Two more anecdotes from my dad’s war letters involve the nature of military life and the future of war. In June 1945 my dad wrote about female nurses assigned to his post at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. He noted that:
“The nurses on the Post have been going out with enlisted men. They [the authorities] are trying to stop it by breaking an enlisted man that has a rating & the nurses get fined $75.00. Nurses are commissioned officers & they [the authorities] don’t like officers going with enlisted men. [The] United States is supposed to be a free country so you can see how the Army is. I don’t think the nurses would break the regulation if there were more male officers on the post.”
$75.00 was a lot of money in 1945 (two weeks’ pay, roughly, for the nurses). And busting an enlisted man was a serious punishment as well. Even with the war won in Europe and demobilization already starting, the Army was not about to look the other way when its nurses engaged in almost trivial fraternization.
The second anecdote involves my dad’s speculation about the future of war. In March 1945 he watched a short movie on the German V-1 “buzz bomb,” an unguided cruise missile. My dad wrote that:
“In a movie short they showed the German V-1 robot, jet-propelled bomb. It’s really uncanny how the darn thing goes through the sky. Also showed the damage they caused, which is really terrific. If they have another war, after this one is finished, the United States won’t have to worry about sending troops overseas. With the progress that they could make in 20 years all we’ll have to do, also the attacking country is to send the flying bombs over the oceans and on to the targets. As long as the Allied nations stick together there shouldn’t be any more wars.”
Of course, the Allied countries didn’t stick together, and we’ve had plenty of wars since 1945. But my dad was partly right about war’s future. Think about how the U.S. has launched Tomahawk cruise missiles against various enemies in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere. The Tomahawk is essentially a much more sophisticated and guided version of the unguided V-1 cruise missiles pioneered by the Nazis in World War II.
A final comment: I like the way my dad assumed the U.S. would be the defending country in future wars. Note how he writes “also the attacking country” would use flying bombs. Sadly, the U.S. nowadays is usually the aggressor, even as the government couches its acts in terms of defense.
Today, America’s wars are endless, the troops are still overseas, but at least we live in a free country, right? And now America has the best flying robot bombs as well. The Nazis called these “vengeance” weapons; isn’t it wonderful today that the U.S. leads the world in making such weapons?
Every now and again I look over my dad’s letters from World War II. He was attached to an armored headquarters company that didn’t go overseas, but he had friends who did serve in Europe during and after the Battle of the Bulge in late 1944. Also, he had two brothers, one who served in Europe attached to a quartermaster (logistics) company in the Army, the other who served in the Pacific as a Marine.
Reading my dad’s letters and those from his friends and brothers, you get a sense of the costs of war. They mention friends who’ve been killed or wounded in action; for example, a soldier who lost both his legs when his tank ran over a mine. (His fellow soldiers took up a collection for him.) They talk about strange things they’ve seen overseas, e.g. German buzz bombs or V-1 rockets, a crude version of today’s cruise missiles. They look forward to furloughs and trips to cities such as Paris. They talk about bad weather: cold, snow, mud. They talk about women (my dad’s brother, Gino, met a Belgian girl that he wanted to marry, but it was not to be). But perhaps most of all, they look forward to the war’s end and express a universal desire to ditch the military for civilian life.
All of my dad’s friends wanted to get out of the military and restart their civilian lives. They didn’t want a military career — not surprising for draftees who thought of themselves as citizen-soldiers (emphasis on the citizen). In their letters, they never refer to themselves as “warriors” or “warfighters” or “heroes,” as our society is wont to do today when talking about the troops. War sucked, and they wanted no part of it. One guy was happy, as he put it, that the Germans were getting the shit kicked out of them, and another guy was proud his armored unit had a “take no prisoners” approach to war, but this animus against the enemy was motivated by a desire to end the war as quickly as possible.
