Clearly, World War I was not the War to End All Wars, and neither was its successor, exactly. But next week, in marking the 70th anniversary of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, in some ways we remember the moment when a definitive seismic shift began: Old World to New, Machine Age to machine state, analog to digital. And, perhaps most significantly, from reality to its evil twin.
I grew up in the war’s shadow, in a time when the world was still shedding its debris, the shattered remnants of the Analog World. In movies and television as a kid, but increasingly in books since then, The War, as I came to know it, emblemized my country. And it still does, although most of my parents’ generation, who lived and fought it, is gone and today’s United States looks little, physically or demographically, like the one they fought for.
The War cycles through my reading regularly—most recently via The Storm of War, by Andrew Roberts. Note for authors: Refrain from subtitling your book, A New History of the Second World War, because it inevitably begs a question: Why do we need a new one? Roberts’ roughly 700 pages profit from the author’s visits to battle sites and museums, and from access to unpublished British archives. These include transcripts of British eavesdropping on captured German generals, confirming them mostly corrupt and willing enablers of Adolf Hitler.
This is nothing new, and neither is the idea that Hitler’s ideological mind-set accelerated the failure of his incompetent strategizing. Roberts barely sketches the War in the Pacific, although he scrutinizes Japanese brutality in the Philippines. So he is destined for a lesser rank in a war chronicle pantheon that includes John Keegan (The Second World War), Antony Beevor (Stalingrad, D-Day) and Winston Churchill (The Second World War).
Like many Americans of mostly European descent, I have been much more engaged with the European Theater, and over time I have come to see that term as unintentionally revealing. As Paul Fussell and other soldier-writers have noted, The War perfected the calling of public relations. When you lose, it’s propaganda, but for the winners there is only successful marketing.
World War I might have showcased the irony of chivalry in mechanized combat, but World War II struck a new ironic note: the distance between reality and the War Effort, the nationwide embrace of patriotic enthusiasm. The best war novelists treat this disjunction from different angles. Think of Yossarian’s willful derangement in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, or Billy Pilgrim’s time/space estrangement in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. Arguably the best American war novel is Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, in which not only is The War something other than what it seems, but at times appears to be a living force of shadowy global greed. Theater, indeed.
Probably the most enduring myth of the European Theater is that We Won It. Clearly it was true of our fight with Japan, but while U.S. involvement in Europe hastened Hitler’s end, Roberts and other historians point out that Josef Stalin had a nearly endless supply of soldiers and no reason to negotiate with a man who had betrayed him. For ordinary Russians, trapped between tyrannies, tragedy overwhelmed irony. That’s why the best novel about The War is Life and Fate, Vasily Grossman’s once-suppressed epic about a family and its circles navigating one evil while fighting another.
For many Russians, and other Europeans, the greatest irony of all might be that Germany seems to be holding the world together at the moment. That Angela Merkel and a legion of Euro-crats could force governments to capitulate and comply is a twist worthy of Pynchon.