so arty, and so downbeat; party theorists thought these qualities were unpatriotic. They looked upon the Wagner festival itself with deep suspicion—if for no other reason than that it had always attracted so many foreign tourists and, worse, foreign performers, which made it a hotbed of “internationalist” (i.e., Jewish) influence. They would gladly have shut the festival down; in fact, they wanted to burn the opera house to the ground and ban performances of Wagner’s works everywhere in Germany. And they would have done it too if the fuhrer hadn’t been such a fan.
Hitler professed to being appalled at the philistinism of the party faithful; he’d always hoped they’d be as transported as he was by the fire and the majesty of the Wagnerian myth. But he excused them from Bayreuth, and instead made sure that the festival was attended by people who would know what was required of them. That was why admission during the war years was by invitation only. The “fuhrer’s guests”—soldiers, nurses, workers who’d won productivity drives at war factories—arrived by chartered train and were issued coupons entitling them to meals, a beer ration, and one opera performance. They were marched to and from the opera house in formation. The SS were present in force in the aisles to ensure that audience members were displaying the proper degree of enthusiasm.
Can there have been a worse way to see an opera? It sounds like a school field trip where the teachers are armed. But audience accounts of the performances—even some official reports filed by the SS—show that there was at least one production where the fuhrer’s guests responded exactly the way Hitler wanted them to. They were enthralled, they wept openly at the climax, they greeted the final curtain with salvo after salvo of deafening applause. It was the July 1943 production of Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg—which means the audience was profoundly, heart-shudderingly moved by a four-hour light opera about a medieval singing contest.
Maybe this is a cultural divide we can’t hope to cross, but the truth is that even under less freakish circumstances Die Meistersinger can have an unpredictable effect on audiences. It’s a mystifying work—odd among Wagner’s operas, odd among operas generally. It’s billed as a comedy, and by comparison with Wagner’s normal mode of cosmic tragedy, it can fairly be called lighthearted. But it doesn’t have much in the way of laughs; the funny scenes are so enormous and diffuse they’re like slapstick performed by cumulus clouds. It’s also sometimes called Wagner’s one realistic opera, and in fact it isn’t set in that strange mythological twilight realm of Der Ring des Nibelungen or Tristan or Parsifal: nothing magical or supernatural happens, and the setting is as close to documentary as Wagner ever got (there really were guilds of mastersingers in late medieval Nuremberg, and the hero, the cobbler-poet Hans Sachs, is based on a real person). But the realism keeps fading away into dreaminess. None of Wagner’s other operas seems so much of a fairy tale: the plot about the winner of the contest marrying the mayor’s daughter is straight out of the Brothers Grimm. And the tone isn’t Wagner’s normal metaphysical gloom; it’s miraculously sunny and serene, as though there’s no darkness in the world deeper than benign melancholy. And yet when it’s done right—as it was at Bayreuth that year—it leaves an audience in tears.
Die Meistersinger can really only be understood in relation to Wagner’s overarching masterpiece, Der Ring des Nibelungen. In fact, Wagner composed Die Meistersinger as a pleasant little interlude in the midst of his 25 years of labor on the larger work. It’s deliberately airy and inconsequential where the Ring is inexorable and dark. It’s a deliberate turning away from the death of gods and the fate of worlds to more humble and earthly concerns: the happiness of young lovers, the sadness of approaching age, the evanescence of a summer’s day and the loveliness of its twilight. Its brightness and gentleness stand out in Wagner’s universe like a line of sunny rooftops against a blackening thunderstorm.
The Nazis who hated Wagner had a point: he really was morbid. He intended the Ring to be not just his masterwork, but a summation and final accounting for Western culture—a vision of its foundational myth and a prophecy of its coming collapse. That was always the mystery about the Ring. He composed it at the height of a civilization greater than any since the fall of Rome: the colonial empires of Europe controlled most of the land surface of the earth, and their ships carried the traffic of every ocean. Yet all Wagner could see ahead of him was its ruin and decline. He found among the ancient legends of the Teutons and the Vikings the epic story of the cursed ring of the Nibelung and the fall of the noble house of the Volsungs, and he saw it as a vast parable of the rot eating away at the foundations of the contemporary world. The ring represents avarice and the lust for power; it will give dominion over the whole earth to anyone who renounces love—but the gods can see no danger of that, since how could there be a being, mortal or immortal, who would ever renounce the glory of love for the paltriness of mere power? Wagner looked around him and knew there would be no shortage of takers.
In his earliest plan for the Ring, the old world of the gods would be destroyed and a new human utopia free of the ring’s curse would arise to replace it—but he eventually dropped that idea. The more he worked on the Ring the less good he could see ahead, following the wreck of his civilization. So when he came to compose Die Meistersinger he offered a utopia not of the future but of the past. He retreated to a time and place where the doom hanging over Europe wouldn’t yet seem inescapable, where people could pass their whole lives in a dream of contented peace, where they really could care who won a singing contest. He created the textures of this paradise with lavish concreteness. No other opera is so casually exact about its location, its sights, its atmosphere; each scene is so deeply realized, you can even tell what the temperature is. The first act is touched by the slightly clammy coolness of a stone cathedral on a sultry morning; the second is filled with a humid, lilac-scented night breeze drifting down a cobblestone alley; and the last act overflows with the hot, lush air of a sunlit meadow in the depths of the untouched German countryside.
The 1943 production brought these qualities to life with extraordinary fidelity. Surviving stills show that the backdrop of cathedral walls was painted with such care you could almost see the beads of dew on the stone. The view down the back alley was a marvelously steep twilight clutter of ancient tiled roofs and sinuously worn pavement. And the meadow was a kind of stage poem to a summer day, dominated by a majestic flowering tree, with the town glittering contentedly in the hazy distance. The Bayreuth opera house, itself so soothingly cool in the heat of those July afternoons, must have seemed to its astonished audience like a window into the mysterious peace at the heart of the fatherland.
How could they not have been moved? The orchestra played as if possessed, the soloists tore into every one of the immense arias as though this was the last time they would ever be allowed to sing music this beautiful, the chorus (filled out, by the fuhrer’s special order, with the best amateur singers from a local division of the SS) roared and bellowed their way through the chorales in a kind of primordial joy of discovery. Each scene played out to lingering stillness, savoring the nuances of joy and renunciation in an ecstasy of achingly sweet nostalgia. And the final aria—in which Hans Sachs sings of his hope that even if Germany itself is destroyed, the greatness of German art will survive—was like a rapturous prayer of deliverance.
“German art.” Of course Wagner thought the greatest art in the world was necessarily German—that was a commonplace in those days. Germans, Japanese, Americans—people of every nation profoundly believed in their innate cultural superiority. Wagner was wholly typical of Germans, for instance, in his loathing of the French: he was enraged during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 that the German army didn’t burn Paris to the ground. Then too he was contemptuous, like most German intellectuals, of what he thought of as a Mediterranean contamination of the true, Teutonic soul of Europe—”Mediterranean” encompassing everything from Italian opera to Christianity. And he was typical of Germans, and of Europeans generally, in his furious detestation of Jews. Back then, cultured men in Europe and America, from Degas to Kipling to Henry Adams, all took particular pleasure in cultivating lurid varieties of anti-Semitism. The curse of the ring, which Wagner himself couldn’t see, included hatred and cultural paranoia.
But in the feverish atmosphere of the war years nobody could have remained blind to what was really at stake. The country was swarming with secret police, there were mass arrests and deportations of everybody thought even remotely undesirable, there were daily triumphant announcements of the latest spectacular military victory obliterating all those decades of national humiliation, and there were an awful lot of patriotic parades. The Bayreuth festival was typical of those years in its frenzied glorification of the Nazi state. Every public occasion, no matter how trivial, was turned into a riot of patriotic enthusiasm. Every week brought a new stadium-filling rally, a lurid night of bonfires, a solemn torchlight procession. The Nazis could make the groundbreaking for a new highway an excuse for another spectacular searchlight-swarming, band-thundering all-Hitler gala event. The message was everywhere: the war was about the survival of Germany itself. Either there would be a victory so great that its rule over its enemies would last a thousand years or there would be a defeat so bottomless that nothing, no hope or joy or scrap of song, would survive.
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.
“You folks at home must be disappointed at what happened to our American troops in Tunisia. So are we over here.” That was how wire-service reporter Ernie Pyle began a dispatch in February 1943. A few days before, at Kasserine Pass, in the desolate mountain ranges fringing the Sahara, American troops had had their first major encounter with the Germans. The Americans had been undertrained and overconfident; confronted by the ferocity of an artillery barrage, they’d panicked and run. Pyle sounds like he was breaking the news that the hometown swim team had lost at the state finals.
That was pretty bold by the standards of the time. From the beginning of the war any little setback like Kasserine had been veiled in impenetrable layers of vague regret and consolatory wisdom. “No one here has the slightest doubt that the Germans will be thrown out of Tunisia,” Pyle goes on to say almost immediately. “It is simply in the cards.” That was a lucky thing, because right then there was no compelling military reason to expect an Allied victory. Pyle then adds this remarkable bit to the mythology of “our boys”: “As for the soldiers themselves, you need feel no shame nor concern about their ability. I have seen them in battle and afterwards and there is nothing wrong with the common American soldier. His fighting spirit is good. His morale is okay. The deeper he gets into a fight the more of a fighting man he becomes.”
Which is as much as to say that the actual result of the battle shouldn’t be allowed to dent the myth. This is where the falsification of the war began—not in the movies and not in government propaganda, but in the simple refusal of reporters in the field to describe honestly what they were seeing.
American soldiers early on grew accustomed to the idea that the truth of their experience wasn’t going to be told to the folks back home. They knew the score: despite the drone of triumph surrounding their every deed, the American entry into the war was a gory fiasco. The military had been caught wholly unprepared and was rushing troops into battle all over the world with a minimum of training and a maximum of chaos. To this day, if you ask any veteran for war stories, what you’re likely to hear first is some appalling epic of American military incompetence. Every unit rapidly accumulated its share of grim legends. There was the arrogant lieutenant fresh out of officer school who was assigned to lead troops into battle and turned coward under fire or was fatally befuddled by ambiguous orders. There was the murderous stupidity of a supply clerk up the line who contemptuously mishandled an urgent request for emergency provisions—on Guadalcanal, for instance, desperately needed drinking water arrived in used oil drums nobody had thought to wash out first. And there was the almost daily occurrence of the routine patrol turned into a nightmare by friendly fire. Friendly fire was a worse problem in World War II than in any other American war before or since. American troops on the ground were so frequently bombed by their own planes that they were known to shoot back with their heaviest guns.
The folks at home learned none of this. The news was being censored of course: American reporters in the field, like those of every combatant nation, had to submit all stories for official clearance, and reporters who tried to describe the war honestly would quickly find their stories going unapproved and their press credentials in doubt. But the First Amendment was still in force back home; unlike the newspapers of the Axis, which were wholly given over to government-enforced fantasies of imminent global triumph, American newspapers were still free, at least in theory, to publish whatever they liked. Some of them did so: the Library of America’s Reporting World War II anthology contains reasonably honest and critical pieces from major newspapers and magazines on conditions in the internment camps, on the lack of enthusiasm for the war in African-American ghettos, and on the institutionalized racism of the military. But when it came to what was happening on the battlefields themselves the unbreakable silence closed in.
Part of it was the deep reluctance of the American military to approve stories that suggested—as A.J. Liebling put it—that American soldiers might “die in an undignified way.” Part of it was simple patriotism: the reporters were under no obligation to be neutral; they wanted America to win and weren’t going to risk hurting home-front morale by writing honestly of the terror and desperation of the battlefield.
But there was another reason as well: a kind of psychological block. There was something essential about the battlefield that reporters didn’t tell the folks back home. They weren’t being censored exactly; they probably could have published it if they’d wanted to. They just didn’t know how. In any anthology of wartime journalism (it happens constantly in Reporting World War II), you can find instances of reporters coming up against the fundamental truth of the war and being unable to say what it was. Instead they resorted to a curious verbal tic, almost an involuntary distress signal, to mark the place where their verbal abilities left off and the incommunicable reality of what they were witnessing began.
Here’s a typical example, from Ernie Pyle’s Tunisian reporting: “One of our half-tracks, full of ammunition, was livid red, with flames leaping and swaying. Every few seconds one of the shells would go off, and the projectile would tear into the sky with a weird whang-zing sort of noise.”
That seems unexceptionable enough. Like most of what Pyle sent in over the wire, it has a striking visual vigor and simplicity, down to the comic-book sound effects—put a grinning American soldier in the foreground, and you’ve got a perfect Norman Rockwell war poster. But compare it with this, from John Hersey’s reporting of the Guadalcanal campaign for Life magazine: “But weirdest of all was the sound of our artillery shells passing overhead. At this angle, probably just about under the zenith of their trajectory, they gave off a soft, fluttery sound, like a man blowing through a keyhole.”
This seems to be out of another universe of literary style: compared with Pyle’s report, this is a sinuously Jamesian prose poem. But it has an unexpected point of resemblance. Hersey, like Pyle, calls the sound of a shell in flight “weird.”
That word and its cognates recur countless times in American war reporting. The war was weird. Or it was haunted, or spectral, or uncanny, or supernatural. Battle zones were eerie; bomb craters were unearthly; even diplomatic conferences were strange and unreal. Here’s an elaborate example, from Edward R. Murrow’s famous radio broadcasts from London during the German air raids of September 1940. Murrow was standing on a rooftop at night, looking out on a blacked-out roof-scape lit up by flashes of antiaircraft fire and distant swarming searchlights. His eye was caught by an odd detail: “Out of one window there waves something that looks like a white bed sheet, a window curtain swinging free in this night breeze. It looks as though it were being shaken by a ghost. There are a great many ghosts around these buildings in London.”
It’s worth following the implicit logic here in some detail. There’s an obvious meaning you would expect Murrow to find in the sight of a white sheet waving in the middle of an air raid: it’s a flag of surrender, a pathetic gesture of submission made to the unseen forces thundering across the night skies overhead. But that’s exactly what Murrow doesn’t say. There was a straightforward reason: he was passionately pro-British and wasn’t about to suggest that anybody in London was about to surrender—even metaphorically. But then what did the sheet look like? Now we get to that short circuit: another reason it didn’t look like a white flag was that a white flag was something you’d see in a battle—and this wasn’t like a battle. It was much too strange for that. It was more like a haunted house: some kind of border zone where the barriers between this world and the next were dissolving, and ghosts came fluttering up out of nothingness. It was certainly not a place where the traditional language of warfare had any meaning. As Murrow himself put it directly: “There are no words to describe the thing that is happening.”