Reading these letters written by citizen-soldiers of the “greatest generation” reminds me of how much we’ve lost since the end of the Vietnam War and the rise of the “all volunteer” military. Since the 9/11 attacks in particular, we’ve witnessed the rise of a warrior/warfighter ideal in the U.S. military, together with an ethos that celebrates all troops as “heroes” merely for the act of enlisting and putting on a uniform. My dad and his friends would have scoffed at this ethos — this idolization of “warriors” and “heroes” — as being foreign to a citizen-soldier military. Back then, the country that boasted most of warriors and heroes was not the USA: it was Nazi Germany.
Discarding the citizen-soldier ideal for a warrior ethos has been and remains a major flaw of America’s post-Vietnam military. It has exacerbated America’s transition from a republic to an empire, even as America’s very own wannabe Roman emperor, Donald Trump, tweets while America burns.
Men (and women) of the greatest generation served proudly if reluctantly during World War II. They fought to end the war as quickly as possible, and they succeeded. America’s endless wars today and our nation’s rampant militarization dishonor them and their sacrifices. If we wish to honor their service and sacrifice, we should bring our troops home, downsize our empire and our military budget, and end our wars.
Life isn’t fair: that’s a lesson my dad learned growing up during the Great Depression and working hard in the Civilian Conservation Corps and local factories in the 1930s. He also learned it during World War II, when he was drafted and eventually assigned to an armored headquarters company at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. In fact, before World War II, my dad tried to enlist in the Navy, only to discover he was too short to make the grade (he was just under 64″, the Navy minimum, and recruiters were picky before Pearl Harbor). A half-inch or so probably saved my dad’s life. After that experience, my dad vowed he wouldn’t volunteer for war; he’d wait until he was drafted, which he was in 1942 by the Army.
My dad was on track to be a surgical technician for the 7th Armored Division; he would have gone overseas and faced combat. But another soldier on the dental technician track talked my dad into switching positions with him. My dad agreed, only to learn a dental technician was limited to a corporal technician’s rating, whereas a surgical tech could become a sergeant with higher pay. My dad was also “excess” on the table of organization when he finished training, so he was reassigned from the 7th Armored to the 15th Armored Group.
My dad had to transfer and got less pay, but he got lucky: his new unit didn’t go overseas, whereas the 7th Armored did. A guy he knew, Danny Costellani, was transferred from medical battalion to armored infantry while in France and was killed in action. My dad knew this could have been him.
While my dad was assigned to Fort Jackson, South Carolina, late in 1944, there was a frantic call for more soldiers to be sent overseas in response to high losses during the Battle of the Bulge, the last major German offensive of World War II. Many “green” recruits were rushed through basic training and shipped overseas to fight the Germans. But a few local Southerners noticed that highly qualified soldier-athletes at Fort Jackson weren’t being sent anywhere. They just seemed to stay in place while playing baseball, football, tennis, and other sports. I’ll let my dad take the story from here:
During the Battle of the Bulge some Southern civilians were wondering why their sons, after Basic Training were shipped overseas as replacements. While the Post Commander had on station complement a group of about fifty soldiers who played sports for the Ft Jackson baseball, basketball, football and even tennis teams. Well the general got an order from higher echelons to put all able bodied troops into a combat outfit. Well fifty of our soldiers were shipped overseas and fifty of the general’s athletes were put into our company. When that happened the rest of our company figured we would never go overseas. As time showed 99% stayed state side. The 15th Armored Group took all the athletic honors. Very seldom did our sports teams lose.
My dad saved newspaper clippings that celebrated the athletic achievements of the 15th Armored Group. One photo showed the 15th Headquarters and Headquarters Company orientation room, which included a prominent section on “The World of Sports” and a table showcasing all individual and team trophies.
My dad may have owed his life to a picky Navy recruiter and a fellow soldier who wanted sergeant’s stripes. These athletes at Fort Jackson may have owed their lives to a post commander who preferred winning at sports to shipping the most able-bodied troops overseas to fight the enemy.
Yes, life isn’t fair. And fate sure does have an odd sense of humor.
What if World War II in the Pacific had not ended with the atomic bombs and Soviet entry into the war in August of 1945? If the Manhattan Project to build atomic weaponry had failed, and if that failure had necessitated an American invasion of Japan’s Home Islands in 1946, what level of destruction would have been visited upon Japan, and at what cost to the invading Americans?
