Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The Duality of the "Good War"

Can we view both of these photos as equally important?

Two notable 70th anniversaries of the Second World War have been on my mind lately--two events that are remembered in very different ways.  The final phases of the global conflict were grinding to a tumultuous end, yet the level of carnage became only more gruesome.  Two equally compelling events of February 1945 continue to denote our contrasting perceptions of what WWII was.  I speak of the controversial bombing of Dresden and the glorified flag raising on Iwo Jima.  The former military action symbolizes the war we tend to forget while the latter is the type we prefer to commemorate on monuments and shot glasses.  Seven decades later, the dissimilar memories of these moments are emblematic of one-sided interpretations of World War II.

Our tale begins with a twenty-two year-old GI named Kurt Vonnegut.  Later to become the internationally-known novelist and jeremiad, the young Indianan was merely a weary infantryman in the fall of 1944.  While serving as a forward scout in the U.S. 106th Infantry Division during the Battle of the Bulge, Vonnegut was wounded and captured by a German patrol on December 19.  “We were obliged to stay and fight,” Vonnegut recalled in a typed letter to family six months later. “Bayonets aren't much good against tanks: Our ammunition, food and medical supplies gave out and our casualties out-numbered those who could still fight—so we gave up.”  Although he later received the Purple Heart, Vonnegut was altered by what he experienced in the scorched landscapes of Europe.  In this context, medals and commendations mattered little to him.  “The 106th got a Presidential Citation and some British Decoration from Montgomery,” he wrote.  However, “I'll be damned if it was worth it. I was one of the few who weren't wounded. For that much thank God.”

Pvt. Kurt Vonnegut
Transferred to a POW train streaming into the German heartland, Vonnegut and his fellow prisoners were “loaded and locked up, sixty men to each small, unventilated, unheated box car.”  The confining cars were caked in fresh cow manure and, appropriately enough, the GIs were packed in like cattle.  Along the freezing journey, Vonnegut experienced one of the most terrifying episodes of warfare: friendly fire.  An Allied plane strafed his train, killing some 150 Americans on board.  This slim escape from death would not be Vonnegut’s last.

Eventually reaching a work camp in Dresden, the cadre of prisoners was in for more hurdles.  Reflecting upon the “fanatical” soldiers who watched over him, Vonneget wrote, “We were refused medical attention and clothing: We were given long hours at extremely hard labor. Our food ration was two-hundred-and-fifty grams of black bread and one pint of unseasoned potato soup each day.”  Comrades died of starvation.  Others were executed in their vain attempts to steal food from their captors.  Tensions escalated and the POWs grew increasingly wary of tasks and inadequacies of their daily lives.  Yet all those fears paled in comparison to what awaited them.

Throughout early 1945, Dresden—a city purportedly of little strategic value—was targeted by Allied air commanders largely for vengeance.  In answer to the bombings of London and several other non-strategic locations in England, the Allied high commanded were fully committed to retaliatory air raids on civilian populations.  Dresden, Germany was among their objectives.  (Recent studies suggest that Dresden possessed more military and industrial significance than what was previously acknowledged in postwar histories.)

From February 13-15, 1945, the Allies unleashed a firestorm of high explosives and incendiaries.  Over 9,000 tons of bombs were dropped on the historic city.  The incendiary bombs blazed through the centuries-old buildings and over 12,000 structures were completely ravaged by the inferno.  At least 25,000 to 35,000 civilians were killed.  (Politically-driven number crunchers after the war inaccurately claimed ten times those figures were lost.)  No exact quantity of fatalities is known due to the large amount of refugees taking shelter within the city at that moment.  The joint British-American raids were dreadfully successful in battering the will of the German people to continue the war they initiated.  Twelve square miles of what Vonnegut called “possibly the world's most beautiful city” burned into a smoldering heap of red hot cinders.  Untold thousands perished, he admitted.  “But not me.”
During the hellish barrage, Vonnegut and his captured comrades took refuge in an underground meatpacking cellar known as Slaughterhouse Five.  He was one of only seven American prisoners to survive the bombing.  His extraordinary experiences became the basis for his best-known novel, Slaughterhouse Five, published twenty-four years later.  The madness and complexities of warfare and human nature became the pillars of many of Vonnegut’s prophetic writings.
Twenty-five year old British POW Victor Gregg was also held in the city during the bombardment.  Like Vonnegut, he was saved by the durability of an underground shelter.  Afterward, he recalled the incessant cacophony of horrid sounds rising from the city’s flames: “[A]s if the Devil himself decided the torment the people were suffering was insufficient, above the noise of the wind and the roar of the inferno around us came the agonised screams of the victims as they were roasted alive. It was these fiendish visions that brutalised my mind in later years.”

