Found this picture of John McCain Sr. (the Senator’s grandfather) and William “Bull” Halsey on Wiki while looking up something or another.
Here’s McCain Sr and Junior (the Senator’s dad) at the Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay. McCain Sr. dropped dead four days later.
First, there were injections of animal hormones for this most notorious of vegetarians, and then a whole series of ever stronger medications until, at last, he began giving him a “wonder drug” called Eukodal, a designer opiate and close cousin of heroin whose chief characteristic was its potential to induce a euphoric state in the patient (today it is known as oxycodone). It wasn’t long before Hitler was receiving injections of Eukodal several times a day. Eventually he would combine it with twice daily doses of the high grade cocaine he had originally been prescribed for a problem with his ears, following an explosion in the Wolf’s Lair, his bunker on the eastern front.
You think it [nazism] was orderly. But it was complete chaos. I suppose working on Blitzed has helped me understand that at least. Meth kept people in the system without their having to think about it.
(The point about Nazi Germany being in fact a bureaucratic shambles is well made by Lee Sandlin in “Losing The War.”)
Norman Ohler himself sounds deeply interesting:
The German writer Norman Ohler lives on the top floor of a 19th-century apartment building on the south bank of the river Spree in Kreuzberg, Berlin. Visiting him there is a vertiginous experience. For one thing, he works – and likes to entertain visitors – in what he calls his “writing tower”, a flimsy-seeming, glass-walled turret perched right on the very edge of the roof. (Look down, if you dare, and you will see his little boat moored far below.) For another, there is the fact that from this vantage point it is possible to discern two Berlins, one thrusting and breezy, the other spectral and grey.
* the D is for Dave!
A promise made in Host Chat is a promise kept so here is a selection of D-Day readings for Davis.
The single best thing to read about D-Day
is online and free. It is S. L. A. Marshall writing for The Atlantic in November, 1950.
During World War II, Marshall became an official Army combat historian, and came to know many of the war’s best-known Allied commanders, including George S. Patton and Omar N. Bradley. He conducted hundreds of interviews of both enlisted men and officers regarding their combat experiences, and was an early proponent of oral history techniques. In particular, Marshall favored the group interview, where he would gather surviving members of a frontline unit together and debrief them on their combat experiences of a day or two before.
The article is called “First Wave On Omaha Beach” here is an excerpt:
Even among some of the lightly wounded who jumped into shallow water the hits prove fatal. Knocked down by a bullet in the arm or weakened by fear and shock, they are unable to rise again and are drowned by the onrushing tide. Other wounded men drag themselves ashore and, on finding the sands, lie quiet from total exhaustion, only to be overtaken and killed by the water. A few move safely through the bullet swarm to the beach, then find that they cannot hold there. They return to the water to use it for body cover. Faces turned upward, so that their nostrils are out of water, they creep toward the land at the same rate as the tide. That is how most of the survivors make it. The less rugged or less clever seek the cover of enemy obstacles moored along the upper half of the beach and are knocked off by machine-gun fire.
Within seven minutes after the ramps drop, Able Company is inert and leaderless. At Boat No. 2, Lieutenant Tidrick takes a bullet through the throat as he jumps from the ramp into the water. He staggers onto the sand and flops down ten feet from Private First Class Leo J. Nash. Nash sees the blood spurting and hears the strangled words gasped by Tidrick: “Advance with the wire cutters!” It’s futile; Nash has no cutters. To give the order, Tidrick has raised himself up on his hands and made himself a target for an instant. Nash, burrowing into the sand, sees machine gun bullets rip Tidrick from crown to pelvis. From the cliff above, the German gunners are shooting into the survivors as from a roof top.
Captain Taylor N. Fellers and Lieutenant Benjamin R. Kearfoot never make it. They had loaded with a section of thirty men in Boat No. 6 (Landing Craft, Assault, No. 1015). But exactly what happened to this boat and its human cargo was never to be known. No one saw the craft go down. How each man aboard it met death remains unreported. Half of the drowned bodies were later found along the beach. It is supposed that the others were claimed by the sea.
After the war, Marshall would write Men Against Fire:
which claimed that only about 25% of American combat soldiers actually fired their guns at the enemy:
Marshall’s work on infantry combat effectiveness in World War II, titled Men Against Fire, is his best-known and most controversial work. In the book, Marshall claimed that of the World War II U.S. troops in actual combat, 75% never fired at the enemy for the purpose of killing, even though they were engaged in combat and under direct threat. Marshall argued that the Army should devote significant training resources to increasing the percentage of soldiers willing to engage the enemy with direct fire.
