World War II is not a war we have to live up to. It’s a war we have to learn from.
Image from Flickr via soldiersmediacenter
By Ramiro G. Hinojosa
Today marks the 70th Anniversary of D-Day, the launch of a massive Allied invasion seemingly unimaginable in contemporary times: Close to 1,500 Americans died during the largest air, land, and seaborne operation in military history. During World War II, nearly every citizen’s life was disrupted. From 1941-45, 18 million people served; more than 400,000 American service members died. People back home pitched in with war bonds, and industries switched their focus to manufacturing the necessary equipment for war. In contrast, 2.6 million Americans served in Iraq and Afghanistan, leaving a gap filled by contractors, who performed everything from private security to logistics, earning enormous profits, all while acting with limited to no accountability to the U.S. people.
Today, we refer to the men and women who fought in the Second World War as the Greatest Generation, a moniker that glosses over the moral debates that occurred at the time and creates an unrealistic standard with which to appraise the wars that followed. We often unfairly judge the war in Iraq, or Vietnam for that matter, in contrast to World War II without adequately considering the full historical reality: Not only were there strong isolationist attitudes in the U.S. at the time, especially before Pearl Harbor, but the war also relied on a controversial peacetime draft; approximately 61 percent of U.S. service members during that time were draftees. As WWII veteran James Jones wrote in From Here to Eternity: “We have a draft, a peacetime draft, the first in our history. Otherwise, we would not have the men. … We have no other choice; it’s either that, or defeat.”
The lead-up to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan would appear to tell an opposite story, with 9/11 providing a strong impetus for intervention but only a small portion of the country fighting the actual war: less than 1 percent of Americans served overseas during both conflicts.
Yet, despite these differences, studying literature from or about the Second World War reveals many similarities to our time. Like today, there were moral failures in combat, doubts about the war’s grandiose goals, and a divide among those who stayed home and those who fought. Reexamining those works gives us a well-rounded portrayal with which to compare our most recent wars and veterans.
In The Gallery—published only two years after the war ended— John Horne Burns depicts a cynicism toward the war effort that’s analogous to views held about the Iraq War:
Burns, who served in Italy during WWII, later hints at the possibility of redemption for soldiers who saw society’s moral structures crumble around them while fighting in Europe. Seeing real suffering among Italians (the lack of food, homes destroyed, loved ones lost), the narrator realizes the vacuum that Americans have been living in. He learns from Italian artists to always believe in “some worth in life,” including its love and violence, and recognizes that true art captures life, not distracts from it. Reflecting on that lesson, the narrator re-evaluates his perspective, saying:
Unlike Burns, Kurt Vonnegut saw no room for human redemption in his WWII novel Slaughterhouse-Five, which was published in 1969 as the anti-Vietnam War movement was hitting its peak. An American POW, Vonnegut wrote about the widespread destruction during the war, which he blamed on both sides’ tunnel visions when facing what each considered “pure evil.” Having witnessed 18,000-25,000 Germans die in the firebombing of Dresden, Vonnegut knew well that both the Axis and Allies were capable of committing atrocities.
In Vonnegut’s novel, Billy Pilgrim time travels—an action evoking PTSD flashbacks—between the battlefields of WWII and his life after the war, which includes time under captivity with aliens. The latter scenes at one point feature Pilgrim and an alien declaring their resignation to war:
“I suppose that the idea of preventing war on Earth is stupid, too.”
“But you do have a peaceful planet here.”
“Today we do. On other days we have wars as horrible as any you’ve ever seen or read about. There isn’t anything we can do about them, so we simply don’t look at them. We ignore them. We spend eternity looking at pleasant moments.”
Mailer captures each man’s internal struggle with their potential deaths, which leads to one’s inability to act, another’s lack of restraint, and ultimately the death of a Japanese prisoner.
Vonnegut mostly scrutinized acts ordered by officials in the highest reaches of the militaries and governments. Norman Mailer and James Jones—both of whom served in Guadalcanal—instead used their novels to examine the on-the-ground conditions that shaped individual soldiers’ attitudes.
In Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, published in 1948, soldiers cross a physical and moral threshold after a fierce battle with Japanese soldiers. Feeling weak from his near-death experience and indebted to his fellow soldier Sam Croft, who just saved his life, Red Valsen ignores his distrust for Croft and leaves a Japanese POW with him; he feels guilty and shameful, yet continues to walk away. Croft, reflecting on a previous Japanese attack, gives the crying Japanese POW chocolate, water, and a cigarette to calm him, and then suddenly shoots him in the head. Mailer captures each man’s internal struggle with their potential deaths, which leads to one’s inability to act, another’s lack of restraint, and ultimately the death of a Japanese prisoner.
When we ignore these consequences of war and whitewash combat as a result, we fail to comprehend that the blinders through which we experience war can sometimes conceal the humanity we march over on our way toward victory.
