Showing posts with label WWII. Show all posts
Showing posts with label WWII. Show all posts

08 August 2018

Munich 1938

David Edgerley Gates

Robert Harris has written a dozen compelling and thoughtful thrillers, beginning with Fatherland, in 1992. The first novel was alternative history. Then he went with the real thing in Enigma, about WWII code-breaking at Bletchley Park, and Archangel was a little of both, Stalin's ghost as metaphor, but with an all-too-physical legacy.

Further along, we've had the Cicero trilogy - ancient Rome - and An Officer and a Spy, the Dreyfus affair. Not to mention an acid take-down of Tony Blair. Mostly the books take place at a safe remove from the present, not that they lose any of their ominous immediacy.  



What lies now in the past once lay in the future. This is the epigraph, slightly paraphrased, from his most recent book, Munich. In late September of 1938, the British prime minister Neville Chamberlain flew to Germany to meet with Adolf Hitler, and try one last time to prevent the outbreak of a general European war. The price agreed to would be the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia, and the repatriation of the ethnic Germans in the Sudeten. Chamberlain has been much ridiculed since (thanks in no small part to the writings of his longtime political rival, Churchill, and the benefits of hindsight), but it's worth remembering that he was much honored at the time.



We might remember too that in 1938, the Armistice had only been signed twenty years before. Everybody in political office had direct experience of the Great War, and so did the voters. Chamberlain's dread of another generation going to slaughter wasn't stage piety, and his peace policy ("appeasement") had significant support - and not just in Great Britain. He was widely admired on the Continent, as well. A second point, not so well-recognized, is that Chamberlain was playing for time. Britain had its Navy, but the air forces and ground defense were completely underequipped. If they'd gone to war with Germany in 1938, they'd almost surely have gone down in defeat.



This is where the Robert Harris method pays off bigtime, with the What-Ifs. We know the world went to war. We know Hitler wasn't to be trusted. But we didn't know it then. Chamberlain isn't a fool, some doddering fuddy-duddy. He's got a misplaced hope that Hitler might feel the slightest sense of shame, but he's pretty clear-headed, and certainly cold-blooded. You could ask the Czechs.

The device Harris uses is to represent the larger canvas in small. The major actors all take the stage in turn, but the attributes of national character are on display in the brick-and-mortar of the fictional cast. Two (invented) lower-ranking foreign service guys, Legat on the British side, Hartmann on the German, were classmates at Oxford in the 1930's, and meet again at Munich. More to the point, Hartmann arranges for them to meet, so he can pass Legat a stolen document. In the event, the former friends can only talk past each other, which mirrors the larger context. Hartmann, a conspirator in the still-scattered Hitler resistance, is frustrated by Legat's obstinate insistence on matters of form. Legat thinks Hartmann is being too operatic and emotional. The doomed Romantic can't dent the stiff upper lip.



The point of all this is something I've spoken about in previous pieces, namely, what's now in the past was once in the future. This is an active dynamic in Robert Harris' books, as it is with Alan Furst or Joseph Kanon, or anybody else who writes about a shared recent history, just barely past the horizon of personal memory. WWII vets are dying off, and people who were simply alive at the time are falling by the wayside. In other words, we're losing a window into their experience. A novelist can reimagine it, or allow us to reimagine it, and a large part of that is inhabiting the time those people lived in. To us, it's old news. To them, it was the present.

Chamberlain at Munich was trying to stave off - or at best, delay - a huge, devouring calamity. Nobody actually realized how huge it would be, how calamitous, but Chamberlain was haunted by the diplomatic collapses of August 1914. He felt an enormous responsibility. In the end, the collapse came, a year later. 'Munich' is now shorthand, for weakness, for retreat, for collaboration, even. This does Chamberlain a cruel disservice. He made the mistake any reasonable man might. He thought the other guy was reasonable. 

28 March 2018

The Man with the Iron Heart

David Edgerley Gates

Reinhard Heydrich was an SS-Obergruppenfuhrer, commander of the Reich Central Security Office (which controlled the Gestapo, the SD, and the criminal police); a presiding architect of the Holocaust, with authority over the Endlosung, or Final Solution, responsible for Kristallnacht, the Nacht und Nebel - Night and Fog - operation, and the Einsatzgruppen, special auxiliaries that followed regular Army units into Poland, Ukraine, and Russia, executing Jews and other political undesirables; and appointed Deputy Protector of Bohemia, military proconsul of Czechoslovakia, in September of 1941. Late that year, the Czech exile government in London mounted an operation to assassinate him. It had all the earmarks of a suicide mission.