Marshall has been harshly criticized:
General Marshall said soldiers who did not fire were motivated by fear, a desire to minimize risk and a willingness, as in civilian life, to let a minority of other people carry the load.
In his 1989 memoir, About Face, Hackworth described his initial elation at an assignment with a man he idolized, and how that elation turned to disillusion after seeing Marshall’s character and methods first hand. Hackworth described Marshall as a “voyeur warrior,” for whom “the truth never got in the way of a good story” and went so far as to say, “Veterans of many of the actions he ‘documented’ in his books have complained bitterly over the years of his inaccuracy or blatant bias”.
Omaha Beach was the worst of it, but experiences on D-Day were vastly different.
Twenty-one miles away on Juno Beach the Canadian Ninth Division landed with their bikes:
Leave it to Canadians to bring their bikes. (900 Canadians died in a botched semi-practice D-Day in 1942).
Best Single Book To Read About D-Day
Looking around I can’t find my copy of Normandy Revisited by AJ Liebling:
Liebling, a vivacious fatso who had spent a lot of time in Normandy pre-war, describes going through with the Army and eating at spots he remembered from before. Definitely a different kind of war corresponding.
was wildly popular for a reason: it’s thrilling, readable, and full of epic American hero stories.
Maybe starting with Andrew J. Higgins of Nebraska and Mobile, Alabama:
who developed shallow-draft boats for logging in the bayou (or for bootlegging?) and then took on the job of making similar boats for amphibious landings:
Anthony Beevor has a blunter take. Major takeaway from his book:
was that the Allies came up way short of their goals on D-Day. Unsurprisingly, many of those who got off the beaches in one piece considered their work done for the day. They were literally in Calvados,
it was pretty easy to find bottles of highly alcoholic apple brandy, and a lot of survivors got hammered at first opportunity.
Who can blame them? But the failure to achieve the ambitious goals had costs. Caen was the biggest city around:
British and Canadian troops had intended to capture the town on D-Day. However they were held up north of the city until 9 July, when an intense bombing campaign during Operation Charnwood destroyed 70% of the city and killed 2,000 French civilians.
From this Washington Post review of Beevor, some excerpts:
US Army medical services had to deal with 30,000 cases of combat exhaustion in Normandy,” and:
“Nothing . . . seemed to reduce the flow of cases where men under artillery fire would go ‘wide-eyed and jittery’, or ‘start running around in circles and crying’, or ‘curl up into little balls’, or even wander out in a trance in an open field and start picking flowers as the shells exploded. Others cracked under the strain of patrols, suddenly crying, ‘We’re going to get killed! We’re going to get killed!’ Young officers had to try to deal with ‘men suddenly whimpering, cringing, refusing to get up or get out of a foxhole and go forward under fire’. While some soldiers resorted to self-inflicted wounds, a smaller, unknown number committed suicide.”
But the single best book to read about D-Day I would say is The Boys’ Crusade by Paul Fussell:
Amazon reviewer Bill Marsano sums it up nicely:
It’s probably all that “good war” and “greatest generation” stuff that drove Fussell to write this book; he doesn’t have much truck with gooey backward glances, and that will probably make some readers mad. Well, you don’t come to Fussell–author of, among other things, “Thank God for the Atom Bomb, and Other Essays”–for good times. You come to Fussell for the hard stuff.
And here it is his contention that behind and beneath all that “greatest generation” nonsense was the Boys’ Crusade–that last year of the war in Europe when too many things went wrong too often. The generals who’d convinced themselves that this war would not be a war of attrition–i.e., human slaughter–like the last one found they’d guessed wrong. Casualties were horrifyingly high and so huge numbers of children–kids 17-19 years–old were flung into combat. And they were, with the help of the generals, ill-trained, ill-clothed and ill-equipped.
They were also faceless ciphers. As Fussell points out, the US Army’s policy was to break up training units by sending individual replacements up to the line piecemeal–one at a time–so they often arrived as strangers among strangers, often addressed merely as “Soldier” because no one knew their names. The result was too many instances of cowardice–both under fire and behind the lines–too many self-inflicted wounds to escape combat. Too many disgraces of every kind because the Army’s system, Fussell says, destroyed the most important factor in the fighting morale of the “poor bloody infantry”–the shame and fear of turning chicken in front of your comrades. Many of these boys–and Fussell is properly insistent on the word boys–funked because they had no comradeship to value.
