- Historic Sites
A MEMOIR OF THE SECOND WORLD WAR Seeking the answer to a simple and terrible question: What was it like?
December 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 8
I was born in 1944, toward the middle of October, when a lot of people were getting killed for me, or blown up, or shot, or captured, or worse. Worse? “The shell hit him about here,” said a veteran not long ago, remembering that time and place; “he disappeared.”
The ones who survived their military service in those years eventually got their discharges, went home, went to work, raised families, and are now of an age to retire. Old age is beginning to do what the war could not, or would not. All these people, men and women, living or not, are part of what must be the most written-about generation in American history. As generations come and go, this is a particularly distinguished one, compared, say, with my own.
What, then, should one of my generation say in commemoration of those who fought in this war, most of the important things—presumably—already having been said? We know where all these people went and what they did. Any military atlas will show very large colored arrows, pointing this way and that: This is how the Australians and the Yanks traversed the Kokoda Trail to split New Guinea in half. On another page we can see Guadalcanal, an inconsiderable island, so far out of the way. Still farther on there is the campaign in North Africa and then inexorable progress across the Mediterranean to Italy, another jump into France (the “dash across France” is a perennially favorite phrase). Over in Poland, Byelorussia, and the Ukraine, the situation becomes a test of the cartographer’s art; everything seems a little messier. Back in the Pacific the friendly arrows multiply and advance toward the top of the page, “stepping-stones” to victory against Japan. Anyone can see how simple it is; anyone can criticize what was done, saying this was a better way. Why couldn’t they see it then?
We have the numbers too. Nearly to a finality, we can calculate the people involved, those killed and wounded (“disappeared” poses greater difficulties), where they were mostly killed or wounded, and what mostly killed or wounded them. For soldiers, artillery seemed to be the killer of killers. For civilians (let us not forget that more civilians were killed in this war than soldiers), gas or bombs, in that order. Indeed, all those matters that can be reduced to numbers have been, the tangibles as always being the most easily approached without understanding. Ships, planes, tanks, artillery pieces, “small” arms—“small” always referring to the size of the weapon and its projectile, not the damage one could do to a person—all these fill up the very large picture books found on the remainder shelves of local bookstores.
Of the millions of Americans sent overseas by the Army, only 14 percent were infantry. Those 14 percent took more than 70 percent of all the battle casualties.
If all this leaves us less than satisfied, we can know so much about the statesmen and generals of World War II that they seem like members of our own families. Their lives are so well accounted for that in the unlikely event a gap would appear in their wartime chronologies it would constitute a mystery sufficiently great to set battalions of historians into frenzied activity. The fraudulent “Hitler diaries” of a few years ago come to mind; we were nonplused that something so potentially significant could have escaped notice, so accustomed were we to knowing everything about this war.
Even a certain dislike of reading should pose no impediment to knowing about the war. Virtually every night of the year, television broadcasts some program on the war—the bigger, more visually dramatic pieces of the war, of course, but conveying a kind of recognition all the same. It is just possible that our present knowledge of the war comes mostly from this source, condensed, trivialized, and certainly very highly organized in digestible segments (one hour on “Barbarossa,” the German invasion of Russia).
With all these rather insistent intrusions of war history upon our modern consciousness, it might seem strange to argue that we have lost sight of the real war altogether. That was precisely the thesis Studs Terkel meant to convey when he did “The Good War,” bracketing his title in quotation marks that dripped with irony. But irony turned back on Terkel: It was a good war even to many who participated in it, and furthermore it got better all the time as the decisiveness of the Allied victory slowly revealed itself. Our very human impulse is to negotiate constantly with our memory, to domesticate it and manage it, remembering the good parts. With every passing year the old, real war loses another round in the negotiations.