So what was this “thing” these reporters were seeing? Is there any way for us now to get a sense of what they were seeing?
There was a battle soon after Pearl Harbor that may, better than any other, define just what was so strange about the war. Unlike most of the war’s battles, it was contained within a narrow enough area that it can be visualized clearly, yet its consequences were so large and mysterious that they rippled throughout the entire world for years afterward. It happens that no American reporters were around to witness it directly, but it has been amply documented even so. From survivors’ accounts, and from a small library of academic and military histories, ranging in scope and style from Walter Lord’s epic Miracle at Midway to John Keegan’s brilliant tactical analysis in The Price of Admiralty: The Evolution of Naval Warfare, it’s possible to work out with some precision just what happened in the open waters of the Pacific off Midway Island at 10:25 AM local time on June 4, 1942.
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. This defensive perimeter would set the boundaries of their new empire—or, as they called it, the “Greater Asia Coprosperity Sphere.” Midway Island, the westernmost of the Hawaiian Islands, was one of the last links they needed to complete the chain. They sent an enormous fleet, the heart of the Japanese navy, to do the job: four enormous aircraft carriers, together with a whole galaxy of escort ships. On June 4 the attack force arrived at Midway, where they found a smaller American fleet waiting for them.
Or so the history-book version normally runs. But the sailors on board the Japanese fleet saw things differently. They didn’t meet any American ships on June 4. That day, as on all the other days of their voyage, they saw nothing from horizon to horizon but the immensity of the Pacific. Somewhere beyond the horizon line, shortly after dawn, Japanese pilots from the carriers had discovered the presence of the American fleet, but for the Japanese sailors, the only indications of anything unusual that morning were two brief flyovers by American fighter squadrons. Both had made ineffectual attacks and flown off again. 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.
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. In the empty ocean below they spotted a fading wake—one of the Japanese escort ships had been diverted from the convoy to drop a depth charge on a suspected American submarine. The squadron followed it just to see where it might lead. A few minutes later they cleared a cloud deck and discovered themselves directly above the single largest “target of opportunity,” as the military saying goes, that any American bomber had ever been offered.
When we try to imagine what happened next we’re likely to get an image out of Star Wars—daring attack planes, as graceful as swallows, darting among the ponderously churning cannons of some behemoth of a Death Star. But the sci-fi trappings of Star Wars disguise an archaic and sluggish idea of battle. What happened instead was this: the American squadron commander gave the order to attack, the planes came hurtling down from around 12,000 feet and released their bombs, and then they pulled out of their dives and were gone. That was all. Most of the Japanese sailors didn’t even see them.
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. The noise was deafening, and the warning sirens were inaudible. Only the sudden, shattering bass thunder of the big guns going off underneath the bedlam alerted the sailors that anything was wrong. That was when they looked up. By then the planes were already soaring out of sight, and the black blobs of the bombs were already descending from the brilliant sky in a languorous glide.
One bomb fell on the flight deck of the Akagi, the flagship of the fleet, and exploded amidships near the elevator. The concussion wave of the blast roared through the open shaft to the hangar deck below, where it detonated a stack of torpedoes. The explosion that followed was so powerful it ruptured the flight deck; a fireball flashed like a volcano through the blast crater and swallowed up the midsection of the ship. Sailors were killed instantly by the fierce heat, by hydrostatic shock from the concussion wave, by flying shards of steel; they were hurled overboard unconscious and drowned. The sailors in the engine room were killed by flames drawn through the ventilating system. Two hundred died in all. Then came more explosions rumbling up from below decks as the fuel reserves ignited. That was when the captain, still frozen in shock and disbelief, collected his wits sufficiently to recognize that the ship had to be abandoned.
Meanwhile another carrier, the Kaga, was hit by a bomb that exploded directly on the hangar deck. The deck was strewn with live artillery shells, and open fuel lines snaked everywhere. Within seconds, explosions were going off in cascading chain reactions, and uncontrollable fuel fires were breaking out all along the length of the ship. Eight hundred sailors died. On the flight deck a fuel truck exploded and began shooting wide fans of ignited fuel in all directions; the captain and the rest of the senior officers, watching in horror from the bridge, were caught in the spray, and they all burned to death.
Less than five minutes had passed since the American planes had first appeared overhead. The Akagi and the Kaga were breaking up. Billowing columns of smoke towered above the horizon line. These attracted another American bomber squadron, which immediately launched an attack on a third aircraft carrier, the Soryu. These bombs were less effective—they set off fuel fires all over the ship, but the desperate crew managed to get them under control. Still, the Soryu was so badly damaged it was helpless. Shortly afterward it was targeted by an American submarine (the same one the escort ship had earlier tried to drop a depth charge on). American subs in those days were a byword for military ineffectiveness; they were notorious for their faulty and unpredictable torpedoes. But the crew of this particular sub had a large stationary target to fire at point-blank. The Soryu was blasted apart by repeated direct hits. Seven hundred sailors died.
The last of the carriers, the Hiryu, managed to escape untouched, but later that afternoon it was located and attacked by another flight of American bombers. One bomb set off an explosion so strong it blew the elevator assembly into the bridge. More than 400 died, and the crippled ship had to be scuttled a few hours later to keep it from being captured.
Now there was nothing left of the Japanese attack force except a scattering of escort ships and the planes still in the air. The pilots were the final casualties of the battle; with the aircraft carriers gone, and with Midway still in American hands, they had nowhere to land. They were doomed to circle helplessly above the sinking debris, the floating bodies, and the burning oil slicks until their fuel ran out.
This was the Battle of Midway. As John Keegan writes, it was “the most stunning and decisive blow in the history of naval warfare.” Its consequences were instant, permanent and devastating. It gutted Japan’s navy and broke its strategy for the Pacific war. The Japanese would never complete their perimeter around their new empire; instead they were thrown back on the defensive, against an increasingly large and better-organized American force, which grew surgingly confident after its spectacular victory. After Midway, as the Japanese scrambled to rebuild their shattered fleet, the Americans went on the attack. In August 1942 they began landing a marine force on the small island of Guadalcanal (it’s in the Solomons, near New Guinea) and inexorably forced a breach in the perimeter in the southern Pacific. From there American forces began fanning out into the outer reaches of the empire, cutting supply lines and isolating the strongest garrisons. 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.
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.
This was exactly what the witnesses to the war were finding so impossible to believe. The cliche in those days was that World War I had destroyed the old romantic notions about battle—after the slaughter in the trenches of Europe, it was said, nobody would ever again rhapsodize about the chivalry of jousting knights or the grandeur of a sword-waving cavalry charge. The reporters going out to cover World War II had prepared themselves to see battles that were mechanized, anonymous, and horrible. But they weren’t prepared, not really. World War I had been a generation earlier, and the military industries of the great powers hadn’t stopped their drive for innovation. 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. The reporters got out into the war and discovered a scale of mass destruction so inhuman that cynicism and disillusionment seemed just as irrelevant as the sentimental pieties of the home front.
What were they supposed to say about what they were seeing? At Kasserine American soldiers were blown apart into shreds of flesh scattered among the smoking ruins of exploded tanks. Ernie Pyle called this “disappointing.” Well, why not? There were no other words to describe the thing that had happened there. The truth was, the only language that seemed to register the appalling strangeness of the war was supernatural: the ghost story where nightmarish powers erupt out of nothingness, the glimpse into the occult void where human beings would be destroyed by unearthly forces they couldn’t hope to comprehend. Even the most routine event of the war, the firing of an artillery shell, seemed somehow uncanny. The launch of a shell and its explosive arrival were so far apart in space and time you could hardly believe they were part of the same event, and for those in the middle there was only the creepy whisper of its passage, from nowhere to nowhere, like a rip in the fabric of causality.
Even the military powers themselves, which had spent so many years planning for the war, which had built up titanic armies and commissioned the factories to churn out wave after wave of advanced weaponry—even they didn’t understand the furies they were unleashing. That’s what had caused the disaster at Midway. Aircraft carriers were the most powerful ships ever to set sail; they were so large and strongly built they sometimes seemed to their crews not to be ships at all, but floating cities of metal, floating industrial districts delivering destruction to their enemies on the other side of the world. 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. For all its appearance of self-sufficiency and invulnerability, an aircraft carrier really was an immense oilcan stuffed with explosives, floating in the middle of an inhospitable ocean.
In the obsolete days of naval warfare Midway would have been different. 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); its ships could probably have survived the attack at Midway with only moderate damage. But the Japanese carrier attack force was on the hair trigger of total catastrophe—ready not only to self-destruct in an instant, but to cause a vast, unpredictable, and wholly uncontrollable wave of secondary disasters. It took only a couple of fluke hits to trigger the cataclysm; the Japanese empire was lost at Midway in five unlucky minutes.
There’s another military phrase: “in harm’s way.” That’s what everybody assumes going to war means—putting yourself in danger. But the truth is that for most soldiers war is no more inherently dangerous than any other line of work. Modern warfare has grown so complicated and requires such immense movements of men and materiel over so vast an expanse of territory that an ever-increasing proportion of every army is given over to supply, tactical support, and logistics. Only about one in five of the soldiers who took part in World War II was in a combat unit (by the time of Vietnam the ratio in the American armed forces was down to around one in seven). The rest were construction workers, accountants, drivers, technicians, cooks, file clerks, repairmen, warehouse managers—the war was essentially a self-contained economic system that swelled up out of nothing and covered the globe.
For most soldiers the dominant memory they had of the war was of that vast structure arching up unimaginably high overhead. It’s no coincidence that two of the most widely read and memorable American novels of the war, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, are almost wholly about the cosmic scale of the American military’s corporate bureaucracy and mention Hitler and the Nazis only in passing. Actual combat could seem like almost an incidental side product of the immense project of military industrialization. A battle for most soldiers was something that happened up the road, or on the fogbound islands edging the horizon, or in the silhouettes of remote hilltops lit up at night by silent flickering, which they mistook at first for summer lightning. And when reporters traveled through the vast territories under military occupation looking for some evidence of real fighting, what they were more likely to find instead was a scene like what Martha Gellhorn, covering the war for Collier’s, discovered in the depths of the Italian countryside: “The road signs were fantastic….The routes themselves, renamed for this operation, were marked with the symbols of their names, a painted animal or a painted object. There were the code numbers of every outfit, road warnings—bridge blown, crater mines, bad bends—indications of first-aid posts, gasoline dumps, repair stations, prisoner-of-war cages, and finally a marvelous Polish sign urging the troops to notice that this was a malarial area: this sign was a large green death’s-head with a mosquito sitting on it.”
That was the war: omnipresent, weedlike tendrils of contingency and code spreading over a landscape where the battle had long since passed.
It was much the same in the U.S. The bureaucracy of war became an overpowering presence in people’s lives, even though the reality of battle was impossibly remote. Prices were controlled by war-related government departments, nonessential nonmilitary construction required a nightmare of paperwork, food and gas were rationed—any long-distance car travel that wasn’t for war business meant a special hearing before a ration board, and almost every train snaking through the depths of the heartland had been commandeered for classified military transport. The necessities of war even broke up the conventional proprieties of marriage: the universal inevitability of military service meant that young couples got married quickly, sometimes at first meeting—and often only so the women could get the military paycheck and the ration stamps.
The war was the single dominant fact in the world, saturating every radio show and newspaper. Every pennant race was described on the sports pages in the metaphor of battle; every car wreck and hotel fire was compared to the air raids that everyone was still expecting to hit the blacked-out cities on the coasts.
But who was controlling the growth of this fantastic edifice? Nobody could say. People who went to Washington during those years found a desperately overcrowded town caught up in a kind of diffuse bureaucratic riot. New agencies and administrations overflowed from labyrinthine warrens of temporary office space. People came to expect that the simplest problem would lead to hours or days of wandering down featureless corridors, passing door after closed door spattered by uncrackable alphabetic codes: OPA, OWI, OSS. Nor could you expect any help or sympathy once you found the right office: if the swarms of new government workers weren’t focused on the latest crisis in the Pacific, they were distracted by the hopeless task of finding an apartment or a boarding house or a cot in a spare room. Either way, they didn’t give a damn about solving your little squabble about petroleum rationing.
It might have been some consolation to know that people around the world were stuck with exactly the same problems—particularly people on the enemy side. There was a myth (it still persists) that the Nazi state was a model of efficiency; the truth was that it was a bureaucratic shambles. The military functioned well—Hitler gave it a blank check—but civilian life was made a misery by countless competing agencies and new ministries, all claiming absolute power over every detail of German life. Any task, from getting repairs in an apartment building to requisitioning office equipment, required running a gauntlet of contradictory regulations. One historian later described Nazi Germany as “authoritarian anarchy.”
But then everything about the war was ad hoc and provisional. The British set up secret installations in country estates; Stalin had his supreme military headquarters in a commandeered Moscow subway station. Nobody cared about making the system logical, because everything only needed to happen once. Every battle was unrepeatable, every campaign was a special case. The people who were actually making the decisions in the war—for the most part, senior staff officers and civil service workers who hid behind anonymous doors and unsigned briefing papers—lurched from one improvisation to the next, with no sense of how much the limitless powers they were mustering were remaking the world.
But there was one constant. From the summer of 1942 on, the whole Allied war effort, the immensity of its armies and its industries, were focused on a single overriding goal: the destruction of the German army in Europe. Allied strategists had concluded that the global structure of the Axis would fall apart if the main military strength of the German Reich could be broken. But that task looked to be unimaginably difficult. It meant building up an overwhelmingly large army of their own, somehow getting it on the ground in Europe, and confronting the German army at point-blank range. How could this possibly be accomplished? The plan was worked out at endless briefings and diplomatic meetings and strategy sessions held during the first half of 1942. The Soviet Red Army would have to break through the Russian front and move into Germany from the east. Meanwhile, a new Allied army would get across the English Channel and land in France, and the two armies would converge on Berlin.