Hitler himself called Heydrich the Man with the Iron Heart. He'd been sent to Prague because the Skoda works were important to the German war effort, and the Czechs needed to feel the crack of the whip. Heydrich considered them vermin. He had 92 people executed in his first three days. Over the next six months, 5,000 arrests.

British SOE train the commando team in Scotland, and insert them by paradrop. Making contact with what's left of the Czech resistance, the two team leaders, Jozef Gabcik and Jan Kubis, are persuaded the best solution to target is to ambush him on his way to work. They post a lookout along the route he travels, and lie in wait for him at a hairpin curve, on the road to the Troja bridge. Heydrich travels in an open car, a Mercedes convertible. It's a display of contempt, the Germans in complete control, the Czechs captive and demoralized. The car slows. Gabcik steps into the street. He's got a Sten gun. It fires from an open breech. The weapon fails to feed and jams. Gabcik is left standing there with his pants down. Then, unbelievably, instead of ordering his driver to put the pedal to the metal, Heydrich orders him to stop. Heydrich stands up in the back of the car, and pulls his Luger. Kubis, behind him, has an anti-tank grenade hidden in a briefcase, and he heaves it at the Mercedes.

(This was the No. 73 grenade, modified for weight, the bottom two-thirds removed, light enough to be thrown, but still able to damage an armor-plated vehicle. In training, Gabcik and Kubis both had trouble with it.)

The device detonates at the right rear quarter of the Mercedes - not inside it, but close enough to punch Heydrich with metal fragments and shredded upholstery. He staggers out of the car. The two Czechs try to shoot him with their own pistols and miss. Heydrich returns fire. Gabcik and Kubis take off in opposite directions, thinking the attack's a failure. Heydrich starts to chase them, and then collapses from internal hemorrhaging.

They got him pretty good. Severe injuries to his diaphragm and spleen, collapsed left lung, fractured rib. Surgeons labored over him, and the prognosis was hopeful. A week later, Heydrich was sitting up in bed for lunch, and then suddenly went into shock. Apparently, septicemia caught up with him. He died the next day.

Reprisals were brutal and immediate. Cooked intelligence from the Gestapo led to the village of Lidice. All the males over the age of 15 were shot, the women and children sent to the death camps. The town was burned and then bulldozed. In the smaller village of Lekazy they simply shot everybody, men and women alike. The actual pursuit of Gabcik and Kubis and the people who'd helped them hit a wall, until a guy on one of the other sabotage teams ratted them out for the Judas money.

The seven of them were holed up in the Orthodox cathedral of Saints Cyril and Methodius. It took the SS two hours to smoke them out, with 750 men. Fourteen dead, twenty-one wounded. None of the Czechs let themselves be taken alive. They knew too many names.

As always, you want to ask whether the blood price was worth it. Heydrich was a reptile, better off dead. But it's estimated as many as 1300 people were murdered in direct retaliation. Also, it appears that the schedule agreed to at the Wannsee Conference was accelerated after Heydrich's death, implementing the extermination camps, as distinct from slave labor. Then again, how many people might Heydrich have eliminated, if left alive? He was an effective coordinator of terror logistics. And efficiency in this, as in other things, solidified his power base. He could have made the trains run even faster.

One last thing, a net gain. Heydrich was the most senior Nazi targeted in an operation under SOE discipline. (Or any other clandestine service, either. Wilhelm Kube,  the generalkommissar of Minsk, had a bomb go off underneath him on NKVD instructions, but Kube was small potatoes compared to Heydrich.) Yes, they were Czech partisans, although they jumped out of an RAF Halifax bomber, so in that sense it was deniable. In fact, SOE didn't want to deny it. Just because they never tried for Hitler doesn't mean it was never discussed. The killing of Heydrich was an object lesson.


08 June 2016

The Weight of Silence

David Edgerley Gates


An obituary for an Englishwoman named Jane Fawcett, who died recently at 95. She was a codebreaker at Bletchley Park during the war, and deciphered the message that led to the sinking of the Bismarck. I've talked about Bletchley before, and Alan Turing, and breaking the Enigma, but I bring it up in this context to note that a lot of our witnesses to history are taking their curtain calls. This is the natural order, and marks the passage of time. It also means that we're losing an immediate living connection to a common, remembered past.

