March 3, 2017

Global War by Lee Sandlin


By the time of Pearl Harbor the war had erupted in Norway and Mongolia, on Crete and in the Dutch East Indies; the Italian Army had marched on Egypt, and the German army was pushing into the outskirts of Moscow; there had been savage fighting in Finland north of the Arctic Circle and sea battles off the coast of Argentina. The United States was one of the last secluded places left on earth.

But the depths of that seclusion were still profound. This is one of the things about America in those days that's hardest for us to imagine now: how impossibly far away people thought the problems of the world were. It's not just that there was no TV, and thus no live satellite feed from the current crisis zone. America didn't even have a decent road system back then. Any long trip across the country was a fearsomely ambitious undertaking -- and foreign travel was as fanciful as an opium dream. People grew up with the assumption that anything not immediately within reach was inconceivably far away. It wasn't unusual for them to spend every moment of their lives within walking distance of the place where they were born -- and to die thinking they hadn't missed a thing.

[ Note: Another Excerpt from a long read on the realities of World War II: Losing the War - by Lee Sandlin]

There's a phrase people sometimes use about a nation's collective reaction to events like Pearl Harbor -- war fever. We don't know what a true war fever feels like today, since nothing in our recent history compares with it; even a popular war like the gulf war was preceded by months of solemn debate and a narrow vote in Congress approving military action. World War II came to America like an epidemic from overseas. Immediately after Pearl Harbor, recruitment offices all over America swarmed with long lines of enlistees; flags and patriotic posters popped up on every street and store window; wild and hysterical cheers greeted the national anthem at every rally and concert and sporting event. Overnight the war was the only subject of conversation in the country; it was the only subject of the movies you could see at the local theater (Blondie and Dagwood were absorbed into the war effort in Blondie for Victory; Sherlock Holmes came out of retirement to chase Nazi spies in Sherlock Holmes in Washington). War was the only acceptable motif in advertising: for years after Pearl Harbor every manufacturer of spark plugs and orange juice routinely proclaimed that its product was essential to an Allied victory.

In an earlier time poet Rupert Brooke had written that people hurried into war out of the moral griminess of civilian life "like swimmers into cleanness leaping." In World War II the leap was perfect, complete, and profound. To the end there were none of the signs of disaffection we've come to expect from Americans over the course of a long war: no peace rallies, no antiescalation petition drives, no moves in Congress for compromise or a negotiated settlement. Men who appeared able-bodied found themselves harassed on the street by strangers demanding to know why they weren't in uniform; baseball players who hadn't yet enlisted, godlike figures like DiMaggio and Williams, were loudly booed by the hometown crowd when they came out on the field.

American soldiers early on grew accustomed to the idea that the truth of their experience wasn't going to be told to the folks back home. They knew the score: despite the drone of triumph surrounding their every deed, the American entry into the war was a gory fiasco. The military had been caught wholly unprepared and was rushing troops into battle all over the world with a minimum of training and a maximum of chaos. To this day, if you ask any veteran for war stories, what you're likely to hear first is some appalling epic of American military incompetence. Every unit rapidly accumulated its share of grim legends. There was the arrogant lieutenant fresh out of officer school who was assigned to lead troops into battle and turned coward under fire or was fatally befuddled by ambiguous orders. There was the murderous stupidity of a supply clerk up the line who contemptuously mishandled an urgent request for emergency provisions -- on Guadalcanal, for instance, desperately needed drinking water arrived in used oil drums nobody had thought to wash out first. And there was the almost daily occurrence of the routine patrol turned into a nightmare by friendly fire. Friendly fire was a worse problem in World War II than in any other American war before or since. American troops on the ground were so frequently bombed by their own planes that they were known to shoot back with their heaviest guns.

