Thursday, January 5, 2006

I'll Wake Y'all Up At The End.

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.


BrianAlt said...

You didn't comment back on my Civ IV comment, but I was actually serious. Your comments again remind me of the game. In this game you research technologies, starting with hunting and fishing and going to fusion and fision and beyond. One result of this is the ability to train stronger and stronger military units (along with city growth, like markets and universities, etc.)

There are many ways to win this game. World dominance is the objective, but you can win diplomatically as well as by conquering. There are also 3-4 other ways to win a session.

Anyway, what your post made me think of was at a point about halfway into the game you discover gunpowder. As I'm normally ahead of my computer opponents in research, I always have this tech before they do, and all the ones it leads to. So then I can (and have a few times) march into their cities with riflemen, calvary and eventually SAM infantry, armored tanks and helicopter gunships, even stealth bombers.

This game really does try to simulate history, in fact historical leaders are included in the games, Alexander, Ceaser, Ghengis Khan, even FDR. You choose the leader you want from a list of 20-25 and adopting thier personality helps you in your play style.

So my point is, when I was reading what you wrote here I thought of my opponents archers trying to fight my gunship, no contest. Can't they just give up? They always fight to the death.

Well, not much like the historical accounts you're relaying here. But it did make me think of it.

matty said...

great post.

wunelle said...

I've actually never played Civilization, and don't even know anyone who has played the game (!) so I wasn't familiar with how it operates. It actually sounds fascinating! How long does the game go on for? Is it forever, or until you kill off your people or what? I guess I'm unfamiliar with all the parameters you seem to have control over in the game. Perhaps I should get it and I could play it on the road...

Thanks for the comments!

BrianAlt said...

My shortest was about 2 1/2 hours. My longest was 15 1/2 hours. That was played in 4 different sessions. The game actually tells me this at the end.

woolf said...

It's weird how one's ethnic place in history affects the history told. What I mean to say is that WWI and II were horrible for Mennonite communities in the US in ways not known in mainstream America: speaking German anywhere, including the home, could mean treason in the surrounding "English" community--thus the use of low and high German has become nearly extinct in my largely Mennonite hometown; being pacifist meant prison (in WWI, a fair number of COs died in labor camps in the midwest for unknown reasons) or working in Civil Service and derision of the neighbors (my grandfather on my mum's side worked at an insane asylum during the war); Mennonites were known to be tarred and feathered for refusing to fly flags, etc.

There is still a fair amount of hostility between my hometown and a town about 10 miles away due to this period in history. My town was full of Mennonites, that town full of "English." Of course, now we just play out our animosities on the football field or the basketball court. :)

As far as the world being more complicated now, I don't know. All of my grandparents but one are now gone, and my lone grandmother's mind is not clear anymore--but I wish I could talk to them about it, what exactly were the thoughts of those who weren't in the mainstream. All I do know from my ridiculously scant knowledge of WWI/II history is the treaty of Versailles and the following abject poverty of the German people led them to embrace such a man as Hitler, who was tolerated by the US for quite some time and supported by various corporations in the US--IBM provided the technology and monthly upkeep for the accounting of the Jews, Gays, Jehovah's Witnesses, etc. that were taken to concentration camps. This certainly doesn't excuse the embracing, but it makes the war a little murkier. Makes you think of Rumsfeld shaking Saddam's hand back when he was useful and fighting the Soviets.

Chairborne Stranger said...

all those things your brother said are true-life on the edge. things will be different in the US, for sure.

wunelle said...

JW--You're absolutely correct, of course. There is nothing simpler about life at that time, and the only thing "simpler" about WWII is my conveniently boiling it down to a digestible chunk for expedient posting. The experiences you write about remind me of the horrors suffered by Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbor (which, by the way, my documentary covers in some detail).

The pull between good and bad in people is everpresent; war only amplifies it. The same basic decency and ingenuity and can-do attitude traditionally ascribed to Americans lives cheek-by-jowl with ignorance and provincialism and jingoism. These are, I know, human characteristics and not simply American ones.

I did not know about this persecution of Mennonites, though I'm not surprised; in difficult times we seem apt to distrust anything different. An instinct to protect the clan, I suppose.

Taking nothing away from your point, I still think that, taken as a whole, our involvement in these first two WWs seems to lack something of (what seems to me) the troubling motivation of our current involvement, and of our involvement in Vietnam and Korea. I'm prepared, however, to be shown otherwise.

Thanks for the excellent comment.