The horror was not over.  The remaining POWs were forced by German soldiers to help bury the burned and mutilated bodies.  Vonnegut remembered: “After that we were put to work carrying corpses from Air-Raid shelters; women, children, old men; dead from concussion, fire or suffocation. Civilians cursed us and threw rocks as we carried bodies to huge funeral pyres in the city.”  The apocalyptic and smoke strewn landscape was “Utter destruction.  Carnage unfathomable.”  His work was in vain.  There “were too many corpses to bury. So instead the Nazis sent in guys with flamethrowers. All these civilians' remains were burned to ashes.”  Similar destruction of war-torn Berlin is depicted in Vonnegut’s Mother Night—another masterful literary contemplation on war and loyalty.

Vonnegut was inexorably affected by the military devastation unleashed upon civilian populations.  A sense of guilt consumed him.  Flashbacks of suffering people led to contemplations of suicide in 1970 after he witnessed the horrors of disease and malnutrition on a trip to Africa.  (Equally troubling was the suicide of Vonnegut's mother while he was in the Army).  This horrid combination of tragedy left an indelible mark on the aspiring writer’s life.  In his own words, he just “wanted out of here.”

War in its purest form: Dresden after the firebombings.

Were the Dresden raids justified?  Did they reconcile for Hitler's V-2 rockets thundering into London?  The bombardment of civilians was regardless a form of retribution against the consummate evil of the Third Reich.  Yet, the Allies embraced total war strategy that Hitler himself approved.  We partially became what we fought.  The resulting collateral damage was unparallelled.  On the other hand, perhaps the greater moral wrongdoing would have been to lose the war by foregoing the bombings.  These are the dark dilemmas we must confront.  I do not have the clear answers.

Accordingly, we must also tackle the sanitized attitudes of WWII.  Referred to as the "Good War" for many valid reasons, this phrase is yet an oversimplification of the era.  Citizens are swept away by the romanticization of the war: Big Band music, classic cars, sexy pinups, the perceived nobility of the Greatest Generation.  The 1940s was all these things, but not in its totality.  We need only to look to an event one week after Vonnegut barely survived Dresden to see how true this is.  70,000 Marines and American personnel invaded the eight square-mile island of Iwo Jima in February 1945 with mind-boggling ramifications.  Nearly one out of three Marines who charged across Iwo's bleak landscape became casualties.  For Americans of the time, Joe Rosenthal's subsequent photograph of six Marines raising the stars and stripes atop the island's Mount Suribachi rightfully became emblematic of sacrifice and endurance.  Today, I sense this is no longer the case among Americans.

Honoring history?
The imagery of the Iwo Jima flag raising has become a commodity--a visual that has been emblazoned upon every manner of merchandise and kitsch conceivable.  This in and of itself is not inherently bad.  However, this process of pageantry steers us away from the darker realities of the Pacific war.  Most Americans can identify the Iwo Jima photo but only a vast minority can tell you why it happened or what it meant.  We have lost the contexts of struggle and sacrifice--removing us further from the grim complexities of warfare in our own era as well.  A recent U.S. Naval Institute article has deemed Rosenthal's image the most "parodied" photo in history.  If anything, this pattern reinforces "'Murican" exceptionalism and invincibility--both increasingly dangerous views in an age of globalization and instability. 

Ceremonial display associated with the photo is honorable and warranted.  In fact, the image proved so profound in 1945 that it helped raise in excess of $23 billion in war bonds--feasibly winning WWII.  But that was then and this is now.  Without true comprehension of war and its ugliness, the Rosenthal photo becomes nothing more than a cliched blanket statement about indomitable heroics.  Context is everything.  On this note, our inability to recognize the duality of war is what perpetuates war.  As a result, we should contemplate the Dresdens of history as much as the Iwo Jimas of history.  This just might help us in the long run. 


1 comment:

  1. Fantastic article, Mr. Frederick! An excellent balance of well-presented fact, and burning questions that more of us today should be asking. I look forward to reading more of your thoughts, and to welcoming you and the troops aboard the streetcar again later this month!