The folks at home learned none of this. The news was being censored of course: American reporters in the field, like those of every combatant nation, had to submit all stories for official clearance, and reporters who tried to describe the war honestly would quickly find their stories going unapproved and their press credentials in doubt. But the First Amendment was still in force back home; unlike the newspapers of the Axis, which were wholly given over to government-enforced fantasies of imminent global triumph, American newspapers were still free, at least in theory, to publish whatever they liked. Some of them did so: the Library of America's Reporting World War II anthology contains reasonably honest and critical pieces from major newspapers and magazines on conditions in the internment camps, on the lack of enthusiasm for the war in African-American ghettos, and on the institutionalized racism of the military. But when it came to what was happening on the battlefields themselves the unbreakable silence closed in.

Losing the War - by Lee Sandlin]

Posted by gerardvanderleun at March 3, 2017 1:12 PM
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

The truth can be a paintul thing. Individual initiative and fate not well executed and thoughtful plans,saved the day in WWII and elsewhere at an astounding rate - D Day is a frightening example.
Excellent read.

Posted by: Dan Patterson at March 3, 2017 12:31 PM

Actually, there were, even in those days, plenty of people who did not see any reason for going to war with Japan. Check out the study of Theodore Geisel's editorial cartoons in the book "Dr Suess Goes to War" by Richard H Minear. IIRC, even as late as April, 1942, there were letters to the editor questioning the war effort, and Geisel's cartoons addressed that reluctance.

Posted by: The Old Salt at March 3, 2017 2:25 PM

The US military is one of the world's largest socialist organizations,

Who can be surprised by their serial fuck-ups?

Posted by: Bill Jones at March 3, 2017 5:23 PM

I was eight on Dec. 7th, 1941. We clustered around the RCA radio in our house and listened to the news. My two brothers (ages 12 and 5) and I didn't exactly know what it all meant. But we knew it was serious and our lives were going to change. In our small village of 700 people all able bodied men under 30 left to join up. Our father left to help build the Sand Point Naval Station in Idaho and later to build the Kaiser steel mill in Salt lake City. That lead eventually to our parents' divorce.

We lived in a small mountain town where air crews in training at Lowry Air Force base would come for R&R. Mostly they road horse back and drank (actually quite a lot) at the local bar. The last ones we saw were headed for Saipan and Tinian to fly B-29s over Japan.

We collected scrap paper, cardboard, tin foil, cans, rubber bands, bacon grease, and every bit of scrap metal we could find laying around anywhere. Every week or two a truck would haul our collection efforts away to Denver, which at that time was a six hour drive away.

Our only news was on the radio and at the weekend movie where they ran a movietone news on the war effort. Gasoline, tires, meat, butter, and many other things were rationed. Few complained. Most everybody pitched in. My brothers and I knew that if the war lasted long enough, we would be leaving for the military. There was never any question about it in our minds, It was what you did.

I remember VJ Day. We all cheered. People danced in the streets. Cars honked their horns all day long. There was a tremendous sense of jubilation.

It was a different sort of childhood than one has today, but I treasure the lessons I learned and miss the spirit of cooperation and pulling together that is sadly lacking in our world today.

Posted by: Jimmy J/ at March 3, 2017 8:56 PM

Jimmy - Exact same story 2,000 miles east in central IN, except my Dad came by where another kid and I were playing and told us about it. I was 10 at the time. Probably the same all over the country, except perhaps for certain parts of NYC.

Posted by: BillH at March 4, 2017 6:58 AM

I believe that I along with almost every other American citizen am a sheep. I need the dogs to keep me safe from harm by the wolves who are abroad in the world. I don't think I want to know what the dogs do. Really I don't - because if I did I would need to consider more deeply what it means to be a loving human being.

I don't know if there is a good, reasonable answer to war reporting. Do we wish to win or do we wish to lose or do we wish to just draw it out into a long conflict. Those seem to be the answers.

I would rather win, let the strong who are called to defend me do so with all their courage, strength, and might.

When they have won, I will ask for forgiveness from my God for them and for me.