Yesterday (as I write this) was June 6th, the anniversary of the Normandy landings. D-Day was a big deal. The largest air-sea amphibious combat operation ever mounted, I think I'm safe in saying, it cracked open Festung Europa and marked the beginning of the end for Hitler and the Third Reich. Every year, there are fewer surviving vets who visit the battlefields and the cemeteries. The event itself recedes, and pretty soon there won't be anybody left that was actually there.

On a more domestic scale, my cousin Jono has a fairly exhaustive collection of his parents' personal effects. They've been dead more than a few years, and he's in effect the keeper of the flame. My sister and I have run a similar course, with our own parents' stuff, but we've divested ourselves of an enormous amount. The lesson here is that simply because an object or an artifact meant something to them doesn't require us to be their proxies. You can make a counter-argument here, though, and I think Jono's entitled to make it. Whether our own families were walk-ons or center stage, they were part of collective memory. They may have been present at historically significant turning points. Or not. But if they're not in the record books,. then as each of us in our own generation die off, our memories of that previous generation disappear with us, and those people disappear.

History is surprisingly empty, in this sense. Kings and generals crowd the canvas, but the background, the foot soldiers and camp followers, don't leave much more than a shadow. We intuit or interpolate, but the raw detail isn't always that sharp. A lot of them couldn't read or write anyway, and for a long time they just got squeezed out of the story, except as spear-carriers, literally. So losing our first-hand storytellers drops a stitch in the fabric. And all too often, these people will say, Jeez, kid, what I did wasn't all that interesting or important.

Well, yes and no. One of the more fascinating histories I've ever read was based on the accounts of a merchant family, trading out of Brest or the Hague or someplace - I've forgotten - and it was so many bolts of cloth or barrels of salt, but it was an amazingly vivid picture of daily life, in the commonplace. We forget that it isn't necessarily the sword fights, much of the time it's just making the car payments or shoeing the horse. 

So, here's to Jane Fawcett - or Miss Jane Hughes, her maiden name in 1940 - who may have fallen off the radar in the meanwhile, but I'm glad she was manning her desk at the time. And here's to all those guys who struggled ashore, or who didn't, or who never made it off the beaches, I wish I could hear your stories. We bear witness to the times we live in. We don't always sort the wheat from the chaff, or spin gold out of straw. The silence, though, is heavy.

10 February 2016

Ardennes 1944

David Edgerley Gates


It can't be late-breaking news that I read a lot of history, anything from the Peloponnesian War to building the Brooklyn Bridge, and I read out of curiosity, for background, and more or less to please myself. It doesn't always have a specific aim or application, but lately it's been WWII.

I'd read Antony Beevor's FALL OF BERLIN, and Max Hastings' ARMAGEDDON, about the last year of the European war, and it
was natural to pick up ARDENNES 1944, Beevor's new book about the Bulge, and then Hastings' INFERNO. I topped it off with Paul Carell's SCORCHED EARTH, which covers the German-Russian campaigns, 1943-44. You could pretty well say I was played out by this time, enough already. Fatigue sets in. You hit a wall. Your sympathies flag.

Then an odd thing happened. I began to see a storyline. Not just a theme, or a situation to hang a plot on, but the whole thing, soup to nuts. This is unusual, and I figure other people have much the same experience. Something catches your attention, maybe in your peripheral vision, and you tell yourself, Oh, that's a hook, or an interesting set-up, a landscape, or a springboard. Very rarely do you get handed the spine of a complete narrative: three full acts, ready to go. What caught my eye was what came to be known as the Malmedy massacre, a group of American POW's murdered in cold blood by an SS unit, Kampfgruppe Peiper, a spearhead of the Adolf Hitler division.

If you look at the Order of Battle in the Ardennes, and the German dispositions, although von Rundstedt was nominally in command, the main assault components weren't regular Army, the Wehrmachtbut SS armor. (There was also a black op led by commando legend Otto Skorzeny, with Germans masquerading as American GI's - more bark than bite, even if it created suspicion behind American lines.) The point here is both in France, in 1942, and on the Eastern Front, in '43 and '44, SS were shadowed by Einsatzgruppenthe death squads assigned to kill Jews and Gypsies, and Soviet political officers. This was no accident. SS officers and men later tried to establish the fiction that they were Soldaten wie andere auchor soldiers like any other, but their actions in every theater of war were criminal. 1st SS Panzer in western Ukraine, over two days in December 1943, killed two thousand Russians, and in that time, took all of three prisoners.