Alternative histories can be an intriguing way to highlight the contingencies of world events in a way that captivates readers. Peter Van Buren’sHooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan, both intrigues and captivates. Hooper’s War imagines a world in which Americans did have to launch an amphibious invasion of Japan in 1946, and that invasion is as bloody and as awful as students of history might expect.
Recall here the all-too-real bloodbaths on Iwo Jima and Okinawa in 1945. Recall as well the devastating firebombing raids led by General Curtis LeMay against Tokyo and numerous other cities that killed hundreds of thousands of Japanese. Now imagine if these had persisted into 1946, taking Kyoto, a most sacred place to the Japanese, with them.
The historian John Dower wrote convincingly of how the U.S. war against Japan was different in kind from its war against Nazi Germany. For Dower, the U.S./Japan war was a “war without mercy,” a war where each side demonized the other as culturally and racially inferior. Such attitudes produced the most vicious fighting and bred atrocities on both sides. Japanese warrior fanaticism, moreover, led to suicidal attacks, the Kamikazes, that sunk or damaged so many American ships.
Nothing good can come from prolonging such a war, and in Van Buren’s retelling, atrocities and tragedies occur with a frequency one would expect of a war driven by racial hatreds and profound cultural misunderstandings. Nevertheless, in the darkness he provides a ray of hope as Lieutenant Nate Hooper, the main character, becomes separated from his unit and has to deal on an intimately human level with a Japanese sergeant. I don’t think I give away much by stating their relationship doesn’t end well for all — such is the reality of a war driven by hatred. The horror of war goes deep, Van Buren shows us, but so too does the potential for mitigating and ultimately for overcoming it.
Some readers of Bracing Views will recall that Van Buren formerly worked for the U.S. State Department. His first book, “We Meant Well,” is that rare thing: an honest retelling of the failures of America’s reconstruction efforts in Iraq to which he was both witness and participant. He brings his experiences of war and diplomacy to bear in this, his latest book, enriched by the years he spent working in Japan with the State Department.
Hooper’s War is for anyone interested in World War II in the Pacific, for anyone with a yen for imaginative “what-if” histories, or indeed for anyone who enjoys a good story well-told.
Full disclosure: Peter Van Buren sent me an advanced copy of Hooper’s War, to which I contributed a well-deserved commendatory blurb.
In my latest article for TomDispatch.com, I investigate what an “America first” foreign policy actually means in practice. What follows is an extract from the article in which I consider whether the U.S. military has morphed from a deterrent force (at least in its own eyes) to a doomsday machine. This idea is inspired in part by an article that Dennis Showalter, a fine historian and an even better friend, wrote back in 2000 about the German military prior to World War I. Excerpt follows:
Deterring Our Way to Doomsday
Who put America’s oil under all those Middle Eastern deserts? That was the question antiwar demonstrators asked with a certain grim humor before the invasion of Iraq. In Trump’s oft-stated opinion, the U.S. should indeed have just taken Iraq’s oil after the 2003 invasion. If nothing else, he said plainly what many Americans believed, and what various multinational oil companies were essentially seeking to do.
Consider here the plight of President Jimmy Carter.Nearly 40 years ago, Carter urged Americans to scale back their appetites, start conserving energy, and free themselves from a crippling dependency on foreign oil and the unbridled consumption of material goods. After critics termed it his “malaise” speech, Carter did an about-face, boosting military spending and establishing the Carter Doctrine to protect Persian Gulf oil as a vital U.S. national interest. The American people responded by electing Ronald Reagan anyway. As Americans continue to enjoy a consumption-driven lifestyle that gobbles up roughly 25% of the world’s production of fossil fuels (while representing only 3% of the world’s population), the smart money in the White House is working feverishly to open ever more fuel taps globally. Trillions of dollars are at stake.
Small wonder that, on becoming president, Trump acted quickly to speed the building of new pipelines delayed or nixed by President Obama while ripping up environmental protections related to fossil fuel production. Accelerated domestic production, along with cooperation from the Saudis — Trump’s recent Muslim bans carefully skipped targeting the one country that provided 15 of the 19 terrorists in the 9/11 attacks — should keep fuel flowing, profits growing, and world sea levels rising.