In The Thin Red Line, the second book in Jones’ war trilogy, Jones illustrates one soldier’s pained effort to justify similarly amoral acts after he learns of the gruesome killing of two fellow Americans by the Japanese. Jones writes:
Young Corporal Fife’s reaction was one of fear, disbelief and finally a massive horror…that any creatures who spoke a language, walked upright on two legs, dressed in clothes, built cities, and claimed to be human beings could actually treat each other with such fiendish animal cruelty. Obviously the only way really to survive in this world of humansocalledculture we had made and were so proud of, was to be more vicious, meaner and more cruel than those one met. And Fife, for the first time in his life, was beginning to believe he did not have the toughness of character which this demanded.
These novels from the “good war” help us understand the moral frustrations of war, the temptation to see everyone else as the enemy and to do something commensurate to them in return. After Pearl Harbor, we interned over 110,000 Japanese Americans, and unleashed two nuclear bombs on Japan, killing 185,000. When we ignore these consequences of war and whitewash combat as a result, we fail to comprehend that the blinders through which we experience war can sometimes conceal the humanity we march over on our way toward victory.
Many of these authors writing after WWII not only depicted soldiers’ struggles in war, they also detailed the trouble troops had returning to their communities and the bitterness they felt for those who didn’t fight. In The Naked and the Dead, soldiers in the Pacific are resentful toward those who stayed home, thinking they’re stealing their jobs and women. “Everybody was getting ahead of him while he was stuck here,” Mailer wrote of one soldier who had read a newspaper clip showing a former comrade’s promotion back home. Of the way Americans viewed the troops dying in Italy, Burns wrote: “Do they care as long as we preserve their standard of living for a few more years?”
When I served in the Army, I too felt resentful, wondering if anybody back home cared about what was happening overseas. But when I came home, I fell into months-long unemployment, unable to jumpstart my career while many of my cohorts had progressed in theirs. I simply wanted to return to what I was doing before I enlisted so I could catch up. Like some veterans, I became bitter, developing a sense of superiority or entitlement. I began to selfishly wonder where my reward was, all the while gradually losing track of what was happening in Iraq and Afghanistan. I became the same thing I once despised. Veterans and civilians often fail to understand and relate to each other’s struggles without making false assumptions. These novels show that while the civil-military divide that the country faces now may be worse than during WWII, largely because fewer people are affected by today’s wars, the phenomenon is nothing new.
Often times we fail to remember the people: not the heroes, not the victims, but our relatives, friends, neighbors and co-workers—the men and women who fought overseas for their country, but in doing so, sometimes lost their own moral compass
Whereas Burns and Mailer depict the animosity between those who fought and those who didn’t, Vonnegut and Jones capture the difficulty veterans have connecting to those closest to them. Describing a curt conversation between Pilgrim and his wife, Vonnegut writes:
“You must have secrets about the war. Or, not secrets, I guess, but things you don’t want to talk about.”
“I’m proud you were a soldier. Do you know that?”
Those discomforting conversations also feel familiar, similar to ones sparked by strangers in airports or family members at home. Often I’m proud of what I did, but that feeling is sometimes laced with embarrassment—at how little I accomplished, and how much Iraq has worsened since. Often times I miss the Army, where I was surrounded by those who shared my experiences; we had little to explain to each other. But this feeling, again, is not a product of any contemporary lack of respect for the military. In Whistle, the last novel of Jones’ war trilogy, Jones explores the abandonment soldiers feel once they separate from their units. Jones writes of Bobby Prell, who is on his way home after being wounded: “Without the old company, Prell did not really feel he belonged anywhere. And he was beginning to suspect that that was the way it was going to be, from now on, and go on being. All that was past, and in the past, and every hour and every mile put it further and further behind them all.”
We may no longer share the level of sacrifice required during World War II, but we do share its history. We have to stop looking at conflicts in black-and-white, or else we will fall into the same traps of previous wars, blinded by our righteousness and our disdain toward the people we were sent to help. We should take advantage of the literature to come out of that war, because although we may remember the battles, often times we fail to remember the people: not the heroes, not the victims, but our relatives, friends, neighbors and co-workers—the men and women who fought overseas for their country, but in doing so, sometimes lost their own moral compass; the many forever gone and the others who have returned, both of whom still have much to contribute not only to our history, but to our future. As James Michener, a Navy veteran, warned in Tales of the South Pacific: “They had an American quality. They, like their victories, will be remembered as long as our generation lives. After that, like the men of the Confederacy, they will become strangers. Longer and longer shadows will obscure them, until their Guadalcanal sounds distant on the ear like Shiloh and Valley Forge.”
Ramiro G. Hinojosa, a political research analyst in Austin, Texas, served in Iraq from 2006-07 with the 82nd Airborne Division. His nonfiction writing has appeared online at Tin House’s The Open Bar, Stars & Stripes, and The Dallas Morning News. He will begin pursuing his MFA in Creative Writing this fall.