We notice a pattern. Yes, the Red Army killed German soldiers after they'd surrendered (so did the Americans and the British and the French, for that matter), but the Germans made it one with their policy of reprisals, the execution of civilians as well as combatants. This is different - I think in a qualitative way - from the industrialized Nazi effort to eradicate the Jews, which actually hemorrhaged men and materiel that could have gone to the war effort. It's something else, even though take no prisoners is counterproductive. Men on the losing side fight harder. Surrender isn't going to save them. There's a bitter dynamic at work here.

So where, you're asking, is the story I was talking about? I'm not ready to put out on the first date. Still, the bare bones are there without my giving it away, you take care to read between the lines, The story's about payback. And it's not morally ambiguous, either. It has a simple satisfaction, the elemental working of Fate, weighed in the scales.

The curious part, as I said, is that it just presented itself, in one piece. I even wonder if it's too obvious, too shapely, too finished, but there could be surprises in store. We'll have to see what happens in the telling. I've got a title for it, too, which is usually a good thing. We writers can be a superstitious lot.

One other thing. If you choose to base a story on actual events, you have to be careful not to play them false. There were real consequences. Real people died. Other bore witness. A war was won, or lost. History was in the balance. 'You don't spoil a good story for lack of the facts' - an expression I've used before, but in this instance, the story's not invented. Where invention comes in, is in reinhabiting something that really happened. You owe history, and the dead, that much responsibility.




28 October 2015

The Windsor Folly

by David Edgerley Gates


David Windsor came to the throne as Edward VIII, king of
England, in January of 1936. He gave it up in December of
the same year, to marry the American divorcee Wallis Simpson. It was the celebrity scandal of the decade, what with the king throwing duty over the side, Mrs. Simpson under the misapprehension she could become queen, the ruling Tory party mutinous and ready to resign from government, the Archbishop of Canterbury discouraging any Anglican clergy from performing the wedding, the Royal Family caught up in both a domestic soap opera and a political crisis that threatened the monarchy - and just when you thought it was all a tempest in a teapot, it could well have affected the outcome of the Second World War.

You have to cast your mind back to the climate of the late 1930's, the consuming fear of Bolshevism and the rise of Fascist reactionary politics in Europe - the Arrow Cross in Hungary, the Iron Guard in Romania - but more particularly the Fascist states, Spain, Italy, and Nazi Germany. You also have to remember the strong isolationist and antiwar sentiment in the U.S. and Great Britain, and even overt sympathy for Nazism. (Sir Oswald Mosley married his second wife Diana Mitford in Berlin, at Goebbels' house. Hitler was there.) The most charitable thing you can say about the Duke of Windsor is that he was hopelessly naive.

Invited to Germany in 1937, after the abdication, the Windsors toured the Krupp weapons works, were Hitler's guests at Obersalzberg and Goering's at Karinhall, and gave energetic Nazi salutes. It was a general embarrassment to the British government and personally to David's brother Bertie, who'd succeeded him as GeorgeVI. Windsor, who was himself extremely sensitive to slights, apparently had no shame, or was simply insulated from questioning his own conduct. He led an unexamined life, immune to consequences and tone-deaf to anybody's grievances but his own.


The plot, however, thickens. Once the war began, the Windsors retreated first to the south of France, then to Barcelona, and then in July of 1940 to Lisbon. Spain and Portugal were neutrals, but Franco's regime was in bed with the Nazis. Windsor had made some extremely ill-judged and gratuitous remarks, proposing a negotiated peace, which came close to sedition, and the Germans pricked up their ears. David also insisted to his brother the king that Wallis be treated as a member of the Royal Family. It was this last bone of contention that suggested itself to the German foreign minister, von Ribbentrop, as leverage. What if, he reasoned, the Duke of Windsor were to return to England, and be crowned king again? Would it take England out of the war? In hindsight, it's hard to believe this ever got legs, but in the event, SS-Sturmbannfuhrer Walter Schellenberg, deputy chief of Reich state security, flew to Madrid. The operation was code-named Willi.


