Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Human Smoke

Because it is one of favorite topics, I suppose I have to read Human Smoke. From the adulatory LA Times review and the condemnatory NY Times review, it appears this myth-busting book suffers from engaging in its own myths. As I mentioned before, focusing on Churchill and Roosevelt without giving equal time to Stalin makes no sense.

Like World War One before it, World War Two was about Germany reacting to its strategic position through aggressive invasion with a focus on a fear of Russia. The strategy in World War One was to knock out France and then turn the energy to Russia. As it happened, Germany got bogged down in France but defeated Russia. In World War Two, they tried it again, this time defeating France but being defeated by Russia. The war was primarily fought by two collectivist horrors, one right wing and one left wing, but both disastrous for their subject peoples. The Allied role, except in the Pacific, was primarily a side-show.

Are people, who read history books, really unaware that the war was, in fact, bad? Studs Terkel wrote the ironically titled The Good War back in the 80s and it sold rather well. Cultural critic and veteran Paul Fussell's Boy's Crusade is a searing account of the hellish experience of American soldier in Europe and labels it a waste. With the Old Breed presents the view of the foot soldier in the Pacific in all its terror. Antony Beevor's Fall of Berlin revealed the terrors visited upon the German populace by the Red Army and Allied bombers. Anyone who has done any reading in the field should be well aware that this war is the worst thing that has ever happened.


Brack said...

Add Max Hasting's Armageddon to the list of books debunking some of the myths that have accreted to WWII. Hastings demonstrates (albeit with 20/20 hindsight) that the Anglo-Americans could have wrapped up the Western European campaign nearly a year earlier than they did, had they shown more stones at both the tactical and strategic level. Hasting's suggests that there may be a good deal of truth to the long-held Russian gripe that the Western Allies simply coasted along, leaving the Red Army to break the back of the Wehrmacht in the East; Hastings supports this notion with the accounts of numerous German soldiers, who apparently viewed deployment on the Western Front as an R&R gig compared to slogging it out in the Ukraine. Hastings does a masterful job of addressing the more subtle tragedies of WWII, such as UK Bomber Command's insistence on decimating targets of remote military value (e.g. Dresden) simply because they were on a check list, when those air assets could have been put to better use (and perhaps brought the Wehrmacht to its knees) by knocking out Germany's oil refineries in the Balkans.

Anonymous said...

It is very, very hard to counter the cultural myth of the "good war." Almost everything you read about it (or, I should clarify, everything I've read about it, which is not enough) finds the author throwing out the caveat, "Well, of course, as we all know, WWII was necessary and just." It's hard to correct for that kind of sloppy thinking in almost all of your news reporting, books, histories, etc.

Also? The WWII generation is in love with itself, if sales of Tom Brokaw's "The Greatest Generation" is any indication. Hard to correct for that as well.

Tripp said...


I think part of the problem with statements like necessary and just (or good) is that the war could have been one or not the other. My own take (for which I can provide rationale in the unlikely case you are interested) is that the war was the best (among many bad) choice for Roosevelt. Its conduct was initially just but spun out of control into the unjust.

As to the greatest generation, yes I think there is some over-celebration there, although I think every generation loves (or to be more truthful, fixates on itself ) more than others. Also I think the current (meaning mine and the two next to mine) generation would not do so well against something as massive as the Nazis.


Tripp said...

But I can see your irritation as it nonetheless.

And I wish Baker wouldn't swap one simplistic view with another.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Tripp,
I agree with pretty much everything you've said here. I don't really like unthoughtful, simplistic nonfiction of any kind, so simply referring to any war as "good" and leaving it at that is too easy. Or simply designed to sell, which is understandable but not all that laudable.

Generations in love with themselves? At least my slacker generation is too lazy even for self-adulation...ha! You're right on that, too, of course.

Tripp said...

Regarding slackers (my generation as well) I was thinking our generation is in love with its irony and detachment! A stretch, I know.