This is not in the least a personal journal. Fussell was serriously wounded as a young second lieutenant; he was also decorated. But he wisely leaves himself out of this narrative. There’s no special pleading here, no showing of the wounds on Crispin’s Day. Instead this is a passionate but straightforward report on what that last year was like for the poor bloody infantry–those foot soldiers, those dogfaces, those 14 percent of the troops who took more than 70 percent of the casualties.
And yet there were those who stood the gaff, who survived “carnage up to and including bodies literally torn to pieces, of intestines hung on trees like Christ,mas festoons,” and managed not to dishonor themselves. They weren’t heroes, Fussell says, just men who earned the Combat Infantryman’s Badge, which was the only honor they respected. In a brief but moving passage, he explains why: It said they’d been there, been through it, and toughed it out.
Horrible as it is I found this book refreshing when I first read it, because it felt like somebody was telling me the unvarnished truth, which is that even for the good guys this was a series of catastrophes, fuckups, and massacres.
All Fussell’s books are good. This one in particular I was obsessed with:
and I talk about it in The Wonder Trail: True Stories From Los Angeles To The End Of The World, out June 14:
Let’s give the last word to Fussell:
One wartime moment not at all vile occurred on June 5, 1944, when Dwight Eisenhower, entirely alone and for the moment disjunct from his publicity apparatus, changed the passive voice to active in the penciled statement he wrote out to have ready when the invasion was repulsed, his troops torn apart for nothing, his planes ripped and smashed to no end, his warships sunk, his reputation blasted: “Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops.” Originally he wrote, “the troops have been withdrawn,” as if by some distant, anonymous agency instead of by an identifiable man making all-but-impossible decisions. Having ventured this bold revision, and secure in his painful acceptance of full personal accountability, he was able to proceed unevasively with “My decision to attack at this time and place was based on the best information available.” Then, after the conventional “credit,” distributed equally to “the troops, the air, and the navy,” came Eisenhower’s noble acceptance of total personal responsibility: “If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt, it is mine alone.” As Mailer says, you use the word shit so that you can use the word noble,and you refuse to ignore the stupidity and barbarism and ignobility and poltroonery and filth of the real war so thatit is mine alone can flash out, a bright signal in a dark time.
Happy Birthday Dave!
At 10 a.m. on May 31, the committee members ﬁled into the dark-paneled conference room of the War Department. The air was heavy with the presence of three Nobel laureates and Oppenheimer. Stimson opened the proceedings on a portentous note: “We do not regard it as a new weapon merely,” he said, “but as a revolutionary change in the relations of man to the universe.” The atomic bomb might mean the “doom of civilization,” or a “Frankenstein” that might “eat us up”; or it might secure world peace. The bomb’s implications “went far beyond the needs of the present war,” Stimson said. It must be controlled and nurtured in the service of peace.
Stimson, meanwhile, was personally preoccupied with saving Kyoto, the ancient capital whose temples and shrines he had visited with his wife in 1926. He requested that it be struck from the shortlist of targets. Japan was not just a place on a map, or a nation that must be defeated, he insisted. The objective, surely, was military damage, not civilian lives. In Stimson’s mind the bomb should “be used as a weapon of war in the manner prescribed by the laws of war” and “dropped on a military target.” Stimson argued that Kyoto “must not be bombed. It lies in the form of a cup and thus would be exceptionally vulnerable. … It is exclusively a place of homes and art and shrines.”
With the exception of Stimson on Kyoto—which was essentially an aesthetic objection—not one of the committee men raised the ethical, moral, or religious case against the use of an atomic bomb without warning on an undefended city. The businesslike tone, the strict adherence to form, the cool pragmatism, did not admit humanitarian arguments, however vibrantly they lived in the minds and diaries of several of the men present.
Those quotes from this interesting Atlantic article by Paul Ham, excerpted from his book.
This blog goes deeper into the Kyoto decision, and the idea that Truman didn’t totally understand the power of the atomic bomb. (where I found that Stimson photo)
Highly recommend a listen to Allison Silverman’s 20 minute piece about “This Is Your Life” on This American Life, which includes a story about how they introduced a (drunk) Captain Robert Lewis of the Enola Gay to “Hiroshima maidens” on TV.
”If I live a hundred years, I’ll never quite get these few minutes out of my mind,” Captain Lewis said in his log of the Enola Gay’s mission, written in pen and pencil on the back of War Department forms, on Aug. 6, 1945.