None of this took place in a vacuum, British intelligence not being utterly comatose, and Windsor known to them. He was never celebrated for discretion. It had been hastily arranged for him to become governor of the Bahamas, safely out of circulation. He was supposed to sail from Lisbon on August 1st, but mulish as usual, he was dragging his feet - his suspicions are being fed by German agents, who plant the idea that MI6 is plotting to assassinate him once he's aboard ship - and Schellenberg, now based in Lisbon, is wondering if simplest is best: why don't they just throw a blanket over the guy and smuggle him out of town? This admirably direct strategy is vetoed by Wilhelmstrasse, the Windsors set sail for the Bahamas, and the plan (such as it was) evaporates.

The issue isn't that Windsor was a vain and deeply unserious person, but that the Nazis, delusional as they were, had reason to think he might actually go along. David was a featherbrain,who probably deserved no better than the equally fatuous and self-absorbed Wallis. On the other hand, von Ribbentrop was generally regarded as a meathead by his own colleagues and in foreign chanceries - his one success the non-aggression pact with Stalin - and he lacked the imagination. Schellenberg, though, was nobody's fool, and wouldn't have chosen a fool's errand in Lisbon. So how did they persuade themselves? My guess is that it was wishful thinking. Hitler's main strategic objective was the defeat of Russia. He thought England would come to the bargaining table once Luftwaffe bombers began crossing the Channel, and it suited him to believe Windsor was more sympathetic to German aggrandizement than George VI. But as petty or foolish as David Windsor was, he must have realized he couldn't be a Nazi collaborator, a puppet king. It would have been beneath contempt.

We're left with speculation. Jack Higgins wrote a corker of a thriller about it. Schellenberg, in his memoirs, characterizes the whole episode as farce. Deborah Cadbury's recent book, PRINCES AT WAR, shows Windsor in an unflattering light, if she stops short of calling him a Quisling. In his memoirs, Windsor says he believed Germany was a military counterweight to the Soviet menace, but he never supported the Nazis. Which is it? There's no way of knowing. The man was shallow, written in water, and unexceptional. Only the circumstance of his birth gives him any historical weight, and simple accident put him in the crosshairs. Windsor had but one decent virtue. He was a stranger to himself, too oblivious to know better.




DavidEdgerleyGates.com

09 September 2015

Why We Fight, Pt. II

David Edgerley Gates


Last month, two U.S. Army officers, Capt. Kristen Griest and 1st Lt. Shaye Haver, were the first two women candidates to graduate Ranger school. This is an event to take pride in. Out of a field of four hundred, 25% made it. The others were washed out or set back, which gives you some idea how tough the course is. Not to diminish the effort they all made, but to suggest it's a steep gradient. A lot of us wouldn't qualify.

When the news broke, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee felt compelled to remark that the U.S. military isn't a social laboratory - they're meant to kill people and break things, is what he said. I take his point, but I think he's got it backwards. (He's also obviously taking a swipe at the retention of openly gay soldiers.)

In spite of being a deeply conservative, even intransigent, institution, the U.S. military has always been a social laboratory. The most intense combats we've fought are the Civil War and WWII, both of which brought enormous change. Viet Nam is of course a living memory to most of the people in my generation, but no matter how important it is, to us personally, and how divisive it was, to the country as a whole, I'm not sure it has as much historical significance as the other two. I could be proved
wrong. Viet Nam colors the thinking - strategic and political - of all our current senior commanders, and it's a perceived failure they don't want to see repeated. This leads to a kind of self-referential loop, or a fractured lens. It's a commonplace to say we're always fighting the last battle.

The point about the American Civil War, and the Second World War, is that they commanded near-total mobilization of men and resources. This is what sets them apart, in our experience. The machinery of the war effort was an engine that powered the new century. Few were left untouched by it. And then, afterwards, something similar happened both times. The peacetime Army drew down. It was more severe after the Civil War. 2 million men served under arms in the Union Army, and a million and a half fought for the Confederacy, but during the Indian Wars in the 1870's, the active-duty Army numbered no more than 30,000. WWII saw twelve million Americans serve. After demobilization, that figure dropped to a million-five.

