A few observations / ruminations as a follow-on to my last post (since there was hardly enough bandwith on the whole Web to accommodate the traffic on that one...) after watching a bit more of the WW2 documentary.
When I was in college, I had a professor who had a friend and colleague who had fought in Europe during this war. Over the years these two professors had had many discussions, he told me, about the difficulties of a soldier's return to civilian life, about how someone who has experienced the front lines of war follows the time spent on this heightened plane. His friend had told him that after leading such an essential existence--an existence where decisions were life and death matters and where one's day was filled with survival and sustenance and basic needs--it seemed foolish and artificial to have to return to a world of books and words and comfort and nuance. His friend rather regretted the loss of this period of his life, and said that forever afterward nothing ever quite measured up.
This was not a sentiment I had in the least expected. How could being a soldier who survives war be a mixed blessing? One can argue that it would be better never to have had to put one's self directly in harm's way, and surely the experience of seeing death and destruction close at hand, and the attendant stress and fear for one's own life and limb, can not be thought pleasant in any way. And yet I can see that there is something compelling in having been involved in a great thrust of history, of playing a part in things that matter if anything matters. One's life would change and could not be changed back again. My brother, who spent a year in Iraq and who is about to return for another tour, has spoken a bit in this same vein. He told me he's actually looking forward to his return, in a perverse sort of way. It's not a desire to expose one's self to danger; but in spite of the peril the world is reduced to something much clearer and more manageable: keep yourself and your soldiers safe, look after basic needs, get the job at hand done. The devil may indeed be in the details, but those can be someone else's concern, at least some of them can.
The story of war is the story of people at war. I think this documentary succeeds so well because the time is devoted alternately to an explanation of large-scale events and then to the words of individuals who played their part. And while the front line is an obvious place to look for a story, it wasn't just the soldiers, of course. A country's whole population was mobilized toward the war effort, and there were many jobs in many industries which were directly affected. Virtually everyone felt the effects to some degree, from food rationing and blackouts to bombed cities where life was expected to go on.
Today's episode was about u-boats in the Atlantic. Early in the war, before America was overtly involved, the Germans devised the strategy of traveling the u-boats in "wolf packs" and attacking convoys of shipping at night in a coordinated and devastating fashion. (The term "wolf pack" is wonderfully apt and brutally terrifying.) The terror involved, and the barbarity of this kind of warfare (as though there are kinder & gentler ways to sink a manned ship) are numbing to contemplate. I have a fear of death in this particular way that borders upon phobia. I used to have a recurring vision of going below on a boat and seeing water rising where water is not supposed to be. Even the thought of seeing things under water that aren't supposed to be there gives me a little panicky feeling (I could not, for example, go scuba diving and look at a car under water with a mask. Or even look at that same car from above in a boat). So imagine this setting, with merchant ships trying to ply the waters between America and England in 1940-41. Even the largest ship is a tiny, tiny thing in the middle of the night in the center of a great ocean. And on just the other side of that thin hull is a bottomless abyss. Is a torpedo about to strike now? Or now? Like Chinese water torture, it would breed insanity.
This use of these u-boats--as opposed to the more common practice of the time of patrolling shorelines and harbors--to hamper England's attempts to keep herself supplied with war materiel and life's necessities is ingenious and innovative. Looked at as a war tactic this calculated strategy of brutality may have been effective, and maybe that's all that counts in war, but it casts the Germans in an especially evil and aggressive light (a light which they were to share with others, to be sure).
And so it is with some elation that we see the events begin to turn in '42 and onward. American involvement in the war became overt after Pearl Harbor, and the technology and resources we brought to bear for our friends in England seem to me to represent OUR finest hour in modern times. Suddenly there was a doubling and redoubling of military escort ships for merchant convoys, and a flood of new American aircraft were used to hunt down the u-boats. Thus the hunters became the hunted, and one can feel in the pit of one's stomach the knotted sickness that the u-boat crews must have felt at suddenly finding themselves in grave peril when they had previously been smugly wreaking the havoc. This reversal of Germany's fortunes happened on all fronts of the war, of course, and it's one of the things that makes the story so compelling. Hitler's victories in the early days of the war were almost unprecedented in history: he did more with less, and captured more people and territory in a shorter span of time than was thought possible. Thus, the turn-around was unexpected, a reversal of fortune's strong directional arrow.
This war was not without its controversies, but the justice of our aims was never questioned. We acted in defense, first of our friends, and then of ourselves, and there is the innocence of a big, good-natured oaf about our actions. By contrast, the world seems much more complicated now, and our machinations leave us with a residue on our hands.
I guess that's partly where a fascination and celebration of such a brutal time as WW2 comes from.