The plan set the true clock time of the war. No matter what the surface play of battle was in Africa or the South Seas, the underlying dynamic never changed: every hour, every day the Allies were preparing for the invasion of Europe. They were stockpiling thousands of landing craft, tens of thousands of tanks, millions upon millions of rifles and mortars and howitzers, oceans of bullets and bombs and artillery shells—the united power of the American and Russian economies was slowly building up a military force large enough to overrun a continent. The sheer bulk of the armaments involved would have been unimaginable a few years earlier. One number may suggest the scale. Before the war began the entire German Luftwaffe consisted of 4,000 planes; by the time of the Normandy invasion American factories were turning out 4,000 new planes every two weeks.
The plan was so ambitious that even with this torrential flow of war production it would take years before the Allies were ready. The original target date for the invasion was the spring of 1943—but as that date approached the Allies realized they weren’t prepared to attempt it. So it was put off until the late spring of 1944. But what would happen in the meanwhile? A worldwide holding action. The Red Army would have to hang on to its positions in Russia, the Americans would go on inching their way into the Japanese empire, and the Allies everywhere would commit their forces to campaigns designed only to keep the Axis from expanding further. In the years between Pearl Harbor and the Normandy invasion the war around the world grew progressively larger, more diffuse, less conclusive, and massively more chaotic.
Those were desperate years. The storm center then was in Russia, where the German army was hurling attack after overwhelming attack at the Soviet lines. To this day, most Russians think World War II was something that happened primarily in their country and the battles everywhere else in the world were a sideshow. In August 1943, for instance, in the hilly countryside around the town of Kursk (about 200 miles south of Moscow), the German and Soviet armies collided in an uncontrolled slaughter: more than four million men and thousands of tanks desperately maneuvered through miles of densely packed minefields and horizon-filling networks of artillery fire. It may have been the single largest battle fought in human history, and it ended—like all the battles on the eastern front—in a draw.
The American military, meanwhile, was conducting campaigns that to this day are almost impossible to understand or justify. What was the point, for instance, of the Allied invasion of Italy in the summer of 1943? None of the reporters who covered it could figure it out. It was poorly planned and incompetently commanded, and its ultimate goal seemed preposterous: even if it had gone perfectly, it would have left a large army in northern Tuscany faced with the impossible task of getting across the Alps. Most baffling of all, Allied commanders up the line didn’t even seem to care whether it worked perfectly—or at all. One reporter, Eric Sevareid, watched it go on for 18 months of brutal stalemate and wrote an essay for the Nation (it’s the angriest and most honest piece in the whole of Reporting World War II) suggesting that its only real purpose was “to lay waste and impoverish for many years the major part of Italy.”
Somewhere in the bureaucratic stratosphere, of course, there were people who did know the justification for it and for everything else the Allies were doing. They just didn’t want to tell anybody what those reasons were. The Italian invasion, as it happened, was the result of a complicated attempt to appease the Russians, who were increasingly doubtful that their allies were serious about taking on Germany. It was intended as an expedient compromise—a direct confrontation with the Axis, in an area where defeat wouldn’t be fatal. In other words, there was no compelling military logic behind it; it was just an arbitrary way of marking time while the buildup for the real invasion went on.
No wonder American combat troops in those years started calling themselves “G.I. Joe.” Reporters passed the term back home as a charming bit of sentimentality; they didn’t know, or chose to ignore, that it was really a despairing joke—”G.I.” for “general issue,” a mass-produced unit of basic military hardware. The soldiers knew the score: for all the halos of glory they were being heaped with in the press, they were nothing more than anonymous, interchangeable items in the limitless inventory of the war. No “politician” (as they called any noncombatant decision maker) gave a damn what they were going through; you’d never find one of them getting anywhere near an actual battle. For a politician, the combat zones were an abstract domain of hostile contact where the war’s industrial bureaucracies impinged on one another. But for the soldiers who had to go into them, the combat zones were proving to be more horrible than their darkest imaginings. Victory or defeat in a campaign became irrelevant to them too when they found themselves in the worst place on earth.
“The infantryman hates shells more than anything else,” Bill Mauldin wrote about the front lines in Italy. His phrasing makes it sound like the men were expressing an aesthetic preference, like a choice among distasteful rations. But “shells” weren’t a few rounds of artillery floating in at odd intervals. They were deafening, unrelenting, maddening, terrifying. One fortified American position in the Pacific recorded being hit in a single day by 16,000 shells. In the middle of an artillery barrage hardened veterans would hug each other and sob helplessly. Men caught in a direct hit were unraveled by the blast, blown apart into shards of flying skeleton that would maim or kill anyone nearby. Afterward the survivors would sometimes discover one of their buddies so badly mangled they couldn’t understand how he could still be breathing; all they could do was give him the largest dose of morphine they dared and write an “M” for “morphine” on his forehead in his own blood, so that nobody else who found him would give him a second, fatal dose. (One soldier marked with that “M” was Bob Dole, wounded in Italy in 1945; he wasn’t released from the hospital until 1948.) Commanders came to prefer leading green troops into combat, because the veterans were far more scared. They knew what was coming.
“There was the brassy, metallic twang of the small 50mm knee mortar shells as little puffs of dirty smoke appeared thickly around us. The 81mm and 90mm mortar shells crashed and banged all along the ridge. The whiz-bang of the high velocity 47mm gun’s shells (also an antitank gun) was on us with its explosion as soon as we heard it….The slower screaming, whining sound of the 75mm artillery shells seemed the most abundant. Then there was the roar and rumble of the huge enemy 150mm howitzer shell, and the kaboom of its explosion. The bursting radius of these big shells was of awesome proportions. Added to all this noise was the swishing and fluttering overhead of our own supporting artillery fire. Our shells could be heard bursting out across the ridge over enemy positions. The noise of small-arms fire from both sides resulted in a chaotic bedlam of racket and confusion.”
This is from a memoir by Eugene B. Sledge, a marine who fought in the Pacific. It was issued by the marines’ own printing house, with prefaces by a couple of brigadier generals. That might lead it to be discounted as the usual party-line war-memoir whitewash, especially since Sledge does try to put the best possible spin on everything the marines did in the Pacific, finding excuses for every act of grotesque cruelty and softening the routine drone of daily barbarism. He even claims that marines said things like “all fouled up” and “when the stuff hits the fan.” (To be fair, Sledge is an unusually kindhearted man, who records with great satisfaction the rescue of Okinawan ponies trapped in the combat zone.) But notice the connoisseurlike precision in this passage, the sense shared by writer and readers that each shell in a barrage sounds its own distinct note of lethality. And one may notice too that Sledge’s whole memoir is free of reporters’ words like “occult” and “eerie” and “ghostly.” The adjectives that occur most often are “insane,” “hellish,” and “unendurable.”
The major campaign Sledge fought in was Okinawa, which took place toward the end of the war. It was expected to be quick: one more island recaptured from a defeated enemy. But the Japanese withdrew deep into Okinawa’s lush interior, where the rains and the dense foliage made the few roads impassable. The marines had to bring their supplies in on foot—carrying mortars and shells, water and food on their backs across miles of ravine-cut hills. Often they were so exhausted they couldn’t move when the enemy attacked. The battle lines, as so often happened in the war, soon froze in place. The quick campaign lasted for months.
Conditions on the front rapidly deteriorated. Soldiers were trapped in their foxholes by barrages that went on for days at a time. They were stupefied by the unbroken roar of the explosions and reduced to sick misery by the incessant rain and deepening mud. 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.”
He writes, “If a Marine slipped and slid down the back slope of the muddy ridge, he was apt to reach the bottom vomiting. I saw more than one man lose his footing and slip and slide all the way to the bottom only to stand up horror-stricken as he watched in disbelief while fat maggots tumbled out of his muddy dungaree pockets, cartridge belt, legging lacings, and the like. Then he and a buddy would shake or scrape them away with a piece of ammo box or a knife blade.”
The soldiers began to crack. As Sledge writes, “It is too preposterous to think that men could actually live and fight for days and nights on end under such terrible conditions and not be driven insane.” He catalogs the forms the insanity took: “from a state of dull detachment seemingly unaware of their surroundings, to quiet sobbing, or all the way to wild screaming and shouting.” Sledge himself began having hallucinations that the dead bodies were rising at night. “They got up slowly out of their waterlogged craters or off the mud and, with stooped shoulders and dragging feet, wandered around aimlessly, their lips moving as though trying to tell me something.” It was a relief to shake himself alert and find the corpses decomposing in their accustomed spots.
How could any commander have ordered troops into such an evil place? The commanders may not have known. Only gradually, as the debriefings and the casualty reports began filtering up the chain of command—only through the slow accumulation of years of data—did conditions in the battle zones become widely understood. The casualty figures from Okinawa were a demonstration that even at the end of the war the military bureaucracies of the combatant nations hadn’t yet learned, or didn’t care, what the combat zones were routinely doing to the soldiers who fought in them. Around 100,000 Japanese soldiers died on Okinawa—a few hundred were captured, mostly those who were too badly wounded to commit suicide. About 100,000 of the native inhabitants of the island died as well. Almost 8,000 Americans were killed or missing; almost 32,000 were wounded. And there were more than 26,000 “neuropsychiatric” casualties—more than a third of the American casualties in the Okinawa combat zone were soldiers who were driven insane.
In the First Book of Maccabees it’s written that Alexander the Great “made many wars, and won many strongholds, and slew the kings of the earth, and went through to the ends of the earth, and took spoils of many nations, insomuch that the earth was quiet before him.” Uncharacteristically for the Bible, there is no moral judgment offered on the way Alexander chose to pass his time. Maybe this is because there couldn’t be. There are certain people whose lives are so vastly out of scale with the rest of humanity, whether for good or evil, that the conventional verdicts seem foolish. Alexander, like Genghis Khan or Napoleon, was born to be a world wrecker. He single-handedly brought down the timeless empires of pagan antiquity and turned names like Babylon and Persia into exotic, dim legends. His influence was so dramatic and pervasive that people were still talking about him as the dominant force in the world centuries after he was dead. The writers of the Apocrypha knew that he was somehow responsible for the circumstances that led to the Maccabean revolt, even though he’d never set foot in Judea. The Romans knew that their empire was possible only because it was built out of the wreckage Alexander had left behind him in the Middle East. We know that Western civilization is arranged the way it is in large part because Alexander destroyed the civilizations that came before it.
But why had he done it? The author of Maccabees received no divine insight on that score. Nobody did. Even the people who actually knew Alexander were baffled by him. According to all the biographies and versified epics about him that have survived from the ancient world, his friends and subordinates found him almost impossible to read. He never talked about what he wanted or whether there was any conquest that would finally satisfy him; he never revealed the cause of the unappeasable sense of grievance that led him to take on the kings of the earth. Yet his peculiar manner led a lot of people in his entourage to think that he was somehow in touch with divine forces. He frequently had an air of trancelike distraction, as though his brilliant military strategies were dictated by some mysterious inner voice, and he had a habit of staring not quite at people but just over their shoulder, as though he were picking up some ethereal presence in the room invisible to everybody else. But even without these signs, people were bound to think that he was fulfilling a god’s unknowable whims. After all, what he was doing made no sense in human terms: it was global destruction for its own sake, and what mortal could possibly want that?
In the late 1930s the people in the inner circles of power in Germany got into the habit of discreetly recording Hitler’s table talk. He wasn’t much of a conversationalist; unlike Alexander, who appeared to enjoy a nightly session of manly banter around the campfire, Hitler had only two modes at the dinner table: sullen silence and uninterrupted monologue. His followers preserved every scrap of these ramblings anyway—partly to document his greatness of course, but also because, like Alexander’s entourage, they wanted to figure him out. They were as puzzled by him as the rest of the world—even more so maybe, because they had to spend so much time listening to him rant.
Some of the transcripts have been translated into English and published under the title Hitler’s Secret Conversations. It’s a shameless come-on, because the most striking thing about Hitler’s conversations is how profoundly unsecretive they were. Just like Alexander, he had nothing to say about himself—except to frequently and modestly admit to his genius. He never made jokes, or told stories, or described his emotions about anything he’d done or seen. Hour after hour, night after night, all he did was lay down the law on whatever came into his head—Italian history, astronomy, military planning, women’s fashions, the laws of nature, the drainage of swamps—in terms so shallow and unimaginative you wonder how his dinner companions could possibly have endured it. One of the prerogatives of power is the luxury of boring the people around you, but Hitler pushed it to the outer boundaries of sanity. Surely dishonor or death would have been preferable to another couple of hours of Hitler on dance (“The most beautiful dance in the world is the waltz”) or automotive design (“The water-cooled engine will have to disappear completely”).
But the transcripts are revealing in one sense: a certain recognizable style of thought comes through unmistakably. 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, so well described by Auden in a despairing vision at the end of the 30s:
Behind each sociable fun-loving eye
The private massacres are taking place—
The rich, all women, Jews, the human race.
In his table talk Hitler blamed everything on the Jews of course—even the podium style of orchestra conductors he didn’t like was put down to Zionist influence. But he also blamed everything on the British, and on the rich, and on the German general staff, and on the invincible stupidity of the German bourgeoisie. In fact, throughout the “secret conversations” there was only one subject, other than music, Hitler ever talked about that seemed to bring out something in him other than unappeasable resentment and omnidirectional contempt: architecture.
Hitler loved architecture. He’d been an architecture student when he was young; his few surviving paintings from those years are studies of the classic buildings of Vienna. He sometimes seemed to get more pleasure out of architectural tours of his conquered territories than he did from all their looted wealth. When he went to France after it fell to his armies in 1940 he didn’t give a damn about lording it over his abased enemies. All he wanted was a private visit to the Paris opera house, with a knowledgeable guide to show him the fine points of its design. That’s why to this day the only book that conveys any sense of the personality behind his tirades is Albert Speer’s Inside the Third Reich—the memoirs of Hitler’s architect.
Hitler and Speer talked endlessly about theories of architecture and urban planning. They grew particularly fascinated by a concept they called “ruin value.” They’d both been impressed by how imposing and beautiful the monumental constructions of the Roman empire still looked after so many centuries of catastrophe and vandalism, of storm and earthquake and the slow incessant gnawing of the wind; and they wondered how the great works they were planning would hold up a couple of thousand years down the road, when the Reich itself was half forgotten and new empires were contending for the world. Maybe it was possible to factor a certain decay mode into their designs, to ensure that some picturesque element of each structure would survive. Arches or pediments or rows of pillars could be reinforced far beyond the requirements of the load they would carry, so that they would still be standing after the rest of the structure was dust—ensuring that even the wreckage of the Reich would inspire awe.