The dislocations of war reflect broader social tensions and dislocations. To take one example, the Irish made up 10% of the Union Army - the Irish were also at the forefront of the New York draft riots, but they're a complicated clan - and a high proportion elected to stay in the military after the war ended. This at a time when professional soldiers were something of a despised class, and the Irish had a bad reputation to overcome, as well. It turned out to be a good career choice, in the main. More recently, although black GI's have served in every American war, there were few of them in combat during WWII, and that in segregated units, with white officers, but Truman fully integrated the services in 1948.

Women have played a supporting role - nurses and typists, although there were women pilots in WWII, not in combat, but ferrying resupply and aircraft into combat zones. The received wisdom being the usual boilerplate about upper body strength or lack of the warrior gene and all the rest, which still hasn't disappeared. Homosexuals have served with distinction, in spite of a prevailing locker room mentality. For that matter, so have Communist sympathizers and conscientious objectors.

In the end, it boils down to duty, not your politics, or your skin, or whether you sit down to pee. Lt. Haver and Capt. Griest have demonstrated that. They're the first but they won't be the last.

[This is a snapshot of my pal Michael Parnell, tired but happy, the day he himself completed Ranger training. I don't mean to make him self-conscious. He has every reason to be proud.]




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22 April 2015

Fury

by David Edgerley Gates

Okay, so it's a Brad Pitt picture, but forget about that Quentin Tarantino nonsense, and it ain't TROY. Brad Pitt's actually a good actor, not just a pretty boy. He himself once remarked that Hollywood is full of pretty boys, and whether or not you get noticed is by and large blind luck. In other words, don't take it for granted, and show up on time for the audition.

If you've read the Max Hastings book ARMAGEDDON, you get a convincing and frightening overview of the last year of the European war, from D-Day to the fall of Berlin. It was a savage, gruesome fight, with very little quarter given, on any side. FURY, like SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, is about a small engagement. It's
a platoon movie, in effect, a bunch of guys in a tight, claustrophobic space - a Sherman tank, this time around - hoping to make it through the war alive. Shermans were outgunned by the German Tigers, which had better armor and heavier weapons, and a direct hit could turn the American tanks into flaming coffins. Tanks are in fact ungainly and vulnerable, steel boxes with only a few exits, and FURY puts this across in clenched interior shots, most of which seem to be from underneath a guy's cramped knees. You don't get much in the way of omniscient viewpoint, or a sense of any larger battlefield strategy.

Are there generic conventions? I'm not sure war movies can avoid them. The hardened NCO, the green recruit who turns stone killer. The story arc with this kind of picture is usually about initiation, the learning curve, the so-called warrior mindset. I don't have a quarrel with it, but it's a narrative device. Although it rings true, it's still a contrivance, and over-familiar. And then there are things in the movie I wasn't right with. They execute a German prisoner in cold blood. Yes, no, maybe? We know there were incidents like this, even if they didn't make it into the record, or it was reported as shot trying to escape, but the way it was presented, as an object lesson, made me hesitate. Another thing that bothered me was seeing the tanks take point, with infantry creeping along behind. It seems like sound tactics - why expose yourself to enemy fire? - but I always had the impression armor and infantry leapfrogged each other on patrol, feeling out a hostile environment. Maybe somebody here with more hands-on can steer me right. Having said this, otherwise the movie felt honest. I didn't find it exaggerated or false.

Once the Allies pushed across the Rhine - and the Russians crossed the Oder from the East - Germany was finished. The question people ask is why they kept fighting. One answer is of course Hitler's insanity. Another is simply that the Wehrmacht was under discipline, even that late. And yet another is that they were hoping they could hold out for a negotiated peace in the West. Germans were terrified of what the Soviet armies would do to them, as conquerors, and their worst fears were realized, when the Russians did get there. If the Germans could hold the Eastern Front and buy time to make a deal with the U.S. and Britain, they might save themselves. It was a long shot, and never came to pass. In the end, Germany suffered total defeat, and the Russians sacked Berlin. Fury, indeed. More than enough to go around.

War pictures aren't necessarily everybody's cup of tea. The famous early ones, like ALL QUIET, are famous in large part as anti-war stories. And guys like Wellman and Ford - who weren't shrinking violets - made some ambiguous pictures between the wars. 'Between' the operative word. The movies that came out of American studios during WWII were flag-wavers, how not? Then a little doubt begins to creep in. There's a story I heard that somebody, and it might have been Wellman, told Lewis Milestone he thought A WALK IN THE SUN was fake from beginning to end, which is pretty strong. Point being, is authenticity the sell? And say it is, are you obligated in any way to watch these movies?

