The History Lens

For me, World War Two has always been something that happened a long time ago. But consider this: when I was born, the war had ended less than twenty years before. Now it’s been over for more than seventy years. But to me, it doesn’t feel three times as distant. It was always far in the past.

The Wild West was still a credible idea in 1900, sixty-four years before my birth. Now those days are 116 years in humanity’s rear-view, essentially twice as distant, but to me that era is no farther than it always has been.

For all the future shock and whatnot we’re supposed to be reeling from, from where I sit the last fifty years are “now”. Everything that came before is ancient history. We have phones that surpass Star Trek technology, but I’ve been alive since the first airing of the show and the technology has all been part of a logical continuum. As a kid I rode in Jetliners and looked at pictures of B-17’s. Since I didn’t live through the transitional times, giant propeller-driven planes seem absolutely disconnected from my world. Ancient history.

There are still plenty of people out there for whom B-17’s are “now”. First-person memory. They experienced the intervening decades and it all ties together. But here’s a funny thought: I don’t think there’s much in my “now” that’s not also in kids-these-days’ “now”. The Old West, a couple of world wars, those are things that are truly over. But during my lifetime, what with its prosperity and unprecedented period of world peace, there hasn’t been that thing that historians hang their hat on. There have been major events, sure, but nothing like a world war, or the annexation of a continent and the glorified subjugation of its indigenous peoples.

Jet airplanes, the electric guitar. My parents remember a time before those. Between my birth and now, nothing’s really changed. We’ve just gotten better at doing the same stuff. Yeah, Internet blah blah. But Facebook is just a phone with everyone talking at once.

I was going to stop there, but then I had another splash of blended scotch whiskey (to avoid the oxymoron I call it “gluggin’ scotch” in my head) and projected forward. What might make the life I live now ancient history?

Sure, kids born in the near future will never know what it was like before the human genome was sequenced, and will never appreciate the Las-Vegas methodology we use to create medicine right now (which is itself a huge improvement on what came before). But will they feel it? Will they look back on Amoxycillin the way I look at a B-17? I doubt it, but it would be cool if they did. “Back in those days someone who had cancer would drink poison and hope it killed the disease first.” They’d say that like they were looking at a black-and-white photo of General Custer.

That is the happy science-fiction ending. I have a feeling, however, that tomorrow’s B-17’s are the outline of Florida as we know it and the existence of New Orleans. Corpus Christi, Seattle. There will be people who remember Venice and those who for whom it is a legend. Ancient history.

4 thoughts on “The History Lens

  1. Yes, the “war” was over 70 years ago. For me, the “war” started about a year and a half after I was born, when the bombs fell on Pearl Harbor and the nation was plunged into Hell. As a young boy, I knew the widows, the younger brothers and sisters, and grieving fathers and mothers of the boys older than I who left and never returned.

    My own stepfather returned from the Aleutian Islands with lungs scarred by frostbite and a bitter attitude. Among his papers was a transcript of a young Japanese officer’s diary that I found one day. The memory of what I read in that diary haunts me; I was a teen when I read it. The notion of the “good guys” putting down the “bad guys” died in my mind that day. The young officer missed his wife, his children, his home, and the life he’d been forced to leave behind. He and his entire command died on those frozen wastes. My stepfather came home; somewhere in Japan a young widow and her children waited. If they still lived.

    I and other boys of that age sat in stuffy classrooms, waiting for the Civil Defense sirens to blow; waiting for the order to “duck and cover” under our desks; waiting for the blinding flash.the explosive shower of glass from imploding windows and walls. Other times, we’d fill blank notebook pages with elaborate drawings of aerial combat scenes, the blazing trails of tracers from B-17 gun turrets streaking into the attacking German fighters. We all had visions of war burned into our consciousness from Saturday MovieTone newsreels and Life Magazine photo spreads.

    Chain link fences screening military properties bore large yellow signs with stark black lettering: “Photography Forbidden.” Ration books and coupons were a daily fact of life. My parents planned everything around the fact of too few tires, too little gasoline, and short-listed grocery shopping.

    We Saved the World for Democracy. The American Way of Life triumphed over all Enemies. It was glorious. Flags flew from every home, window, lampost, and public building. Veterans in proud dress uniforms marched in every hometown parade for every holiday.

    The darkness came when shadows of mushroom clouds fell over the land, but we never fought another war. Korea, where many more of my older friends died, was not a war but a “police action.” We learned to truly hate the brutal, Godless Communist yellow-faced horde that wire-tied the wrists of captured American soldiers behind their backs and shot them in the back of the head, leaving their corpses to lay in frozen roadside ditches. Our national sensibility was shocked by this inhuman disregard for the accepted rules of war. Who are these evil, Communist North Korean and Chinese troops? Why are we losing to them? We left Korea with a great national sense of disquiet, discomfort, and suppressed shame.