Speer’s memoirs reproduce some of the sketches he did to illustrate the idea of ruin value. They show the immense public works projects he’d been designing—the titanic capitol dome, the new ministerial buildings, the 300-foot-tall triumphal arch—in a state of picturesque decay, half-crumbled and overrun by weeds. Hitler adored them. The members of his inner circle loathed them. They were uncomfortable with the idea that the Reich would ever fall, then or in a thousand years, and they darkly wondered if Speer was some kind of subversive troublemaker, playing to the fuhrer’s mysterious and disturbing fondness for images of twilight, decay, and tragedy.
They much preferred the other designs Speer made, showing the new Reich in its glory. In the late 1930s Hitler ordered Speer to put teams of architects and planners to work devising countless projects for the postwar world. There would be new stadiums, city halls, and plazas built in every town in Germany. There would be a spectacular network of freeways, rivaling the great roads of the Roman empire, linking the Crimea and Norway, the Urals and the coast of France. There was even a plan for an upgraded arts center at Bayreuth, showing the squat old hulk of Wagner’s opera house sitting amid a fantastic sprawl of new schools and gymnasiums and concert halls—like some kind of spreading neoclassical cancer.
But everybody’s favorite was the plaster tabletop mock-up Speer had made of the plans for Berlin. White marble ministry buildings were massed along new radiating boulevards—the whole lunatic tangle of Nazi bureaucracy securely enshrined at the heart of the Greater Reich. Every thug and flunky in the party lingered over the display, fondly wondering where his office would be. Hitler himself loved to fuss with it. He could spend hours checking out this or that detail—calculating the line of sight from the ministry of housing to the triumphal arch, or idly musing on whether the expanses of governmental marble around the ministry of security would need to be broken by some decorative trees. It was profoundly satisfying to him to see how his vision of the future was at last sprouting into such tangible and intricate life.
That vision had been in his mind since at least the early 20s. It’s laid out in the depths of Mein Kampf, like a modernist city in a trackless fen. Hitler proposed a vast expansion eastward, the armies of the Greater Reich conquering all of Europe to the Urals. The invasion of the Soviet Union, so often called Hitler’s fatal mistake, was in fact his overriding goal. He didn’t actually care that much what happened in western Europe. In his table talk he would sometimes laughingly say that France and England could keep their precious parliaments and opposition parties if such things mattered to them. Russia was the real prize. With the farmlands of the Ukraine and the oil fields of the Caucasus folded into the Greater Reich, Germany’s economic power would be almost limitless; the German people would be self-sufficient for generations to come, and the Nazis could spend centuries consolidating and extending their hold on conquered Europe.
The essential core of the Greater Reich was the complete remaking of its population. This was another aspect of Hitler’s vision that had been around for a long while; the extermination of those he considered undesirable began in the opening stages of the war. In 1939 special units of the SS accompanied the army into Poland and carried out systematic massacres of Jews. (Hitler sent the SS because he wasn’t sure the army would be willing to participate, but its commanders soon assured him they were.) Around the same time, programs of systematic euthanasia began in Germany itself, emptying rest homes and sanatoriums: 100,000 pure-blooded Aryans too old, too weak, or too mad to be of use were put to death. As Hitler’s armies swept into the Soviet Union in 1941, they took four million Russian soldiers prisoner; none of them would be wanted in the Greater Reich, and by the following spring more than three million of them were dead—of starvation or exposure, or else murdered outright. During that same period the death camps were being constructed in Poland; the first trains of Jewish prisoners arrived in April 1942.
Only a handful of the thousands of concentration camps and prison camps and work camps scattered throughout the Reich were specifically built as death camps, and those—Belzec, Chelmno, Majdanek, Sobibor, and Treblinka—were hidden in the remoteness of the Polish countryside. But it would be a mistake to think that the death camps were some sort of aberration in the Nazi system, some secret excess brought on by the desperation of the war. They were the whole point of Nazi rule. In Hitler’s vision the air of Europe would never have been free of the stink of the crematorium and the charnel house.
Among the countless cruelties the prisoners of the camps suffered were incessant experiments in techniques of mass sterilization. This was obviously not something that needed to be done to people about to be murdered. The Nazis were looking down the road, to when the Reich was victorious. By then all the Jews would be gone, and the Slavic peoples of eastern Europe would be reduced to docile herds of subhuman chattel. Tens of millions of them would be sent to the death camps right away, and the carefully bred, selectively sterilized remnants would be kept alive as slave labor until the Aryan population was sufficiently well established for the herds to be thinned again. The way Hitler saw it, the new moral, hygenic Nazi society would lead to a skyrocketing Aryan birthrate, and waves of pioneers would come streaming into the newly cleared expanses of the Ukraine. He often compared this to the way America had been colonized and even lamented the absence of a German myth of wide-open spaces comparable to that of the American western frontier.
He did have his own myth about Germany. He was obsessed with the shadowy folkloric world of the Vikings and the Teutons, the vanished Nordic past that had inspired the medieval sagas of the Volsungs and, through them, Wagner’s Ring. His imagination was filled with the rush and thunder of the ancient warriors who’d beaten back the Roman empire and swept the barbarians back into central Asia. But where Wagner had used these stories for their symbolic value, Hitler responded to them as a primal vision of reality. (The allegorical choice in the Ring between love and absolute power meant nothing to him.) Sometimes he talked as though that world was more real to him than the daylight world around him—as if the whole of modern civilization was an evil mirage obscuring the unceasing flow of mythic struggle.
This proved to be his great strength as a military commander. His generals were cautious about taking on the armies of Europe, but Hitler knew they would pose no challenge because he simply couldn’t credit them with being real. They were hollow, he insisted—only a coward would be intimidated by them. One big, decisive blow and they’d collapse. He was right, but this was almost a coincidence. He held exactly the same conviction about the Soviet Union: he thought it was a phantom so infested with malignant Jewish conspiracies that it would crumble into rottenness the moment his armies crossed the border. His generals had, or should have had, some sense of how preposterous this was. But they were too awed by his previous triumphs, and they shared the universal German belief that the Slavic peoples were subhuman. They weren’t even alarmed when Hitler informed them in complete seriousness that they didn’t have to plan for fighting during the Russian winter because the invasion of the Soviet Union would take only a couple of weeks.
For a brief while it looked like he was right. The first weeks of the invasion, beginning in June 1941, went astoundingly well. The Red Army was panicked and disorganized, and the Germans captured more territory more quickly than any other army had in history. But by the end of the summer it became apparent that Stalin’s hold on the vast unconquered depths of Russia beyond was unshaken—which began to alert some of the less spellbound officers on Hitler’s staff that the invasion, however triumphant it was on paper, was in the worst kind of trouble.
But there were no decisive counterblows yet, no spectacular reversals such as the Japanese would later meet at Midway. Instead, as autumn approached, reports started filtering up the line of nagging trivialities nobody could resolve. The roads were much worse than anyone had thought they’d be. Tanks ate up the fuel reserves way ahead of schedule, and resupply was extremely difficult. German tanks used gas, but Soviet tanks ran on diesel, so captured fuel stores were useless. Then the autumn rains turned the landscape into a horizonless sea of freezing mud—movement to and from the front lines became impossible. With the first snows of winter soldiers discovered that German boots were wholly unsuited for subzero weather; a metal plate in the toe became an invitation to frostbite. (The Red Army had been supplied with ten million pairs of new felt-insulated boots made in American factories to Soviet specifications.) And so on, and on. By the middle of the winter the Germans were besieging Leningrad and approaching Stalingrad and had reached the outskirts of Moscow—and there they stayed.
A year later, in the second winter of the invasion, as the army inched forward on a final, desperate push into Stalingrad, a daring joke began making the rounds in Germany, a mock dispatch from Stalingrad HQ: “Today our troops captured a two-room apartment with kitchen, toilet, and bathroom. They have succeeded in retaining two-thirds of it despite fierce counterattacks by the enemy.” Few of the tellers realized just how accurate this description was. John Keegan, in his book The Second World War, quotes a German officer’s description of the fighting in the city: “We have fought for fifteen days for a single house with mortars, grenades, machine-guns and bayonets. Already by the third day fifty-four German corpses are strewn in the cellars, on the landings, and the staircases. The front is a corridor between burnt-out rooms; it is the thin ceiling between two floors.” This was where Hitler’s vision of the world finally foundered. After striding like a colossus over a continent, the German army was in the end unable to force its way up a flight of stairs.
The catastrophe came at the end of January 1943. The Red Army had gradually encircled the enormous German forces massed in the frozen wastes outside the city. Hitler denied his generals permission to break out, and finally one vast Soviet attack overran and destroyed 20 German divisions. It was the worst calamity the German army had suffered since the war began. It was too large for the government to conceal; they suspended normal broadcasts on state radio and instead played solemn music (the adagio from Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony). It was the first official admission they’d made that the war wasn’t going perfectly, and for the first time people openly asked one another on the streets what would happen if the war were lost.
Hitler himself was devastated. It was soon after the disaster at Stalingrad that his entourage began noticing odd physical symptoms: a slight tremor in his hands, a dull look in his eyes, a general air of apathy—and unending complaints about insomnia. In his table talk he dwelled less and less on his vision of the Greater Reich and was more and more given to ranting about who—industrialists, bankers, generals—was sabotaging him the most. By 1944 he was visibly falling apart: he was perpetually stooped, he dragged his feet, his cheeks were sunken, his hands constantly shook; he was unable to walk a few hundred feet without stopping to rest. Everyone who saw him could tell what was going on: the war was consuming him along with the Reich.
He had spent most of the war at a succession of temporary military headquarters deep in the mosquito-infested forests of eastern Europe and the limitless fields of the Ukraine, but as the disasters on the Russian front accumulated, he was forced to return to Berlin. The city had grown dreary and shabby while he’d been away. Nothing had been painted or repaired for years, and the big public works of the Greater Reich amounted to no more than a scattering of abandoned excavations. And yet the architects and draftsmen in Speer’s offices were still busily working on new plans, on surreal neoclassical cityscapes and monuments for future wars, on the swirling interchanges of the new autobahns and the grand stadia where the victory rallies would be held—as though the propaganda was all correct and the war was just about to be won. It seemed insane, but it was the most sensible course they could follow; the importance of their work had led Hitler to exempt them from the draft, and they had to go on looking busy to keep from being sent out to fight on the approaching front.
But Hitler no longer cared. The tabletop model of Berlin was put in storage; the new renderings Speer’s teams sent over went unexamined. He could barely bring himself to listen to the daily briefings from the military on the current situation in the field. Now and then he would rouse himself long enough to order long-destroyed divisions to rally behind nonexistent lines; but mostly he wandered despondently through his underground quarters, waiting for it to be over. He sadly told his entourage that the German people had not been equal to the great task he’d set them. At other times he would have fits of despairing rage and issue orders for the retreating German troops to burn and destroy everything behind them, so the Allies would conquer nothing but ashes—much like Wotan at the end of the Ring, who locks himself in Valhalla and orders it piled with kindling, so that a spark from Siegfried’s funeral pyre will set it all alight. It was a last gesture of renunciation, a Wagnerian finale enacted across the wreckage of Europe. Maybe too it was a kind of confession that his dream of the Greater Reich was only covering a deeper impulse toward universal destruction—as though there had never been any point to the Reich other than its ruin value.
Alexander the Great died of a fever in 323 BC. The exact nature of the fever is unknown, but it may not have mattered. He was already so weakened by a wound he’d received in his campaigns in the Indus valley two years before that he was in constant pain and could no longer walk unaided. His empire was already shaking itself apart—the armies were in mutiny, the vast and arbitrary administrative “kingdoms” he’d cobbled together to replace the ones he’d overthrown were already at each other’s throats. The foundations were in place for the generations of chaos that followed. But Alexander still believed he was at the height of his powers. Even as he died he was insisting that newly conquered cities set up altars and worship him as a god, and he was dreaming of further exploration and war in the unknown depths of Asia. He was 33 years old.
Hitler made it to 56, having lived long enough to feel the terrors of approaching death and irrecoverable loss. Even though he controlled as much of the earth’s surface as anyone since Alexander, his own interior vistas were dissolving into torment. During the last winter of the war he confided to one of his doctors the new vision that had come to haunt his insomniac nights. He could no longer drift off to sleep by musing on imaginary architectural plans or intricate patterns of global reorganization. Even the surging triumph of the Teutonic tribes had faded away. Instead a single image burned unceasingly against the darkness of his bedroom ceiling. It was the situation map for the Battle of Stalingrad, displaying the exact positions of the German forces at the moment they were engulfed.
Long after the war John Keegan, who’d been evacuated with his family from London to the quiet depths of the English countryside, recalled a particular night when he was ten years old. “The sky over our house began to fill with the sound of aircraft, which swelled until it overflowed the darkness from edge to edge. Its first tremors had taken my parents into the garden, and as the roar grew I followed and stood between them to gaze awestruck at the constellations of red, green and yellow lights which rode across the heavens and streamed southward towards the sea….It seemed as if every aircraft in the world was in flight, as wave after wave followed without intermission.”
It was the night of June 5, 1944. Twelve thousand planes were rising from airfields all across England and roaring into the darkness over Europe. The next day Keegan’s family listened as the BBC repeated over and over an austere news bulletin: “Early this morning units of the Allied armies began landing on the coast of France.”
Two days later Ernie Pyle wandered along that coast. The front line of the invasion was now several miles inland. The choppy channel waters off the coast were jammed with hundreds of ships; squadrons of bombers were still thundering from England toward targets deep in the French interior; thousands of troops were splashing onto the sands in interminable snaking processions. But Pyle ignored all that. He was spellbound by the wreckage that had been left behind along the shoreline. As far as he could see in either direction was a landscape of ruined metal: blasted trucks and tanks half sunk in the water, fire-gutted jeeps, collapsed derricks on caterpillar treads, smashed bulldozers, shredded mine detectors, immense rolls of unused barbed wire, mountains of discarded lifebelts, and “half-tracks carrying office equipment that had been made into a shambles by a single shell hit, their interiors still holding their useless equipage of smashed typewriters, telephones, office files”—on and on for miles, the flotsam of a mechanical tidal wave. Then there were the floes of litter left by the dead—packs and cigarette cartons, letters from home, bloody, discarded shoes. Pyle even found a tennis racket: “It sits lonesomely on the sand, clamped in its rack, not a string broken.” It was as though the earth itself had shifted, and all the detritus of an empire had washed ashore.