Posted by: Graceia at March 4, 2017 12:53 PM

Just as a for instance, there were several significant (four) naval battles off Guadalcanal in 1942 (two of which the US Navy got beaten badly), and the details of those battles were a long time coming to public knowledge. One battle was something of a tactical defeat but a strategic victory (we drove off the large Japanese surface force). Even the Japanese were not sure of all the outcomes of these battles, and publishing the details would actually aid the enemy. The US Navy actually lost more men at sea off Guadalcanal than the Marines and Army lost on the ground on that island.

Yes, military history of all nations is full of screw ups. There were a lot by the US Army, Army Air Force, US Navy and Marines in WWII, and only later after the war was won has history and scholarship revealed some of the worst mistakes, mistakes that cost a lot of lives.

Yet, our enemies did much worse, and even their own leadership refused to believe the true intelligence that their own people told them. The Germans, Japanese, and Russians all made COLOSSAL mistakes in WWII, which literally cost millions of lives. War is full of tragedy and waste.

Most of the young men in my father's high school class all went to war in 1942. Some of them never came home. I wonder how today's teenagers would grasp that grim fact?

WWII was a "great" victory. My father told me how disillusioned he was after he came home at the end of the war. A lot of vets were; they had seen great efforts, losses of friends and lot more. And then the peace seemed bungled in many ways, from the view of veterans who had served. There was a phrase that some of the soldiers in "Band of Brothers" used for what they hoped for after the war for America; kind as Christ and stronger than Hell. So there would not be another war like that one again.

War is a terrible thing. It's best to always remember that.

Posted by: David at March 4, 2017 1:25 PM

What an exhausting screed. Sandlin evidently can't make up his mind on how he feels about the Allies winning WWII.

The reason for that, as has been pointed out already in this thread, is that he's too young to understand what it means to have enemies: a Baby Boomer weaned on the Cultural Marxist confusion. I presume he's in his 60's, but it's apparent he's unlikely to grow up.

Posted by: Rob De Witt at March 4, 2017 6:01 PM

Exactly, Rob. I made it almost all the way through, and then he decided that the atom bomb was a line too far, after we had already burned Tokyo to the ground and killed more people in that raid.

Posted by: Christopher Hunt at March 4, 2017 8:23 PM

"They soon invented a ritual to be performed as soon as they were fitted with their new uniforms. They'd rush out to photographers' studios and document the occasion for their proud families. The mantels and nightstands of America were strewn with these relics -- soldiers posed with quiet dignity against a studio backdrop, half turning to face the camera with an expression both grave and proud." --Taylor

I have one of these--not a photo, but a chalk rendering on a metal plate, carefully preserved--of my great-uncle John Simpkins (1920-2000). Soft-faced, but steely-eyed. The eyes are identical to those of the man I knew much later--a black man who served in a segregated armed forces of that day.

It is one of my greatest treasures.

Posted by: baldilocks at March 4, 2017 8:59 PM

I grew up in a house with one of those, Baldi - the only image I was allowed of the father I never knew.

Somehow his essential sweetness came through, even in the tinted portrait of a 26-year-old private. I never saw a picture of him angry, even in the photos I finally found in my mother's trunk when she passed 50 years later.

Posted by: Rob De Witt at March 5, 2017 12:05 AM

The true story of the First Wave at Omaha Beach.

The story that is never, ever told:

Here's a good PDF: "Thank God for the Atomic Bomb"

A strictly military view of the planning of "Operation Downfall" i.e. The invasion and conquest of Japan which would have cost literally tens of millions of lives, close to a million of which would have been Allied lives.

Also, anyone who wants to know about widespread Soviet influences in our own government, up to and including probable Soviet agent Harry Hopkins' profound influence on our sainted FDR (may they both burn in hell and be ass-raped by Muhammad throughout eternity), and how we sold our souls to Stalin should buy and read Diana West's wonderful book, "American Betrayal" and watch her u-tube videos.

I dare you to watch her videos and not come away with an entirely new perspective on WWII.

Posted by: Fuel Filter at March 6, 2017 10:05 AM

Charles Lindbergh speech, September 11, 1941

Posted by: itor at March 6, 2017 7:54 PM