One data point here: The U.S. military alone guzzles more fossil fuel than the entire country of Sweden. When it comes to energy consumption, our armed forces are truly second to none.
With its massive oil reserves, the Middle East remains a hotbed in the world’s ongoing resource wars, as well as its religious and ethnic conflicts, exacerbated by terrorism and the destabilizing attacks of the U.S. military. Under the circumstances, when it comes to future global disaster, it’s not that hard to imagine that today’s Middle East could serve as the equivalent of the Balkans of World War I infamy.
If Gavrilo Princip, a Serbian “Black Hand” terrorist operating in a war-torn and much-disputed region, could set the world aflame in 1914, why not an ISIS terrorist just over a century later? Consider the many fault lines today in that region and the forces involved, including Russia, Turkey, Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United States, all ostensibly working together to combat terrorism even as they position themselves to maximize their own advantage and take down one another. Under such circumstances, a political temblor followed by a geo-political earthquake seems unbearably possible. And if not an ISIS temblor followed by major quake in the Middle East, there’s no shortage of other possible global fault lines in an increasingly edgy world — from saber-rattling contests with North Korea to jousting over Chinese-built artificial islands in the South China Sea.
As an historian, I’ve spent much time studying the twentieth-century German military. In the years leading up to World War I, Germany was emerging as the superpower of its day, yet paradoxically it imagined itself as increasingly hemmed in by enemies, a nation surrounded and oppressed. Its leaders especially feared a surging Russia. This fear drove them to launch a preemptive war against that country. (Admittedly, they attacked France first in 1914, but that’s another story.) That incredibly risky and costly war, sparked in the Balkans, failed disastrously and yet it would only be repeated on an even more horrific level 25 years later. The result: tens of millions of dead across the planet and a total defeat that finally put an end to German designs for global dominance. The German military, praised as the “world’s best” by its leaders and sold to its people as a deterrent force, morphed during those two world wars into a doomsday machine that bled the country white, while ensuring the destruction of significant swaths of the planet.
Today, the U.S. military similarly praises itself as the “world’s best,” even as it imagines itself surrounded by powerful threats (China, Russia, a nuclear North Korea, and global terrorism, to start a list). Sold to the American people during the Cold War as a deterrent force, a pillar of stability against communist domino-tippers, that military has by now morphed into a potential tipping force all its own.
Recall here that the Trump administration has reaffirmed America’s quest for overwhelming nuclear supremacy. It has called for a “new approach” to North Korea and its nuclear weapons program. (Whatever that may mean, it’s not a reference to diplomacy.) Even as nuclear buildups and brinksmanship loom, Washington continues to spread weaponry — it’s the greatest arms merchant of the twenty-first century by a wide mark — and chaos around the planet, spinning its efforts as a “war on terror” and selling them as the only way to “win.”
In May 1945, when the curtain fell on Germany’s last gasp for global dominance, the world was fortunately still innocent of nuclear weapons. It’s different now. Today’s planet is, if anything, over-endowed with potential doomsday machines — from those nukes to the greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming.
That’s why it’s vitally important to recognize that President Trump’s “America-first” policies are anything but isolationist in the old twentieth century meaning of the term; that his talk of finally winning again is a recipe for prolonging wars guaranteed to create more chaos and more failed states in the Greater Middle East and possibly beyond; and that an already dangerous Cold War policy of “deterrence,” whether against conventional or nuclear attacks, may now have become a machine for perpetual war that could, given Trump’s bellicosity, explode into some version of doomsday.
Or, to put the matter another way, consider this question: Is North Korea’s Kim Jong-un the only unstable leader with unhinged nuclear ambitions currently at work on the world stage?