The Allied Expeditionary Force was on the ground in Europe at last. The great invasion had achieved its first goal. But there soon appeared a nightmarish problem that nobody had expected, one that threatened to destroy the invasion almost as soon as it began. Even as Pyle ambled along the shoreline, the immense movement of the troops inland was foundering.
The American planners looking at reconnaissance photographs had been fooled into thinking that the landscape of Normandy was like the countryside back home: meadows and forests and rolling hills that an army could flow across like an armada of summer clouds. But the bocage country of Normandy is thick with history like nothing in America. It’s an ingrown maze, a tangle of pieced fields crisscrossed by hedgerows that have been knotting into place for centuries. Many of the hedgerows are ten-foot-thick dikes of ancient interwoven roots and impacted earth that couldn’t be punctured by the heaviest tanks. It would take weeks for the Allied troops to force their way across a zone they thought they’d clear in a couple of days. They had to cut forward field by field, an acre at a time, while mountains of supplies and oceans of reinforcements piled up in the thin strip of liberated territory behind them and the open land where they could maneuver waited far ahead, in the remote hills edging the horizon.
Not until after midsummer did the forward units break through the last hedgerows. Then the pent-up mass of the army flooded the rural provinces of northwestern France. And at last they arrived at the big event—the moment the Allies had been planning for and dreading since the beginning of the war: an encounter with the main strength of the German army.
The decisive battle unfolded in the middle of August. The Germans launched a major offensive to break apart the Allied armies and force them back toward the English Channel. Twenty German divisions raced forward into the Allied lines in the wooded countryside south of the small town of Falaise. It was a large-scale version of the blitzkrieg attack that had terrorized and stampeded whole armies in the early days of the war. But the Allies were expecting the blitzkrieg, and they’d had years to work out the correct tactical response. The “Falaise pocket,” they called it afterward. The Allied army allowed the forward wedge of panzers to penetrate the lines, then made a flanking attack and encircled them from the rear. Then Allied barrages opened up from all sides, and massed air force squadrons swept overhead and bombed at will. The Germans were trapped in the pocket for more than a week. Their best panzer divisions were torn to pieces. Only a death stand by a lone division of Hitler Youth held open a gap in the rapidly tightening lines long enough for the remnants of the forces to make a frantic escape.
That was the end of the greatest myth of the war: the invincibility of the German army. Overnight the blitzkrieg had been made obsolete. It was now just another classroom exercise at the world’s military schools, an object lesson in the dangers of leaving your flanks exposed. The last and greatest blitzkrieg had brought the Wehrmacht itself to the brink of ruin. More than 200,000 German soldiers were killed, wounded, or captured; whole divisions had been annihilated, and their scattered survivors were left to regroup behind new defensive lines far to the east. What had happened to their ferocity, their savagery, their stony Aryan pride? The Allies found the answer when they advanced into the emptying pocket. The fields and back roads around Falaise were littered with thousands of tanks and heavy artillery pieces. Some of them had been wrecked; most had simply been abandoned. Outmaneuvered by an army that Nazi propaganda was even then calling “mongrel” and “mulatto,” the soldiers of the Wehrmacht had thrown down their weapons and run away.
Meanwhile, more than a thousand miles to the east, the Red Army was launching its own big offensive. Two weeks after the first wave of Allied invaders came ashore at Normandy a gigantic Soviet force crashed down on the German positions in Belorussia. The German soldiers there were already exhausted, their supplies were chronically low, and their faith in their cause was dwindling—the result of having spent three years in a nightmarish stalemate with an enemy their commanders had too often told them was on the verge of surrender. The overwhelming attack caught them completely by surprise, and they were routed. Within weeks the battle line that had been writhing across the immensity of Russia for the last three years was torn apart; hundreds of thousands of German soldiers were falling back to the west, and the Red Army was pouring by the millions through the disintegrating front.
So that was the result of the Allies’ grand invasion plan: after all those years of delays and equivocations and false hopes and murderously bungled diversions it had in the end gone just the way it was supposed to. The Allies had confronted the most fearsome army in history and had broken it in battle. The Greater Reich was falling apart, its troops in retreat all across Europe. And with Germany gone, Japan couldn’t hope to stand up to the world alone. The war was won.
As the news of the victories in Europe spread, a mood of jubilation broke out among the Allied nations. For the first time newspapers in America and Britain predicted the imminent surrender of the Axis. People made bets about whether the war could last till Labor Day, Thanksgiving at the latest. In anticipation of the end, the American government announced that food and gas rationing were being suspended. The word was everywhere: our boys will be home by Christmas.
Every day the war persisted after that became a puzzle, and then an agony. As Martha Gellhorn wrote that September, “It is awful to die when you know the war is won anyhow….Every man dead is a greater sorrow because the end of all this tragic dying is so near.” But how near? Into the fall, news continued to arrive of battles and large-scale counterattacks all over Europe. Meanwhile, the Allied forces in the Pacific were just beginning to position themselves for the invasion of the Philippines, with their ultimate goal, the Japanese home islands, still thousands of miles away. And no rumors were circulating, on or off the record, of Axis offers of surrender. The war was won, but it was mysteriously accelerating into fresh violence by the day.
The Allied commanders in northern Europe were still sure that victory was within reach. It was true that German forces were fighting everywhere with savage tenacity. But the Allied hold on the continent was daily growing stronger, the networks of resupply and reinforcement were jelling, and the battle lines were pushing inexorably toward the old borders of Germany. And yet the Allies still hadn’t crossed the Rhine. By the beginning of winter their armies were only beginning to move through eastern France and Belgium, gradually unfolding, like a river slipping past a rock, around the immense forests of the Ardennes. And that was where, in the middle of December, they met what one reporter on the scene called “the most frightening, unbelievable experience of the war.”
The German army had been building up its strongest forces for a counterattack. For months in the remote wooded valleys of the Ardennes—the last surviving old-growth forests in Europe—hidden from Allied reconnaissance flights by the dense tree cover and the perpetual fog of late autumn, thousands of tanks and hundreds of thousands of troops had been massing. The Allies suspected nothing; their lines along the western fringes of the Ardennes were lightly manned and casually patrolled. No one in the command hierarchy even realized what was happening when the first reports began filtering in on December 16 of mysterious movements in the deep reaches of the forests. Then Allied forward positions began receiving furious barrages. German tank battalions came rumbling out of the snow-buried valleys to shatter the thin Allied lines. Gradually the Allied commanders began to understand that the German army had come roaring forward with a major new offensive.
The weeks that followed were a nightmare. German divisions broke through all along the front in Belgium and northern France. Allied positions were wiped out, and the troops fell back in panic. As the German forces advanced west the weather turned foul, and Allied troops trying to pull together new lines found themselves baffled by heavy snows that buried the roads and obliterated the few landmarks. The fog and snowstorms shrouding the interior of the forests made reconnaissance and bombardment behind the lines impossible. The troops on the ground were left to wander through the interminable woods or hole up in the charred wreckage of evacuated villages while the storms worsened, the temperature dropped, and blizzard winds reduced visibility to zero. Everywhere, in uncertain vistas of ground fog, among the countless tapered pillars of snow-heavy pine trees, they saw sinister movement: endless lines of advancing German soldiers, wraithlike in their white winter camouflage gear; thundering herds of tanks; booming artillery pieces scattering torrents of snow and slush; and mist dissolving in swirls around the burning hulks of trucks left behind as the long, straggling convoys of Allied soldiers retreated.
The troops called it the Battle of the Bulge, after the way the front bulged so alarmingly to the west. It’s counted in the history books as an Allied victory. The way the story is usually told, after a brief period when the Allies were forced to pull back they reorganized and by the middle of January had recaptured all the territory they’d lost. The invasion of Germany was staved off for only a few negligible weeks. But for a lot of people, soldiers and civilians, the Battle of the Bulge was the moment they finally lost hope. The size and ferocity of the attack meant that the Germans had no intention of ever giving up. The war was simply going to go on, from horror to horror, into the indefinite future. The year of the great Allied victories wouldn’t end with tender holiday homecomings or triumphant parades, but with Americans soldiers dying by the thousands in the snowbound forests of Europe. On Christmas Day American medics were learning how to thaw out frozen bottles of blood plasma by warming them on the engine of a jeep.
Back when the forest still stretched in an unbroken expanse from Scandinavia to the Urals, the Vikings who inhabited its northernmost reaches wrote down their own stories about war. Their legends may have been garish fantasies—cursed rings and enchanted gold and dragon slayers and the fall of the realm of the gods—but when they wrote about battle, they were unsparingly exact. Their sagas still offer the subtlest and most rigorous accounts of the unique psychology of combat. The anonymous authors knew that the experience of being on a battlefield is fundamentally different from everything else in life. It simply can’t be described with ordinary words, so they devised a specialized Old Norse vocabulary to handle it. Some of their terms will do perfectly well for a world war fought a thousand years later.
The Vikings knew, for instance, that prolonged exposure to combat can goad some men into a state of uncontrolled psychic fury. They might be the most placid men in the world in peacetime, but on the battlefield they begin to act with the most inexplicable and gratuitous cruelty. They become convinced that they’re invincible, above all rules and restraints, literally transformed into supermen or werewolves. The Vikings called such men “berserkers.” World War II was filled with instances of ordinary soldiers giving in to berserker behavior. In battle after battle soldiers on all sides were observed killing wantonly and indiscriminately, defying all orders to stop, in a kind of collective blood rage. The Axis powers actually sanctioned and encouraged berserkers among their troops, but they were found in every army, even among those that emphasized discipline and humane conduct. American marines in the Pacific became notorious for their berserker mentality, particularly their profound lack of interest in taking prisoners. Eugene Sledge once saw a marine in a classic berserker state urinating into the open mouth of a dead Japanese soldier.
Another Viking term was “fey.” People now understand it to mean effeminate. Previously it meant odd, and before that uncanny, fairylike. That was back when fairyland was the most sinister place people could imagine. The Old Norse word meant “doomed.” It was used to refer to an eerie mood that would come over people in battle, a kind of transcendent despair. The state was described vividly by an American reporter, Tom Lea, in the midst of the desperate Battle of Peleliu in the South Pacific. He felt something inside of himself, some instinctive psychic urge to keep himself alive, finally collapse at the sight of one more dead soldier in the ruins of a tropical jungle: “He seemed so quiet and empty and past all the small things a man could love or hate. I suddenly knew I no longer had to defend my beating heart against the stillness of death. There was no defense.”
There was no defense—that’s fey. People go through battle willing the bullet to miss, the shelling to stop, the heart to go on beating—and then they feel something in their soul surrender, and they give in to everything they’ve been most afraid of. It’s like a glimpse of eternity. Whether the battle is lost or won, it will never end; it has wholly taken over the soul. Sometimes men say afterward that the most terrifying moment of any battle is seeing a fey look on the faces of the soldiers standing next to them.
But the fey becomes accessible to civilians in a war too—if the war goes on long enough and its psychic effects become sufficiently pervasive. World War II went on so long that both soldiers and civilians began to think of feyness as a universal condition. They surrendered to that eternity of dread: the inevitable, shattering resumption of an artillery barrage; the implacable cruelty of an occupying army; the panic, never to be overcome despite a thousand false alarms, at an unexpected knock on the door, or a telegram, or the sight out the front window of an unfamiliar car pulling to a halt. They got so used to the war they reached a state of acquiescence, certain they wouldn’t stop being scared until they were dead.
It was in a fey mood that, in the depths of the German invasion, Russian literary scholar Mikhail Bakhtin took the only copy of his life’s work, a study of Goethe, and ripped it up, page by page and day by day, for that unobtainable commodity, cigarette paper. It was because feyness poisons ordinary life that British writer Walter de la Mare could in 1943 begin a poem about the English countryside with the line “No, they are only birds” and not bother to say what he’d first thought they were. Everyone knew; they had learned the reflex of sudden terror, followed by infinite relief, triggered by the sight of small black forms moving quickly against a bright sky. And it was out of a fey despair that French composer Olivier Messiaen, while in a POW camp, wrote a work that may best define the war’s particular horror. He scored it for the only instruments available—two violins, a clarinet, and a battered upright piano—and it received its world premiere before an audience of prisoners (the most attentive and respectful audience Messiaen said he’d ever had). It isn’t a composition filled with nostalgia for what the war had destroyed or hope for what might survive; it gravely moves from bizarre turbulence to an agonized stillness, a prayer for relief from life and the cruelty of hope. Quatour pour la fin du temps, he called it, “Quartet for the End of Time.”
Feyness might also explain the deepest mystery of the war: why the surrender everybody expected never came. The Germans and Japanese refused to surrender even though they knew the war was lost.
It’s possible to quibble about the exact point at which the war was decided: Midway, Stalingrad, Falaise, Okinawa. In one sense, of course, the Axis never had any real hope of winning, because their whole strategy depended on a hopelessly idealized assessment of their chances. In effect, they’d convinced themselves that they were bound to win because their enemies would never fight back. The Americans would surrender after Pearl Harbor, the Soviet Union would crumble as soon as German troops crossed the border—the whole world would bow down before their inherent racial superiority. But by some unmistakable point—the autumn of 1942 at the latest—they should have understood that they’d been wrong and that their prospects for long-term victory were inexorably zeroing out. They still had the economic and military strength to sustain their armies in the field indefinitely, no matter how grim the strategic situation became, but by any rational calculation of the odds, they should have begun hinting through backwater diplomatic channels that they were willing to negotiate a cease-fire. Neither Germany nor Japan ever did so. Not until the last days of the war did either government even begin to consider the possibility of a negotiated settlement—not until they had absolutely nothing left to negotiate with.
