Thursday, May 23, 2013

Soldiers Behaving Badly

I read a book review in the New York Times that ties in nicely with the theme of the last post, the fact that  people of different countries have varying perspectives of WWII. The book reviewed is "What Soldiers Do: Sex and the American GI in World War II France" by Mary Louise Roberts. The book was just released, so I haven't had time to read it yet, but it is definitely going on my wishlist.

Roberts, a professor of French History at the University of Wisconsin, has mined French archives and U.S. military records to bring to light an apparent epidemic of sexual assaults committed by members of the American military upon French civilians during WWII. She makes the argument that these crimes were encouraged by American military propaganda dished out to soldiers prior to the D-day invasion, overlooked if not condoned by the military authority, and the knowledge of it concealed from the public back home.

As pointed out in the New York Times article, we have collectively mythologized WWII as "the good war" fought by "the greatest generation." I hasten to add a caveat: I believe (and I doubt many would argue with me) that the accomplishments of the American military, industry, and home front during the war were incredible. However, we have heard, and easily believe and retain, stories of wartime atrocities committed by the enemy (primarily the Germans and the Japanese) and even our allies (Soviets). But we're loath to read about any systemic criminal activity on the part of our own soldiers, much less war crimes committed against civilians, particularly rape and murder. But as Stanford's Professor David Kennedy is quoted in the New York Times, we should not be saying "aha," but instead be saying, "of course."

Several times in my life I have either read or heard someone utter some derivation of the statement "yes, bad things happen in war" when presented with a story of an American war crime. As if they are really saying, "sure, sure, now...can we move on to a story of American valor and courage where we are, of course, the good guys?" No doubt that WWII history is a genre that is consumed by the public. And most popular historians will write about subjects that sell. The story presented in "What Soldiers Do" is a wonderful example of the beneficial work that academic historians do. Someone needs to look at the tough subjects, even if they won't be popular in the marketplace. Terrible things do happen in war. But if we want to stop them from occurring, we have know about them. At the risk of being criticized for quoting Dr. Phil, "monsters live in the dark."

Friday, May 10, 2013

WWII, From Different Perspectives

May 8, 2013 was the 68th anniversary of V-E Day or "Victory in Europe" day (commemorated on May 7th in the Commonwealth countries). Of course it was mentioned on radio, television, and on the Internet in more locations than I could keep track of. But usually it came across as just an aside, like some small factoid of trivia, and just as quickly left behind for the next news item. However, a couple of articles I ran across made me think of how the Second World War continues to have an effect on many people around the world. Quite a few of them view those years quite differently than we Americans do.

Even before the era of the "Band of Brothers" our collective memory was shaped by our media. I grew up with movies like "The Longest Day" and the Vic Morrow in "Combat" reruns on television. I reveled in the war stories of my several relatives who were veterans of World War II (all of them survived the war and have since passed away). When the Army sent me to Germany in the mid-80s, I was no different than many Americans are now: with a detached and almost romanticized view of the war. None of the tragedy of war was handed down to me. It became a bit more real when I was exposed to some of the tangible effects. Trips to historic sites like Bastogne, Arnhem, and Dachau helped to make it real. More so the people I met who were affected by the war. My landlords father, Willie (I called him "ompa"), told me how he deserted from the Eastern Front in order to surrender to American forces near his home. Probably a good thing he did, as I dated a German girl whose father was held as a prisoner of war by the Russians for eleven years and did not make it back home until 1954! Her landlady was a 19-year old bride, married for only three weeks when her husband went to war, never to return and with no word of what happened to him. She never remarried.

I ran across a curious article from a Prague newspaper while surfing around about how Czechs remember the war. Basically, according to the article, they don't talk much about it. There are a few publishers in Czechoslovakia who print books on German Aces, but basically the war is forgotten in the collective memory of young Czechoslovakians. I had to give that some thought. From my perspective, Germany invaded Czechoslovakia and they country suffered as much as other Eastern European countries. But there are many ethnic Germans in the country and although over 140,000 Soviets died taking it back, the Czechs had to suffer through decades of communist rule as a Soviet satellite. So the Red Army can't possibly be the good guys. Rather than explain it, maybe they feel it's better not to talk about it?

What really tweaked my beak was the news release about Ireland passing a law that pardons those members of their military who left to join the military forces of Great Britain during WWII. Wait, what?! Still hard to wrap my brain around this. Ireland maintained neutrality during World War II. However, many of her citizens had ties to Great Britain, saw the threat to both England and Ireland, and chose to fight. "Around 60,000 citizens of the Republic of Ireland" fought in Allied armed forces, most of them for Great Britain. Almost 5,000 of them were members of the Irish military. Upon their return they were branded as deserters and placed on a formal blacklist, created by a law passed by their legislature, that prevented them from receiving their retirement, or any kind of government funded job. The law made them social pariahs and virtually condemned the veterans and their families to poverty. The people called the law the "starvation order." Now that enough time has passed, clearer thinking realized that the government of Ireland owed these individuals and their families an apology. Unfortunately, there are only about 100 of these veterans still living.

I have no conclusion to give you other than to state that I wanted to bring these stories to your attention. I hope that as we lose our WWII era veterans and their contemporaries who served on the home front, we will view that tragic time in American history for what it really was. That as a result of the sacrifice and tragedy of people around the world and here in the U.S., the war was followed by a time of great economic prosperity for America, the United States was positioned as a dominant world power, and a 45-year Cold War was initiated. I hope that the war will not be remembered only as a background setting for movies and television. I do trust that we will teach future generations its lessons learned through real events that were experienced by real people.

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