Thursday, June 03, 2004

So, here's what I've been thinking about lately.
There are, it seems, two attitudes about World War II, the one that happened in Europe and the Pacific. You know the one. It was, in essence, the end of World War I, only with bigger guns, more advanced technology and better airplanes. Ah, yes. Now we're on the same page. It's the airplanes that really interest me, or at least that started this line of thought.
WWII was the end of the age of heroes. It was the end, really properly the end, of the NeoClassicism that held Western culture in sway for about six hundred years, more or less. This gives rise to two ways of looking at the war itself, a "just-post" and a "very-post." Probably, there will be an "ancient history" view arise, but it won't be in my lifetime. It has already started, with the belief that the Holocaust was a myth. The generation who saw the people taken out of camps can't deny that there were people hurt, killed and destroyed. The next generation has the stories of that generation to listen to, and can still feel a chill. With my generation, it's really too easy for that to take on a mythical quality. It happens faster now, as evidenced by the "moon landing myth" myth. I'm not going to call it a full-fledged attitude yet.
The "just-post" attitude was shaped by three huge factors: the end of the worst economic depression the United States had seen outside of civil war; the end of the Edwardian era, which followed the Victorian era and all it entailed; and the absolute horror of what had just happened in Europe and Japan. Despite what we would believe, Americans were a humble people. We were (and are, I'd very much argue) still in the shadow of our parent country, England. The culture of England at the time was still influenced heavily by Victorian morals and values, both of which called for extreme modesty and knowledge of place. As one of a gaggle of bar-sinisters of the Former British Empire, America had a sense of shame. What needed to be done was done, and no glory was necessary for performing necesseties. The Great Depression only served to heighten that sense. Here we were, the misbehaved bastard children of England, and we were absolutely broke. Sure, the rest of the world was too, but the attitude of the day called for introspection, knowledge that it didn't matter what the neighbors were doing, so much, as long as you were taking care of your business. And we didn't seem to be. America of the fifties were young enough to remember that. The generation who were having babies in the decades succeeding the war remembered having nothing and remembered seeing that nobody had anything. They were raised by parents who, even vicariously, were still mourning the death of Prince Edward. They saw news reel that showed things that had never been done to men with huge, terrifying machinery and guns that were bigger then even the imagination can do justice. They knew the horrors of war more directly than any generation before them.
So what does all this mean? A thousand thousand men left their homes in America, fought a huge war, and came home. It means they didn't talk about it much more than they had to. It means a generation of men got a lot of practice saying "I just did what needed to be done." The people back home had an inkling what happened over there, and they had no desire to know more. Men died horribly in the mud. Men were killed in hales of bullets. The details were probably best forgotten. If there was any doubt of that, we need only look at Vietnam. As a nation, we're still stigmatized by what we saw reported there, and by what we've since heard rehashed over and over by the soldiers. War has always been horrible. In this century, we've learned to photograph it. Up until World War II, most men didn't talk about it.
But there were heroes. There were people whose stories were reported to the people back home. There were villains, whose names were reviled but respected. Sure, there were armies of faceless men, but there were men in the front. That's the "just-post" view. A million faceless grunts and a hero in the front. It's the classic view of war. It's how the Trojan war was reported. We know Hannibal, but we don't necessarily know the names of his sergents. Napoleon and his generals are known. Who were the men on the field? They were an army of men doing what they had to do. There's nothing wrong with that view. It's how human history has viewed war for millenia. Like, roughly three of them.
And now it's the future. Now, America is run by a generation who did not live through the worst economic depression in American History. It is being run by the generation who Won the biggest war ever, and don't you forget it. We've become proud. We've become loud sloganeers for our Great Nation. We won. Our fathers leveled two cities in seconds just to prove a point, and that's not counting the countless cities they leveled over the course of years to prove the same point. We inherited the power to do the same, and we turned it into the power to level the planet in seconds just to keep proving the same point. Victoriana? Why, it's kitch. It's collectible. Humility? Well, sure, it's a fine thing. The horrors of war? Far removed or as close as possible, thank you very much. We've seen people blown up, shot, beheaded and executed, and that's just on the news.
And we've started coaxing the stories out of the soldiers. We now realize that every single person who fought in that war and lived has a story. Many people are collecting these and publishing them. This is the foundation that will allow WWII to become the stuff of legend two hundred years hence. It already seems that any amount of information you have on the war is a pittance. You can't know everything, so you can't know anything. The information available is confusing and complicated.
What year did the war start? Why, 1941, of course, when America joined in. Or 1939, when Hitler invaded Poland. Or 1933, when Hitler came to power. Or 1919, when Germany was screwed by the Treaty of Versailles (justly or not, whatever you believe. They got screwed, which lead to them deciding to pull themselves up by their bootstraps). Or 1914, with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. I'll stop.
The point: The classic view of WWII was of a few named heroes and a million faceless grunts; the modern view is of a million men, each with a story to tell.
That's what I've been thinking about lately. That, and work, of course. Always work.

9 comments:

MisterNihil said...

I sure am long-winded when I get down to it.

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