But then, that’s the point. A rational calculation of the odds is a calculation by the logic of peace. War has a different logic. A kind of vast feyness can infect a military bureaucracy when it’s losing a war, a collective slippage of the sense of objective truth in the face of approaching disaster. In the later years of World War II the bureaucracies of the Axis—partially in Germany, almost wholly in Japan—gave up any pretense of realism about their situation. Their armies were fighting all over the world with desperate berserker fury, savagely contesting every inch of terrain, hurling countless suicide raids against Allied battalions (kamikaze attacks on American ships at Okinawa came in waves of a hundred planes at a time)—while the bureaucrats behind the lines gradually retreated into a dreamy paper war where they were on the brink of a triumphant reversal of fortune.
They had the evidence. Officers in the field, unable to face or admit the imminence of defeat, routinely submitted false reports up the chain of command. Commanders up the line were increasingly prone to believe them, or to pretend to believe them. And so, as the final catastrophe approached, strategists in both Berlin and Tokyo could be heard solemnly discussing the immense weight of paper that documented the latest round of imaginary victories, the long-overrun positions that they still claimed to hold, and the Allied armies and fleets that had just been conclusively destroyed—even though the real-world Allied equivalents had crashed through the lines and were advancing toward the homeland.
Not everybody succumbed to these fantasies. But another, even stronger pressure worked against those who understood how hopeless the situation really was: they knew that defeat meant accountability.
The consequences of the Axis commitment to total war were becoming inescapable. This was particularly true in Germany; the Japanese people never learned much about the appalling behavior of their armies. But the real purpose of the concentration camps had seeped through the Nazi bureaucracy and into Germany’s civilian world through a million rumors and confessions. Tens of thousands of people were directly involved in the administration of the camp system; countless others knew or had guessed the truth. All of them had a reasonably good idea what would happen to them if they were ever forced to answer for what they’d done.
In the last years of the war, as Hitler’s effective hold on power waned, contradictory orders about the camps began flying from different factions in the Nazi bureaucracy. The administrators and guards were told to begin treating the surviving prisoners decently, in the strange hope that this might buy their silence; then they were told to speed up the exterminations to obliterate the evidence. The latter faction won, but the truth was that neither course could have changed their fate. Even if they’d somehow succeeded in erasing the camps from history, they had too many other crimes to explain away. Of particular and growing concern were those millions of Soviet soldiers who’d been so casually murdered during the early months of the invasion—because the Red Army was now advancing across the ruins of eastern Europe to take revenge.
So while their colleagues fell into daydreams of imminent victory, the few remaining rational men of the Axis bureaucracy grew just as convinced that surrender to the Allies on any terms was tantamount to suicide. As far as they were concerned, every additional day the war lasted—no matter how pointless, no matter how phantasmal the hope of victory, no matter how desperate and horrible the conditions on the battlefield—was another day of judgment successfully deferred.
This is the dreadful logic that comes to control a lot of wars. (The American Civil War is another example.) The losers prolong their agony as much as possible, because they’re convinced the alternative is worse. Meanwhile the winners, who might earlier have accepted a compromise peace, become so maddened by the refusal of their enemies to stop fighting that they see no reason to settle for anything less than absolute victory. In this sense the later course of World War II was typical: it kept on escalating, no matter what the strategic situation was, and it grew progressively more violent and uncontrollable long after the outcome was a foregone conclusion. The difference was that no other war had ever had such deep reserves of violence to draw upon.
The Vikings would have understood it anyway. They didn’t have a word for the prolongation of war long past any rational goal—they just knew that’s what always happened. It’s the subject of their longest and greatest saga, the Brennu-njalasaga, or The Saga of Njal Burned Alive. The saga describes a trivial feud in backcountry Iceland that keeps escalating for reasons nobody can understand or resolve until it engulfs the whole of northern Europe. Provocation after fresh provocation, peace conference after failed peace conference, it has its own momentum, like a hurricane of carnage. The wise and farseeing hero Njal, who has never met the original feuders and has no idea what their quarrel was about, ultimately meets his appalling death (the Vikings thought there was nothing worse than being burned alive) as part of a chain of ever-larger catastrophes that he can tell is building but is helpless to stop—a fate that seems in the end to be as inevitable as it is inexplicable.
For the Vikings, this was the essence of war: it’s a mystery that comes out of nowhere and grows for reasons nobody can control, until it shakes the whole world apart. Njal’s saga ends with a vision of war as the underlying horror of the world, always waiting underneath the frail mirage of peace. In a final dream image, spectral women are seen working an occult and horrible loom: “Men’s heads were used in place of weights, and men’s intestines for the weft and warp; a sword served as the beater, and the shuttle was an arrow. And these were the words the women were chanting:
From the cloudy web
On the broad loom
The web of man
Gray as armor
Is being woven.”
This is as good a description as is available for the course of World War II from the fall of 1944 on—after the Allies at last acknowledged that, despite the decisive battles of the previous summer, the Axis was never going to surrender. That was when the Allies changed their strategy. They set out to make an Axis surrender irrelevant.
From that winter into the next spring the civilians of Germany and Japan were helpless before a new Allied campaign of systematic aerial bombardment. The air forces and air defense systems of the Axis were in ruins by then. Allied planes flew where they pleased, day or night—500 at a time, then 1,000 at a time, indiscriminately dumping avalanches of bombs on every city and town in Axis territory that had a military installation or a railroad yard or a factory. By the end of the winter most of Germany’s industrial base had been bombed repeatedly in saturation attacks; by the end of the following spring Allied firebombing raids had burned more than 60 percent of Japan’s urban surface area to the ground.
There was no precedent even in this war for destruction on so ferocious a scale. It was the largest berserker rage in history. The Allies routinely dropped incendiary bombs in such great numbers that they created firestorms in cities throughout the Axis countries. These weren’t simply large fires. A true firestorm is a freak event, where a large central core of flame heats up explosively to more than 1,500 degrees, and everything within it goes up by spontaneous combustion—buildings erupt, the water boils out of rivers and canals, and the asphalt in the pavement ignites. Immense intake vortices spring up around the core and begin sucking in oxygen from the surrounding atmosphere at hurricane speeds. The Allied raids reduced cities in minutes to miles of smoldering debris. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed—about 20 percent of them children. Tens of thousands suffocated, because in the area around a firestorm there’s no oxygen left to breathe.
Such was the discipline of the Axis armies that they went on fighting even in the midst of these cataclysms. But the homelands they were defending disintegrated into anarchy and rubble. Tens of millions of Germans and Japanese were driven from the wreckage of their homes to join the hundreds of millions of people already flooding the roads of Europe and Asia. They were seen everywhere, trudging away from smoking villages and along the ruined autobahns, across cratered fields and through burned forests. “DPs,” they were called, displaced persons: interminable lines of refugees carrying a few possessions (a bag of tools, a handful of books, a house cat, a crying baby) in an anonymous stream. Amid the chaotic flux of collapsing empires, no one could sort out what side the latest flood of DPs had been on or where they wanted to go now; their movements were as unpredictable as tidal waves. Millions of Japanese came pouring back into the home islands from the dwindling fringes of the “coprosperity sphere,” but there was nowhere to house them, with so many millions already on the streets because of the firebombings. In the eastern provinces of Germany a wave of terror and panic spread through the population as the Red Army at last approached. Overnight more than ten million people bolted for the west, abandoning land that had been cultivated and treasured by Germans for more than a thousand years, since before the time of Die Meistersinger, since before an anonymous poet in a royal court had first written down the legends of the Nibelung’s ring. Not everyone joined the stampede, but those who stayed to protect their homes learned that their worst fears had been wholly justified. The Red Army murdered more than a million civilians in the eastern provinces of Germany as it marched toward Berlin.
Meanwhile the crimes the Axis had so long fought to conceal were coming to light. Every day brought news of some large-scale atrocity or revealed years of bottomless despair—even now, historians examining newly discovered archives are finding evidence that the Axis occupation was much worse than had been previously imagined. When the three-year siege of Leningrad was at last broken, it was learned that more than a million people had died of starvation; they’d killed their house pets for food, and before the end there were pervasive rumors of cannibalism. The collapse of the Japanese empire revealed famine throughout China; more than ten million people in provinces once controlled by the Japanese were dying or dead. And in April 1945 the line of German defenses finally shrank back far enough that the death camps were discovered by Allied troops. “A crime beyond the imagination of man,” the first news reports called it. People who thought they’d been permanently numbed to horror found they were wrong.
But by then the Holocaust seemed almost lost in the universal destruction. The deaths are still being counted. In the decades after the war it was believed that between 15 million and 20 million people had died in the war, but historians now believe the real number was at least three times higher, and some recent estimates (based on studies of newly declassified archives in Russia and China) put the total at close to 75 million. The extent of the material damage was incalculable. The civilian economies of Europe and Asia were a shambles. Most industries not related to war production had been shut down or destroyed outright. Basic commodities were unobtainable, even on the black market. Roads and bridges throughout two continents had been blown up, ports had been wrecked, and commercial shipping had stopped. The submarine war had sent rivers of oil into the ocean—a torrent that made the great postwar spills look like irrelevant trickles; oil from torpedoed tankers was washing up on beaches all over the world. Nobody knew enough to care about environmental damage in those days; what mattered to them was that their essential fuel source had become as rare as gold. The unavailability of fuel was what finally broke the last German armies still fighting in the field. The Japanese government, its supply of oil cut off, had ordered civilians to dig up every pine tree on the home islands so that a synthetic oil could be distilled from the roots (it didn’t work).
Food too was desperately scarce—not only because the armies had commandeered so much of the supply, but because the war had ruined agricultural production in much of the world. There had been rationing for years on all sides. “Hitler butter” was what the Germans had called their foul-smelling margarine substitute, the only kind available; the British had learned to expect the promising-looking morsels of beef in their stew to have the unique, disgustingly sweet taste of horse meat. But even these delicacies vanished in the war’s final fury. Hundreds of millions of acres of farmland were left fallow or destroyed by the movement of the combat zones. Countless herds died of starvation, were slaughtered by troops for food, or were killed by the universal, indiscriminate shelling. With no safe transport, thousands of tons of fresh fruits and vegetables were left unharvested or rotted in the warehouses of blockaded ports. The standard food ration in Japan fell far below the subsistence level, and in Europe fresh meat and fruit, when they could be had at all, were found only in the black markets—which were officially discouraged but universally tolerated because they helped stave off the growing threat of famine.
Even in America, which had been the least damaged of any combatant nation, the final year of the war at last eroded the basic textures of life. Rationing, after that giddy summer of expectancy was over, was reimposed more stringently than before. The black market dried up, and beef was scarce for the first time since the war began. There was a serious shortage of heating oil by the end of the year, in the middle of the coldest winter in a decade. Blackouts were still in effect on both coasts, and to conserve fuel the government ordered brownouts in midwestern cities—all businesses were to close at dusk. For the first time since the war began the lights of Chicago, like those of all the major cities of the Northern Hemisphere, went dark.
There was a sentimental song popular in those days:
When the lights go on again
All over the world
And the ships will sail again
All over the world
And rain or snow is all
That may fall from the skies above,
A kiss won’t mean “Goodbye”
But “Hello” to love.
Behind the song was one of the last illusions of peace still left in the war: that it would be over and everything would go back to the way it was before. The blackouts would end, people could travel without fear, and love might once again be something more than a hurried honeymoon before a permanent parting.
But how could that happen? In Njal’s saga the war’s end comes only through divine intervention; the two leaders of the last feuding factions reconcile after they’re both converted to Christianity. They meet by chance in the middle of a blizzard and, as a mutual test of their newfound faith, one wordlessly offers shelter for the night, and the other accepts. As they sit silently in the hall before the fire, neither willing to make any overt sign of peace, they realize that their feud has already ended. It has somehow passed from their world as mysteriously as it came, the way a storm will pass by morning.
World War II had no such ethereal close. Even as the two fronts of the European war came together, covering the whole of Germany like a shroud, and as the line of battle moved past the ruins of the Philippines and at last approached the Japanese home islands, the savagery of battle was still accelerating. It would soon reach a point that the Vikings in their deepest trance of berserker destructiveness could not have envisioned.
It was just another secret of the war. We forget now just how pervasive the atmosphere of classified activity was, but there was hardly anybody, in all of the war’s military bureaucracies, who could honestly claim to know everything that was going on. The best information—whole Mississippis of debriefings and intelligence assessments and field reports and rumors—went up the line and vanished. And what returned, from some unimaginable bureaucratic firmament, were orders—taciturn, uncommunicative instructions, raining down ceaselessly, specifying mysterious troop movements, baffling supply requisitions, unexplained production quotas, and senseless rationing goals. Everywhere were odd networks of power and covert channels of communication. No matter how well placed you were, you were still excluded from incessant meetings, streams of memos were routed around your office, old friends grew vague when you asked what department they worked in (a “special” department, they always said—nobody liked coming out and saying “secret”). Everybody was doing something hush-hush; nobody blinked at the most imponderable mysteries.
So there was barely a ripple when, in the spring of 1943, all the leading physicists in America disappeared. Overnight their offices were closed up, their colleagues professed ignorance, the deans of their colleges dismissed all inquiries with a bland shrug. There was a rumor of course: they had been summoned to some kind of base in the southwest, one of those military installations so classified that nobody who went in ever came out. But you were an insider beyond inside if you so much as knew the code name for the base—though it was as blankly uninformative as all of the war’s code names. It was just a phrase that might turn up inadvertently in a classified budget paper, or on some requisition form for scientific equipment, or at the bottom of a routing order for an enigmatic load of ore; something new was needed by “the Manhattan district.”
What was it about? Nobody could say. It was obviously a radical new research project of some kind or another. But there were countless projects just like it; every side was after a superweapon, and every rumor of a superweapon on the other side had to be countered by a desperate race for its match. Weird new gadgetry was introduced in almost every campaign. This was the first war where troops in the field carried portable radio transmitters and receivers, the first where air forces attempted precision bombing, the first with jet engines (in prototype), the first with napalm. The British had begun the war by stringing their coasts with a new device they thought would make them invulnerable to enemy bombers—radar. At the end the Germans were hoping for a last-minute reversal with their own astonishing invention—the ballistic missile. And all sides were obsessed with SIGINT—signals intelligence, the encrypted electronic messages weaving through the battlefields and up the hierarchies of command. Axis secrets were being revealed not by spies or resistance groups (despite their popularity in Hollywood, they’d proved largely useless in the high-tech environment of the war), but by another new ultrasecret gadget: the electronic computer.