”Everyone on the ship is actually dumbstruck even though we had expected something fierce. It was the actual sight that we saw that caused the crew to feel that they were part of Buck Rodgers’ 25th century warriors.”
Fair to say I’m more interested than most people in old photos.
There are amazing collections of old photos in various US government archives, but they’re not always easy to find or sort through online.
Somehow I stumbled on this US Navy photographic archive.
“Pilot Tells of Dive-Bombing Wake Island in ready room of USS Yorktown (CV-10), 10/1943” is the title of that one.
“Pin-up girls at NAS Seattle, Spring Formal Dance. Left to right: Jeanne McIver, Harriet Berry, Muriel Alberti, Nancy Grant, Maleina Bagley, and Matti Ethridge.”, 04/10/1944″
“Sign on Tarawa illustrates Marine humor and possible lack of optimism as to duration of war., 06/1944”
“Much tattooed sailor aboard the USS New Jersey, 12/1944”
“Crewmen aboard USS Yorktown (CV-10) dash to stations as general quarters sound., 05/1943”
“Filipinos with their ‘bancas’ loaded with wares, paddle out to anchored destroyer to trade with crew., 06/1945”
“Personnel of USS LEXINGTON celebrate Christmas with make-shift decorations and a firefighting, helmeted Santa Claus., 12/1944”
“Graves of U.S. Marines who died taking Tarawa, before headstones were prepared. In background are the first tents put up after occupation of the island., ca. 11/1943”
“Marines installing telephone lines under fire on Peleliu. In the background is seen part of famous Bloody Nose Ridge, scene of the fiercest fighting on Peleliu., 09/1944”
“Sailor asleep between 40mm guns on board the USS New Jersey (BB-62)., 12/1944”
“F6F taxies into position after landing on board the USS Lexington (CV-16)., ca. 11/26/1943”
“Sailor eating sandwich beneath propellers of torpedo being loaded aboard U.S. submarine at New London, Connecticut., 08/1943”
“Children in Naples, Italy. Little boy helps one-legged companion across street., 08/1944”
“Torpedomen relaxing beneath rows of deadly torpedoes in torpedo shop., ca. 05/1945”
Lord knows what you’d find if you dig through the archives in person. This is just what’s digitized and online.
Happy Memorial Day, errboddy.
I don’t know how I came across this essay, which was published in Chicago Review in 1999, but it’s by Lee Sandlin, an author I’d never heard of, and it was one of the best things I read in 2014.
One of the best things I’ve read about World War II ever. Insightful on government, history, human nature, memory, language. Would make this on mandatory reading for citizens, if somebody asked me. Though it’s very long (40 pages), I recommend it to you.
Hard even to pull out favorite parts but let me try:
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.
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.
Here, Lee Sandlin describes the Battle of Midway, drawing on “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”
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…
Re: American war reporting:
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.
On the bureaucracy of the war:
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.
On how much crazier the Eastern Front was:
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.
On an uncanny force driving war through history:
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?
How about this, on the Old Norse vocabulary of war:
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.
A feyness of bureaucracy:
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.
The logic of the end of the war, fall ’44 onward:
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.
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.
[amazing digression on that]
…But another, even stronger pressure worked against those who understood how hopeless the situation really was: they knew that defeat meant accountability.
Sandlin’s discussion of the decision to drop the atomic bombs is one of the best I’ve ever read. Here’s how he warms up to it:
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.
The end of the war, in the US:
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.
Read the whole thing, is my suggestion.
I was thinking about this article over Christmas, and resolved that in 2015 I would write Lee Sandlin a note telling him how much it blew my head off. Too late, though. Lee Sandlin died on Dec. 14, 2014 – that’s why, I guess, it was reposted and reached me.
I’m just a guy who writes about stuff that happened. But at least there’s a long tradition of this kind of writing. My model has always been William Hazlitt, who two hundred years ago wrote essays, reviews, travel writings, memoirs, celebrity profiles, sports reporting — each piece was simply about what happened, and yet each piece, no matter what the subject, reads like an act of total moral engagement. Hazlitt brought everything he knew, and everything he was, to the task of writing about what happened.
And back beyond that, way back, twenty five hundred years ago, the grandest and airiest work of philosophical speculation ever written begins as a plain report of what happened. In fact, it might easily be mistaken for a review:
Yesterday I went down to the Piraeus with Glaucon the Ariston, to make an offering to the Goddess, and also to see their Festival, which they were putting on for the first time this year. I liked the procession, but I think the procession at Thrace is more beautiful…