Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Ugly Glamor of WWII

I can’t recall exactly how or why I first started becoming interested in World War II. The seeds of it probably go back to childhood, reading Sgt Rock comic books and playing war with my cousin/best bud Jim. We had the toy guns, the plastic rifles. Any bit of military equipment we lacked simply became invisible grenades or canteens or compasses hanging on our belts. An invisible grenade exploded just as well as a real one, in our minds.

Neither of us knew the first damn thing about WWII, of course, and the particulars would have bored us anyway. For us, it was just a bunch of good guys in green uniforms and helmets wandering around Europe and getting in the occasional gunfight with the Nazis.

As an adult, Jim would join the Army for real. He did his tour overseas, saw light combat in Iraq. Not me, though. I have said, on occasion, that my damaged eye kept me from joining the military, but the truth is: I don’t think I would’ve done it, even if I could have. Scratch that; I KNOW I wouldn’t have. By the time I was 18, my interest in playing soldier had disappeared. Jim not only served as a young man, but actually went back again, in his 40’s, after a long career as a cop in Tennessee. His wife didn’t want him to. He had absolutely no reason to do it. But he did. He struggled to get himself back into shape, re-upped, and got sent off again to Iraq, where he did another few years.

Why? Well, he wanted to serve, is what it comes down to, I guess. He wanted to do something for his country, and military service, to a certain way of thinking, is the ultimate service.

But, between you and me? I think there was something else, also. I think he liked the taste of it.

Being a soldier. Being young and powerful, taking an active role.

I think he was nostalgic for war.

The difference between me and Jim, when we played soldier as kids, was one I didn’t understand until many years later: for Jim, it was about the military, and for me it was about WWII, specifically.

I didn’t want to be a solder unless it was WWII.

But as a kid, it was a vague, unfocused thing. As an adult, my real interest in that conflict began and like I said, I’m still not sure what sparked it. But I started reading about it in the compulsively methodical way I approach every subject that interests me. I read a sort of overview first, a terrific book called WORLD WAR II: A SHORT HISTORY, by Michael J. Lyons, and then followed that up with—believe it or not—the Time-Life series about the war that broke it all down chronologically and in more detail. After that, I started focusing on particular battles and incidents and facets that interested me the most—DESPERATE VENTURE, by Norman Gelb, about the Allied invasion of N. Africa. CITIZEN SOLDIERS, by Stephen Ambrose, about the push into Europe after D-Day. A BRIDGE TOO FAR, by Cornelius Ryan, about the disastrous Operation Market Garden. Watched about a ton of documentaries.

But it was never about war, exactly. It was always about World War II, specifically. I had, and have, very little interest in Korea, Vietnam, or even the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I don’t really know why. It’s not meant as any sort of insult or disrespect to the combatants of those conflicts. It’s just that there’s always been a certain… something… about WWII that touched a perversely romantic nerve deep inside me.

And yes, yes, I know… there’s nothing romantic about it. No one was having a good time, and it was decidedly unglamorous. I know that.

But most of us who weren’t there sort of feel the same way, don’t we? There’s no point in pretending otherwise. Those of us who’ve only experienced the raw emotion of WWII through books and documentaries and even Hollywood blockbusters… we are lured and stirred deep inside by the drama of it, by the sheer epic scale on which the action takes place. It’s stupid and we know we shouldn’t feel that way and yet we do. Hollywood knows this about us, and that’s why we still get stirring, action-packed tales of WWII on the big screen on a pretty regular basis.

Here’s something I should mention: I don’t generally idolize soldiers. Yes, I respect them, but in the last few years (dare I say, since the terrorist attacks in Sept, ’01) we’ve begun to develop, at least in America, a sort of Military Fetish. The media and popular opinion will brook NO negativity about our soldiers. These are young men and women who have been placed on a pedestal that’s almost Christ-like in its sanctity, as if by the very act of putting on a uniform you are immediately elevated into the realm of sainthood.

But yes, there is heroism in war. There is sacrifice and fear and an emotional intensity that those of us who have never worn a uniform can only imagine. In WWII, all of that was amplified by the sheer magnitude of the conflict.

But not all the heroes were wearing uniforms. The vast majority of dead during the war were civilians, fighting to regain their liberty or just to survive. The peasant woman in Russia was a hero, and so was the Greek farmer who lost his family and joined the resistance and so was the little girl interred in a Japanese camp in China for the duration of the war.

So tomorrow is the anniversary of D-Day, the Allied invasion of Europe and the beginning of the end of WWII. I intend to take a moment to reflect on the tremendous cost of it, not ponder too much on why exactly it has captivated my imagination for so long, and hope that, in the future, normal human beings are not forced into the reluctant and devastating role of hero.


  1. Excellent post again! Great thoughts on war. I did join, did serve for four years but quickly discovered the soldier was not my calling. By the way I have watched the Time Life series too. Pretty good!

  2. Great post. You have your buddy Jim pegged pretty good. There are many heroes that were not in uniform during WWII as in any war. Every citizen was affected in some way..from loved one serving for years at a time to saving their cooking grease to help make explosives. The elevation of service members is in direct response to the way they were treated coming home from Korea, (the forgotten war) and Vietnam. The American people are making sure the mistreatment will never happen again. I also remember the beginning of your facination with WWII and you checking every book on WWII out of the library. You were grooving to military history way before it was cool and Saving Private Ryan. WWII is the only war in modern era to have a clear purpose a clear villian that was closest thing to a comic book super villian.

  3. I wrote a new story yesterday set in Poland in 1943. I guess WW2 has a grip on me, too. It always amazes me to see the remnants of it on my European travels. Most notable for me was a walk from Prague to the Austrian border - it was as if we were being watched all the way.
    And now I'm thinking Band Of Brothers.
    Thanks, Heath.

    1. Nigel, I can't even wait to read that story. Sounds right up my alley.

  4. Heath,

    Once again, great post and thoughts. I was born nine years after WW2 ended so believe me when I tell you that I played plenty of "Army" growing up.

    My Dad was a farmboy and became a Marine right after Pearl Harbor, joined up right out of high school with 2 other buddies. He was on Guadalcanal for almost the entire duration and then later Saipan. Oh my gosh do I have stories. I have enough stories to last a lifetime. I have been a student and studied WW2 virtually my entire adult life. My Dad's two buddies were never found in the sands of the Pacific Island hopping, Tinian and Iwo - something he really never got over. Their pictures were always on his fireplace mantle at the old house.

    He made it back though. He came back to the states weighing about 120 pounds. Went in at a solid, farm strong 160. He could shoot, became a decorated scout sniper. He was, and is even now that he's gone, my everything in terms of what a father and a man should be. Thanks for writing this post. - Jim

  5. Really interesting posting, Heath. Yeah, I had a real fixation on WWII as a kid too - blame it on old cinema - until I saw "A Long Day's Dying", which nipped some of the yearning fascination in the bud. Still, I am obviously fascinated with Japan in WWII in the new novel, so the interest continues.