In this sense the Manhattan project was unremarkable. Maybe it was more ruinously expensive than any of the other projects, but it was just as speculative. The only thing that made it noticeable to the cognoscenti was that it didn’t produce any results. Month after month, year after year there was silence from that base in the desert. Maybe what they were after was impossible—after all, the project had been funded in the first place only because of frantic rumors early in the war that Nazi scientists were conducting similar experiments, and the Allies had since learned that the Nazis had dropped the idea as too difficult and improbable. But the U.S. project had its own momentum. By the summer of 1945 the Nazis had fallen, Europe was securely under martial law, and Hitler was missing and presumed dead somewhere in the wreckage of Berlin—only then did the Manhattan scientists inform their superiors that they were ready to test their weapon for the first time. If the war had been over by then the test might never have happened.
But the Japanese still hadn’t surrendered. It seems obvious now that they must have been about to—their situation was hopeless, and they couldn’t have endured the overwhelming fury of the American firebombing raids much longer. But the Americans didn’t see it that way. The logic of the war had taught them to expect the exact opposite. Japanese soldiers had routinely responded to hopeless situations by fighting to the death and to the last man, and Japanese civilians throughout the Pacific had typically committed mass suicide rather than allow themselves to be captured. Their resistance had grown exponentially as the Americans approached the home islands. Why should anybody think it would break down now?
The Americans still believed there was only one way they could put an end to the war: invade Japan and depose the emperor. Throughout the summer of 1945 they worked out the details. It would be a two-front invasion, like the one in Europe. The Soviet army, already massing on the Manchurian border, would in late summer move overland to the Chinese coast. The American forces, greatly augmented by the armies about to be transferred from Europe, would land on the southernmost of the home islands, Kyushu, and island-hop toward Tokyo. The American landing was scheduled for November 1, with the Russian landing to follow, and the whole campaign was expected to last through the following spring. Everybody knew it was going to be a nightmare—maybe the single most violent campaign of the war. The figure floating around the American planning sessions was one million Allied casualties. That seems preposterously high, but the planners were still in shock over casualty figures from battles like Okinawa; Truman himself said that the invasion was likely to be Okinawa from one end of Japan to the other. Japanese casualties, if the same ratios held, would be in the millions.
It was in the midst of these desolate calculations that the news arrived that the Manhattan device had been successfully detonated in the deserts of New Mexico. What can we fairly say about what happened next? Senior American decision makers knew that they’d just been handed an extraordinarily destructive new weapon, one that could kill tens of thousands of people instantly. It seems impossible to believe that this didn’t faze them—but why should it have? Tens of millions of people had already died, a significant percentage of them as the direct result of American action; one or two atomic bombs wouldn’t grossly alter that total. A firebombing raid in Tokyo that past April had killed more than 200,000 people, twice the number who would die at Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined, and nobody afterward used words like “war crime” or “genocide” to describe it.
But weren’t they told about the nightmarish effects of the new bomb? Probably. At the least, the Manhattan scientists knew that radiation sickness would be a horrible way to die. But again, what difference would that have made? We forget just how many horrible ways to die the war had already created. Any visitor to a burn unit could see torments that made hell a redundant concept. There was no sense that the bomb was worse than any other weapon of the war. And the long-range consequences, the generations of genetic damage they were about to visit upon their victims? Not discussed, too speculative.
It has to be remembered that few of the scientific breakthroughs of the war had yet made an impact on the civilian world, even the civilian world in Washington. Troops in the field were contending daily with radical innovations in electronics and medicine; the folks back home were living as they always had, in a world of glacial technological change. Less than half the households in America had been wired for phone service, and the government was still underwriting rural electrification projects to bring the vast areas outside big cities onto the power grid. People thought theoretical physics was as as eccentric and harmless as the study of Egyptian hieroglyphics. The standing joke in those days was that only six people in the world could understand Einstein—the implication being that nobody else needed to.
So what it came down to was this: American planners didn’t understand and didn’t much care what the bomb did. They just wanted some big, nightmarish weapon that would break Japanese resistance once and for all—the bigger and the more nightmarish the better. And now they had it.
The timetable can be followed closely. The first test of the bomb was on July 16, 1945. The ultimatum to the Japanese—surrender or face “prompt and utter destruction” by a wholly unprecedented form of weaponry—was issued by the Americans on July 26. The Japanese rejected the ultimatum on July 28. The two bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9. They were dropped in close succession 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). The Japanese surrendered on August 10.
In other words, the war was ended by a weapon few had known existed less than a month before, and nobody at all had known would work. The Americans hadn’t talked through the implications of what they were doing because there wasn’t time. They had used it as soon as they knew they had it, and they had no thought other than to force the Japanese to surrender and avoid millions more deaths. It was, in a sense, an act of mercy.
But of all the words expended over Hiroshima in the last 50 years, that word “mercy” sounds the most obscene. Nobody who was in Hiroshima on August 6 ever thought of what happened then as merciful. One of the commonplaces of current discussion about the atomic bomb is that the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were wholly gratuitous. It’s taken for granted that the Americans knew the Japanese were about to surrender but rushed to use the bomb anyway. Why? The explanation offered by Gar Alperovitz’s recent, exhaustively prosecutorial study The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb is that the bombing had nothing to do with Japan; rather the Americans were already looking past the war to the new structure of power in the world and intended the bombing as the opening shot in the cold war with the Soviet Union. The writer of the catalog for the Smithsonian’s commemorative exhibit suggested that the reason was more ancient and primordial—it was a straight-line example of the basic white male lust for genocide; Hiroshima was bombed for the same reason the Indians were exterminated. Robert J. Lifton’s Hiroshima in America: Fifty Years of Denial is even more absolute in its assessment: the real reason was simply that Truman and his advisers were insane, evil men in love with death.
The reasons don’t actually matter much when the point is the outrage. But while it might be thought that these books are simply part of the standard line in popular history these days, in which the motives of any American government are invariably put in the worst possible light, the truth is that from the beginning people thought there was something strange and singular about the bombing of Hiroshima. Partly this was a kind of optical illusion induced by the visibility of what happened there; the images of the radiation victims circulated throughout the world, while the grisly sights from more conventional battlefields remained unseen. But there was also the overriding sense that this atrocity was beyond the limits of what victory should have cost. It was a kind of metaphysical event—it remade everybody’s sense of the war in a single subliminal flash of horror.
That’s the tacit point of the best book about the dropping of the atomic bombs—in fact, one of the few enduring classics of American journalism about the war: John Hersey’s Hiroshima. It was originally published in August 1946, on the first anniversary of the bombing. It holds up exceptionally well today. My respect for it was only increased by the way I’ve just reread it—after plowing through hundreds of pages of American wartime reporting (including several gung ho pieces by Hersey himself). It’s a genuine shock to see Hersey’s seven representative citizens of Hiroshima treated with such respect and compassion: “Mrs. Nakamura” and “Miss Sasaki” and “The Reverend Mr. Kyoshi Tanimoto” and the rest come off as figures of intricate humanity, compared to the caricatures of Nips and Japs that had infested American newspapers and magazines. In fact, the only difference Hersey finds between the Japanese and the Americans is that the Japanese are kinder and more courteous. They bore up under the nightmare of what happened to them on that August morning with a kind of bewildered decency well beyond the reach of the typical citizen of the heartland.
You can’t help but admire Hersey’s own evident decency, his determination to shake free of the hatreds of the war. On the other hand, there’s no denying that his vivid picture of Hiroshima before the bomb fell is essentially a work of fiction. It artfully thins out or omits altogether the hysteria and desperation that was sweeping Japan in the summer of 1945, as everyone awaited the inevitable American invasion. In the real Japan millions of schoolchildren were being instructed in how to kill American soldiers with sharpened bamboo sticks, and the propaganda machines were proclaiming that the Japanese people were ready as one to sacrifice themselves for their emperor. But in Hersey’s Hiroshima people are still going about their lives much as they always have, except for some vague “jitters,” some nagging “anxiety” about the prospect of an American air raid. His Hiroshima becomes the transfigured image of small-town America before Pearl Harbor.
But then Hersey sees no point in going into what the war might really have been like for his seven subjects. What did that matter? Whether they were proud or ashamed of Japan’s military conquests, whether they hated Americans and all other foreigners, whether they were contemptuous, curious, or had no opinion about the outside world—all of that had instantly been rendered irrelevant. It didn’t even matter what they thought about the atomic bomb itself; any mere attitudes for or against would have seemed like obscene distractions compared with the “soundless flash” that blasted their world into nightmare. “Shigata na gai,” Mrs. Nakamura says about what happened to her city that day; Hersey glosses: “A Japanese expression as common as, and corresponding to, the Russian word nichevo: It can’t be helped. Oh well. Too bad.”
Hersey doesn’t say so directly, but he appears on the surface to agree. He presents the bombing neutrally, without commentary, as though it’s a new species of natural disaster, motiveless and agentless. As far as any reader of Hiroshima can tell, the bomb came out of nowhere, was dropped by nobody, and had no purpose. This allows Hersey to avoid any explicit debate about the morality of dropping the bomb—which would just get in the way of his desire to record what it meant to the ordinary people who were its targets, rather than to the usual subjects of military history, the godlike decision makers who were safe from its effects on the other side of the world.
But this silence, deliberate or not, still amounts to a kind of debating position. Page after relentless page carefully and unhysterically records the grotesque damage done by the bomb—the radiation burns, the alien rot of radiation sickness—and as you read, an unambiguous message comes through: there’s no point talking about the reasons for the bombing because no reason could possibly be good enough. Victory in the war wasn’t worth such cruelty. The bomb should never have been dropped on Hiroshima.
It’s an argument that stands on the dividing line between two worlds, the world of the war and the world after. Hersey was one of the first to write out of a dawning sense that the dropping of the bomb wasn’t the culminating moment of the war—it was the point at which the war’s graph of escalating destructiveness finally went off the scale and rendered everything that had happened before trivial. He draws this moral with typically understated eloquence at the climax of his first chapter, when he recounts what happened to all his characters at the moment of detonation. Strangest of all, he says, was the fate of Miss Sasaki, who was hit by a falling bookcase in the reference library of the factory where she worked: “In the first moment of the atomic age, a human being was crushed by books.”
Well, what of it? All over Hiroshima people were at that moment being pummeled to death by erupting walls, boiled alive by hurricanes of steam, and flashed into nothingness in the glare of a thousand suns. Why does it seem so ironic to be struck by flying books? Because books stood for the past—they represented the whole of the dead weight of history and culture that had just been annihilated. The bomb wasn’t the end of the last war, but the beginning of the final war to come.
That may be why there’s something forced about Hersey’s compassion for his subjects. He hadn’t really surmounted the hatreds of the past decades; he was just so frightened he’d forgotten about them. The moment the bomb went off at Hiroshima, the unbridgeable cultural divisions between Japan and America were erased—not because their citizens attained some sort of reconciliation or higher understanding, but because they were both now part of the atomic age, where everybody on earth was a potential victim.
This was the deepest shock of the war: just how all-encompassingly destructive the new weapon really was. Hersey probably didn’t know it when he wrote—it wasn’t publically disclosed for years afterward—but the Manhattan scientists had warned their superiors that they weren’t absolutely sure what would happen when they set off the first bomb. They were reasonably confident of their predicted yield, but there was a chance—not a big chance, but it couldn’t be ruled out—that the reaction could grow hot enough to ignite the atmosphere. If that happened, then every living thing on earth would die in a single globe-encompassing firestorm. As it happened, of course, they were right about the odds: the fission bomb was nowhere near hot enough to trigger the runaway combustion of the atmosphere. But the basic issue remains unsettled to this day—and the impulse to push to the outer boundaries of destructiveness is as much with us now as it ever was. If a fission bomb wouldn’t do the trick, what about an exponentially more powerful fusion bomb? What about thousands of fusion bombs going off all at once? Would that finally be enough to unmake the foundations of the world?
Hersey was describing for the first time the war’s true legacy: a permanent condition of helpless anger and universal dread. Hiroshima was the end of the line for the archaic idea that war was something that soldiers did on battlefields, somewhere on the far side of the horizon. The great strategic breakthrough of the war had been the targeting of civilian populations with weapons of mass destruction—so that for the first time in history everybody, soldier and civilian alike, could share equally in the horror of battle. Now the postwar world was elevating this principle, making it the organizing fact of existence. After Hiroshima, Armageddon could erupt anytime, anywhere on earth, without warning, by accident. Even as people walked heedlessly in the streets, the bombs could be spiraling down from an invisible plane passing in the stratosphere; at dinnertime in the heartland, as the local news droned on about the Middle East, the missiles could already be arching over the north pole, like the ribs of a strange new cathedral.
I once saw it begin, about 20 years ago. One evening I was in the backseat of a car, gliding on a freeway out of Chicago, and I glanced out the rear window, my eye caught by an unusual bright light. There in the distance was a brilliant mushroom cloud opening up above the skyline of the city. I think it was the single worst moment of my life: I stared into that orange rose flare, that impossible death’s head, and prayed that it would vanish—and then grew sick with terror when I saw that it wasn’t going to. In just another instant, I knew, the first wave of the blast would arrive. The serene suburban landscape around me, twinkling in the evening air, would erupt into a million separate sites of wreckage. The trees would flash away, the houses would vanish, the cars around us would be hurled into the air and melted into an ocean of fire. It was, I realized in those last seconds left to me, what I’d been afraid of my entire life: that the war had never stopped, that it was still escalating to its inevitable end, that everything I’d ever known was a mirage floating in the accidental lull between the detonation over Hiroshima and the shock wave that at last swallowed up the world.
Then something changed. The car took a curve, and the land readjusted itself, as though shaking free of a bad thought. Everything was as it had been; the storm had passed over me and was gone. It was all foolishness anyway—what war could possibly reach the depths of the American heartland? The suburbs stretched out before the car, invincibly solid and inviting—an empire of timeless privacy, opening up for me as it always did, beneath the twilight. I turned back again to look at the city and watched the mushroom cloud float dreamily out of the orange smog that hovered along the skyline and turn into the harmless moon.