    As a high school student I read magazine articles about the fall of the French in Dien Bien Phu, the humiliation, defeat, and blood-drenched disgrace of the French expulsion from their former colony. Later I struggled to understand why we, a nation with no former interest in that region, would draft more thousands of my older friends to take up rifles and grenades and leap into those blood-drenched ditches where so many French soldiers had died. Did we, in our “war” heritage of indomitable invincibly think it our mission to teach the village-dwelling, sandal-clad “insurgents” opposing Western democratic rule the error of their way?

    Vietnam was far more painful and humiliating than Korea but we still suffer the illusions of the “war” that thrust America into world leadership. We do not suffer the lessons of history. We do not look back. Today we look into the Middle East, the South China Sea, the Caucasus, and still we have fought no war. Thousands and thousands more have dies, including many of my younger and older friends. I survived.

    When the night is very still, and my mind wanders, I recall the words of that young Japanese officer who was ripped from his family, his loved ones, and sent to a frozen wasteland to spill his blood for honor, duty, and country. And I grieve for him.

    We do not remember. We do not learn. We do not grieve sufficiently.

  2. Um, dang. To say thanks for sharing that is tiny. But, thanks for sharing that.

    Kurt Vonnegut once said, more or less, that the worst thing that happened in World War Two was that we were so absolutely and unequivocally right. It put into our souls a belief in our own righteousness, that has led us into many other ill-advised conflicts.

  3. Hubris. Wife and I purchased a county-seat newspaper in central Idaho some years ago. Somehow I acquired a vintage .38 Army officers revolver. During one of our treks to the region’s city shopping area, I left the wife to shop at the mall and I visited a local gunsmith who’d been recommended to inspect and evaluate my find.

  4. Continuing on … (damned computers!) Behind the gunsmith’s workbench, his wall was covered with citations, photos, and news clippings from the Korean war. I saw that he was a retired Marine gunnery sergeant. On closer inspection, I could read that he’d been recognized for developing a cold-weather rifle lubricant while serving in front-line action near the Yalu River.
    The crux of the story was this: the US entered the Korean “police action” as majority participant in a UN-authorized military intervention in the North vs. South civil war. None of the US military planners had factored the bitter Korean winters in their thinking.
    This proved disastrously fatal for US troops who found themselves facing a surge of Chinese regular army troops who swarmed across the river in human-wave attacks. US soldiers, frantic to defend themselves, found their weapons frozen, jammed, useless. I’ve never read how many died, unable to fire back, but the carnage was horrific. The defeat and retreat was historic.
    This Idaho Falls retired sergeant used his knowledge to mix together batches of cold weather lubricants for the troops, and they worked. He was eventually recognized, thus the papers and medals on his workshop wall.
    American ingenuity and an attitude of “to hell with the brass” has saved our collective butts on many occasions. One of the most notable from the “war” we discussed earlier, was the cobbling together of welded “vee” plows to the front hull of Sherman tanks that had proven fatally vulnerable to German “88’s”, the deadly anti-aircraft cannon that could be cranked down to fire horizontally. The German gunners ridiculed the soft-bellied American tanks that would rear up and expose their thin-skinned bellies to be killed by an 88-millimeter round. The improvised “plow” let the Sherman tank break through the hedge row without rearing up. How many crews, how many lives, how many successful assaults and breakthroughs became possible? Who knows … ?
    And we come to the IED’s, the deadly roadside improvised explosive devices in Iraq and Afghanistan. Again, US military planners were caught unaware, behind the 8-ball. Thin-skinned American humvees were no match for guerilla-improvised roadside explosives. We all remember Mr. Rumsfeld’s angry retort to angry critics: “We go to war with what we have!” The troops didn’t see it that way. Iraq quickly became famous for “hill-billy armor.” Ingenious motor-pool sergeants and their crews began welding heavy steel plate from anywhere they could scrounge or steal it. It became so embarrassing that Pentagon and Defense Department brass began complaining that it was “unseemly” and “non-regulation.” Frantic contracts were let for designs and prototypes of heavier, IED-resistant troop vehicles. Meanwhile, the troops and their sergeants continued to protect themselves any way they could.
    Improvised tank hedge-busters; improvised lube to prevent a rifle from seizing up; and “hill-billy” plate armor to let a humvee crew survive: all cobbled together in frantic efforts to live, despite ever-present hubris of leaders whose heads are mired in the last war.

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