BAND OF BROTHERS more or less sets the bar, for my money. I own the boxed set, and I've done the whole thing three or four times. Then again, I had a girlfriend a few years back, who was a screenwriter, and she hated war pictures. Hated. I told her the screenplay for PATTON was a model of movie architecture, but she couldn't bring herself to sit down and plug in the DVD. I get it. The single most effective sequence in PATTON, to my mind, is the war prayer, the voice-over. It also happens to be the only scene where you see men stumble and die, the snow around them lit up with artillery impacts, and you count the cost. Where to draw the line? I haven't fully made up my mind.

We're saturated with images, some real, some imagined, and all of them manipulated for effect. They make us uneasy, or uncomfortable. There's a squirm factor. Robert Capa's famous photograph of a Spanish Civil War solder in the moment of his death, or the Saigon police chief, putting a bullet in the head of a
VC suspect. Do we need another one? FURY reminds us, I think, that war is a bitter business. Good men die. Sometimes they die for dumb-ass reasons, bad generalship, unnecessary objectives, being in the wrong place at the wrong time. It's not about the irony. It's that we seem to be hard-wired for the warrior gene. Which is still too convenient an answer, that the fault lies in our stars. Perhaps we're drawn, by instinct and muscle memory, to the elemental. To the point of no return, a place where choice determines nothing. We're in the hands of God, or mischance, and death is only the final accident of life.

The dead speak to us from a place we can't know, but we can hear their voices, if we listen for them. The lessons of war can be heard in the voices of the dead. They become interpreters. In this narrow sense, then, war stories have something to tell us. Of course, it's a mixed message.

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10 October 2013

Rewriting History

by Eve Fisher

There is nothing quite like the lure of rewriting history, whether personal, national, or the world at large.  Back in my teaching days, one of the projects students were given was to choose from a list of pivotal points, write what really happened (so that I could know that they knew something about what they were about to mess with) and then what would have happened if...


Charles Martel lost the Battle of Poitiers in 732 CE against the Islamic Umayyad Dynasty, which was trying to move up from (current-day) Spain into the rest of Europe.

William the Conqueror had been slain by a stray arrow in the invasion of 1066.  Or pneumonia.  I wasn't picky. 


The Athenians had won the Peloponnesian Wars of 431-404 BCE.  (HINT:  for one thing, Socrates might not have been tried and executed.)

WWI - What if the French soldiers' mutiny of December, 1916 had succeeded?

WWI - What if Russia had stayed in the war under Lenin?

WWI - What if the United States had maintained its isolationist stance and never gotten involved in WWI at all?

WWII - What if Japan had not attacked Pearl Harbor?

WWII - What if Germany had never declared war on the United States?

WWII - What if Mexico had signed a treaty with Germany and declared war on the US?  (Germany actually pursued this.)

WWII - What if Hitler had not invaded Russia, but stuck with hammering England instead?

I had a lot more of these, and the students loved them.  I got some great papers out of them.  People are fascinated by what might have been.

And they're also fascinated with what might have been on the personal level.  We all know people who are trapped in the "what might have beens", longing, looking, wishing that somehow they could change the past.  This desire to change history is one of the reasons, I think, so many people find it so hard to forgive, and I'm not just talking about the big stuff - because what they really want is not an apology, but for whatever it is NEVER TO HAVE HAPPENED.  And that's impossible, unless the alternate universe theory is true, and even if it is, fat lot of good it does us in this universe.




And, let's face facts, we've all played the game (I believe) on the personal level.  What are the five things that you wish you could change about your past?  If five are too many, try three.  Or one.  What would that change about who you are today?  Would it be worth it?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  I wish I had never started smoking (I'm proud to say that, as of this writing, I have been 3 years cigarette-free, which is still amazing to me).  I wish I had moved to that place, or stayed there, and a few other things I'm not going into here...  But then again (other than the cigarette thing), maybe not.

The truth is, I kind of like being my cranky, eccentric, bookaholic, mystery-writing, perambulating, muttering, sharp-tongued self.  I don't know that I'd trade it in on an alternate Eve.  But it's an interesting thing to think about. 







PS - Which of the above historical "what ifs" would you have picked?