Whenever people talk about the meaning of history somebody brings up that old bromide from Santayana, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But that’s nonsense. The circumstances that created an event like World War II couldn’t be duplicated no matter how many millennia of amnesia intervened.
To the extent that the war had an intelligible cause, it was in the rancors left over from World War I, exacerbated by the Great Depression—and those rancors existed only because of decades of hatred and infighting among the colonial empires of the 19th century. But the brief dominion of the Japanese “coprosperity sphere” lasted just long enough to wreck the colonial system in Asia, and the final convulsion of war bankrupted all the great powers of Europe, leaving the former rulers of the world in abject poverty—food rationing in both Germany and England lasted well into the 1950s. The first new historical trend of the postwar era was the systematic shedding of colonial possessions, and the just-created nations were immediately absorbed into new alignments of power demanded by the triumphant global empires of the atom. The old architecture of the world devised by Europe was as harmless a memory as a dissipating storm front. Like most big events in history, World War II obliterated its own causes.
Then too, one of the core lessons of modern military theory is that wars are inherently unrepeatable. The technology changes too quickly, and the nature of war changes with it. Every big war since the time of Napoleon has been fought with radically new weaponry and tactics. The result is that all the cutting-edge strategies of total war that made World War II seem so unsurpassedly horrible, from blitzkriegs to saturation bombings, have long since been superseded. Military hardware is immeasurably more sophisticated now; the precision of the “smart bombs” used in the gulf war would have been unthinkable in World War II. During the last year of Allied air raids (by one postwar estimate) fewer than half the bombs intended for specific targets came within a half mile of them. And, of course, the advent of nuclear weapons has made any future large-scale massing of conventional armies—such as marked most wars up through World War II—improbable in the extreme. Worse things than World War II will no doubt happen to the world; genocide has become a routine instrument of policy in wars from Southeast Asia to the Balkans to central Africa. But the vast tidal movements of armies and the patient, systematic wrecking of whole continents are now part of the unrecoverable past. The Wehrmacht and the Allied Expeditionary Force are as obsolete as the Golden Horde.
Besides, even if we did want to follow Santayana’s advice and remember the war, how could we do it? Too much of its detail and complexity is already gone, even at this narrow distance. As Thomas Browne wrote, “There is no antidote to the opium of time.” The work of erasure goes on all around us, incessantly and inexorably; a million silent losses are obliterating the war. There are anecdotes people don’t tell anymore, movies nobody rents, archives no scholar investigates. There are warehouses of secret wartime documents still scattered in nondescript factory districts all over the world—stacks of debriefings from some nameless Pacific island that 50 years ago was swallowed up in an artillery barrage. No one will ever unearth them all and produce a final accounting of the war—any more than the world will finally achieve justice for the war’s innumerable, officially sanctioned crimes. Oblivion has always been the most trustworthy guardian of classified files.
But there is another and simpler reason the war has been forgotten: people wanted to forget it. It had gone on for so many years, had destroyed so much, had killed so many—most U.S. casualties were in the final year of fighting. When it came to an end, people were glad to be rid of everything about it. That was what surprised commentators about the public reaction in America and Europe when the news broke that Germany and then Japan had at last surrendered. In the wild celebrations that followed nobody crowed, “Our enemies are destroyed.” Nobody even yelled, “We’ve won.” What they all said instead was, “The war is over.”
That was the message that flashed around the world in the summer of 1945: the war is over, the war is over. Huge cheering crowds greeted the announcement in cities across America and Europe. A spectacular clamor of church bells rang out across the heartland. Wails of car horns and sirens soared up from isolated desert towns, mystifying travelers who’d been on the road all night and hadn’t heard the news. People pounded on doors in hushed apartment buildings, they came out from their houses and laughed and cheered and hugged one another, they swarmed in the streets all through the summer night telling strangers how frightened they’d been and how glad they were it had finally ended. No one could stop talking; every new face that appeared in the crowd was an excuse to ask if they’d heard and then start telling their stories all over again.
As the darkness of the night settled in, they began turning on the lights the way they hadn’t done in years. Above the streets people in high windows ripped down their blackout curtains with exaggerated gestures of disgust, the crowds cheering them on. They tore the masks off their car headlights, and the streets suddenly danced with countless crazy shadows. In great glowing cliffs, the skylines of the cities switched blazingly to life. Unnoticed at the fringes of the crowds, the people who’d spent the war in windowless government rooms ordering blackouts and rationings drifted out, for just a little while, to enjoy the luminous summer air. And everywhere were amazed children, some carried in their parents’ arms, all staring in wonderment at the brilliance and fearlessness of the night and at the way the faces of grown-ups all around them were suddenly lit up with joy. Some had spent all of their lives within the shadow of this mysterious oppression, the war, and now it was miraculously gone—and it was as though they were seeing for the first time what the world was supposed to look like.
But if we remember this, we have to remember that one group didn’t cheer along with the rest: the soldiers in the battle zones. They were too astonished. They’d had no inkling that the war was so close to its end. Up until the last moment, the armies of the Allies believed that the war was still only half over—because after the defeat of Germany the invasion of Japan was still to come. The troops in Europe were preparing to be shipped to the other side of the world, while the troops already in the Pacific were waiting on their island bases for the immense mustering of forces to begin. Instead, without a word of warning, their commanders one August day gathered them in formation and announced that the war was over and they could go home.
Some of them did celebrate, and some prayed. But many just sat down where they were and stared in disbelief. On battle lines and in evac hospitals, in construction battalions and naval convoys, they all felt that same shocking hush, that stunning worldwide silence. It was over. The barrages had stopped, the planes would stay motionless on the airfields, the tanks could be allowed to freeze in place like ancient monuments. It was over. That endless, tormenting tension, that permanent despairing exhaustion brought on by years of adrenalin and reflexive terror—they could let all that go now. It was over. And for the first time since the war began the soldiers had the sudden freedom to reflect on the mystery of what had happened to them.
They had seen and done things beyond their imagining. In the deepest and most mysterious reaches of the world they’d watched storms of fire engulf the sky, they’d felt islands blown apart beneath their feet, they’d stared in wonderment as convoys of battleships around them filled the ocean from horizon to horizon, they’d witnessed friends erupting into showers of blood and shredded flesh, and they’d been possessed by berserker rage. But most of all they’d walked—foot by foot, day by day—further into the world than they’d ever thought possible, across continents, through ruined cities and the debris of ancient civilizations, toward an unknown destination ahead in the darkness of war. And then there came the greatest mystery of all: after so many years, one summer day they discovered that they’d already arrived at their goal. Wherever they were just then—the tree under which they were sprawled, or the meadow at the edge of the camp, or the hilltop beyond the blasted beach—was the true fulfillment of their quest, and they could now start the long journey back.
They had to make their way home as best they could. The makeshift, improvised routes of military transport, the freighters and cargo planes, the diverted battleships and the commandeered rail lines, were soon crammed with mobs of soldiers clutching discharge papers. The airports and harbors back home in the States swarmed with storms of confetti and the frenzied barrages of brass bands, as wave after wave of soldiers washed back out of the war. They found themselves drowning in promises of glory: waiting for them were fabulously lucrative new jobs (they were astonished at how high wages had risen while they’d been away), a college education (Congress quickly passed the G.I. Bill, which guaranteed tuition for every veteran), and a new house in a shining new suburb (another G.I. bill underwrote the mortgage). It was a kind of ultimate Hollywood happy ending, a blank check, a promise from the president and the nation that anything they needed was theirs by right, as part of the God-given, ever-cresting tide of American prosperity.
But a mysterious letdown waited as well. In all those years they’d spent away from home, the folks they’d left behind had been busy building up the new world without them. Even amid the endless parades, the night-long parties, and the prolonged and tearful homecomings, 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. It was no doubt just what Noah had had to endure from his descendants, muttering at the edge of earshot that the flood was no big deal—if he hadn’t built the ark, somebody else would have, because the Lord himself had promised that the world would always be saved by somebody.
In his memoirs Eugene Sledge recorded that he eventually stopped trying to tell the folks back home what had happened to him on Okinawa. Even among veterans, he writes, “we did not talk of such things. They were too horrible and obscene.” And what was the point of recalling them anyway? The next generation would just see the stories as the product of some pardonable desire to exaggerate, of an old-fogy insistence that things had been much rougher back when the teller was young. Sledge himself had a hard time seeing that the things he’d been through meant anything now. He went back to Alabama after the war and returned to the college he’d dropped out of to enlist; ultimately he got his graduate degree and became a professor of biology and a respected ornithologist. His life continued on that track as though the war had never happened. The only problem was that he was having nightmares.
Once a week—sometimes only once or twice a month, if he was lucky—the same dreadful events would unfold in his sleep. No matter what the ostensible situation of the dream, it had a deeper meaning that he only gradually understood. Forty years later it still had the power to wake him in a blind panic—he was back on Okinawa, and orders were about to come through that would return him to the front.
How many such visions troubled the peace of the new American suburbs? Nobody has ever inventoried them, but a lot of veterans have described similar dreams. In the decades after the war ended there probably wasn’t a single night in which thousands of men across America didn’t wake up sweating in terror—the patrol was about to set out again, the first alarms were arriving from the sentinels, the barrage was about to resume. The war was still being fought in a thousand glimpses of torment, in a million flickers of horror. There was always an interval of dread before the truth that the war was over settled in again. The sudden alarm that woke them was only a raccoon overturning a trash-can lid; the sound of ceaseless mechanized movement was only the sigh and rush of traffic on the new interstate. Sometimes only those who do remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
In the mid-1960s, when my friends and I were out infiltrating Nazi strongholds along the mossy stillness of an apartment-building gangway, charging phantom Nip battalions in the green depths of a park, executing daring flanking attacks against the Wehrmacht among the weed towers and cinder paths of the commuter railway corridor, I never stopped to wonder what it must have sounded like to the veterans of the war to hear us at our games. All through those elm-shaded mazes of old brownstone and white clapboard our voices shrilly rang out with “Nazi!” and “Japs!” and “Look out! Jerries attacking!” Maybe they thought we were making fun of them for their nightmares, maybe they were relieved when we finally outgrew the game and went on to fight wars against space monsters.
It’s been decades since I’ve heard kids choosing up sides between the Allies and the Axis. Sometimes I wonder whether anybody ever did after my friends and I stopped. Maybe nobody followed our secret paths through dank apartment basements or worried if the old shuttered house on the next street harbored a Nazi spy ring. I took for granted back then that the war would always be with us, in an ever-expanding tradition of glory—when the original starship Enterprise came across a whole Nazi planet, complete down to swastika banners and sieg-heil salutes, I thought it was a straight-line historical prophecy. But evidently the war was already fading out around us as we played. We never suspected it, but we were the last defenders of Evanston.
Is it possible to say precisely when a war ends? When I was a kid there was a version of the boogeyman legend that we repeated to one another constantly, in tones of delicious dread. Hitler had survived the wreck of Germany and was still alive on a South American plantation, plotting his revenge against the world. Even as we played at recess and argued about our favorite TV shows, we worried that he was lurking out there, maybe right outside the school’s fences, waiting for a chance to snatch at young Allied warriors. But there was a point—unrecorded, unknown, but still undeniable—when even this tottering ghost of the fuhrer became too old and weak to trouble the sleep of the world any longer. The rumor died, and took the last terrors of the war with it. Then the cool rumor kids were passing around was that the Holocaust was a hoax.
War ends at the moment when peace permanently wins out. Not when the articles of surrender are signed or the last shot is fired, but when the last shout of a sidewalk battle fades, when the next generation starts to wonder whether the whole thing ever really happened. World War II ended as war always ends—by trailing off into nothingness and doubt. Its final monument has never been seen by mortal eyes. It’s a phantom image at the edge of a rumor: an unmarked grave in the depths of the South American jungle where a weird and decrepit old man, half forgotten by the world, at last entered the lists of oblivion.
I once saw a vintage newspaper from the Civil War announcing the result of the Battle of Gettysburg. “TREMENDOUS VICTORY IN PENNSYLVANIA” was the headline. In smaller type was this subhead: “Reverent Gratitude of the People.” Reverent gratitude—there’s a sentiment we don’t see much of these days.
Gratitude is a difficult emotion to admit to when it comes to war. I see a relic of war that ought to represent gratitude for me every time I look up from the computer screen: the porcelain tiger that sits on my bookshelf. What it meant to the person who sculpted it I can’t imagine; what it meant to the man who brought it back from the other side of the world I can only dimly guess. But whenever I look at it now I remember a young pilot from Oklahoma, lost over enemy territory in a malfunctioning plane, flying on bravely, above mirror-bright expanses of rice paddies and along green mountain ranges streaming with summer mists, past churning thunderclouds and through constellations of antiaircraft fire, until at last he found the airstrip of his home base. Yet it took me years of contemplating its silent roar before the tiger came to symbolize the deepest gratitude I can imagine.
In the end, the towering massed powers of World War II were faced down by ordinary men who accomplished the impossible because they had no choice. 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. Elsewhere in the world gratitude for what the Allied soldiers did is easy to feel because the war is still a dominating presence in people’s lives. Children still play on beaches strewn with rotting barbed wire, gardeners still unearth snake’s nests of rusted bullets, and construction crews now and then dig into unexploded bombs. The immense earthworks the war left in Europe and Asia will endure long after the official monuments have been carted off to make room for new subdivisions. But here in America the war was ephemeral. Its vast bureaucracies were disassembled, its armies were for the most part demobilized, and its profusion of factories were promptly converted to civilian use. It’s not uncommon for books on popular culture of the 40s to treat the war as a quaint fad Americans went in for, a whim of fashion like swing dancing or zoot suits.
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. Every one of them is, or ought to be, an expression of gratitude—gratitude for survival achieved against the odds or for a tragedy somehow endured. Every one of them preserves, however inarticulately, a piece of the vast and mysterious story of a whole world at war. The canteen a hero carried, the ring whose magic failed in the last battle, the prayer book a soldier wept over as he waited for the shelling to end are reminders of the darkness that once enshrouded the earth, evidence of the gratitude still owed to those who brought back light. They persist as strange flotsam in the ocean of human forgetfulness, blown ashore the morning after a storm.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustrations by Rebecca Jane Gleason.
This essay is also available at: http://leesandlin.com/articles/LosingTheWar.htm