I recently read “Armor and Blood” by Dennis Showalter. It’s about the Battle of Kursk in July of 1943, the massive, last-ditch offensive by the Nazis on the Eastern Front, and how the Soviet Army was able to stymy it, seize the initiative, and take the offensive for good. As Showalter notes, the Nazi offensive at Kursk in 1943 was much like the Ludendorff Offensives in the Spring of 1918 near the end of World War I. They were offensives of desperation. As General Ludendorff said in 1918, first we’ll punch a hole in the enemy’s lines, and then we’ll see. Tactical zeal (and wishful thinking) took the place of careful strategic calculation.
In 1918 as well as in 1943, the German military was given free rein to pursue a military solution when there wasn’t one to be had. Germany simply didn’t have the military means for the strategic end they sought to achieve. In 1918, Ludendorff believed he could defeat the Entente forces (the French, British, and other allies, to include the rapidly arriving Americans) on the Western Front, but his offensives only served to weaken his own army, ensuring its exhaustion and defeat by that November. In 1943, Hitler gambled he could defeat the Soviet Army at Kursk, but his massive offensive only weakened his own army, ensuring its exhaustion and eventual defeat in the spring of 1945. Both times, more military action only precipitated defeat and disaster.
Is the United States the inheritor of this Germanic bias? Instead of punching a hole, the U.S. military speaks of “surges.” It surged in Iraq in 2007. It surged in Afghanistan in 2010-11. But after each “surge,” the situation in those countries was basically the same – and, over time, grew worse.
Of course, U.S. “surges,” in each case involving roughly 30,000 additional troops, were in scale dwarfed by the German offensives in 1918 and 1943, involving millions of men and the movement of entire armies. But scale is less important than process. In each case, “victory” was staked on more military action, in part because both Germans and Americans believed themselves to be in the possession of “the finest fighting forces in the history of the world.” Neither, of course, would admit that they were fighting on foreign soil, that the enemy had agency too, and that the longer the fighting continued, the weaker they grew as the enemy grew stronger. So, in the name of “victory” the German and American “surges” played themselves out, and nothing changed strategically – there were no victories to be had.
The Germans, of course, drove themselves to utter collapse, both in 1918 and especially in 1945, after which they could no longer fool themselves as to the success of their “surges.” A superpower with enormous resources, the United States is not yet on the verge of collapse. But enormous budgetary deficits, driven in part by endless wars and a plethora of imperial commitments and overseas bases, are gradually eating away at the sinews of American strength, even as militarism eats away at the marrow of democracy.
After their utter defeat in 1945, the Germans learned to avoid endless war and the seductions of militarism. The question is: Will it require a total collapse of the American Empire before its leaders learn the same lesson?
I recently read Blood Red Snow: The Memoirs of a German Soldier, by Günter Koschorrek, which focuses mainly on combat on the Eastern Front between the Germans and Soviets during World War II. As Dan White has noted, military history sometimes degenerates into war porn – exciting tales of derring-do that save the day and end in citations and medals. Real war isn’t like that. Real war is horror, a horror that Koschorrek quickly came to know as a very young man.
Writing about his first weeks of combat, Koschorrek notes “how impatiently we waited for the opportunity to fight at the front! Now, after exactly three weeks in combat, no one talks of heroism or enthusiasm any more. On the contrary, the only wish is to get out of this death trap alive.”
Koschorrek’s first wound in combat is a minor one, which does not qualify him for evacuation from the front. He writes:
I feel the disappointment—a hope has been dashed. And then I think how quickly human feelings and attitudes can change. It is only a matter of weeks since I was dreaming of glory and heroism and was so full of élan that I was almost bursting. Now I long for a Heimatschuss—because it appears to me to be the only way that I can, with any sort of honor, say goodbye to this soul-destroying environment …
Koschorrek, a machine-gunner, quickly became a hardened veteran of the war. When he sees friends killed in combat, he writes of a “sort of madness” that came over him, the desire for “bloody revenge.” He writes:
Revenge and retaliation! That inflammatory clarion call for revenge! That’s the way all war leaders want their soldiers to be. Remorseless, and with hatred and retaliation in their hearts, men can win battles, and quite ordinary soldiers can be converted into celebrities. Fear is converted into hatred, anger and calls for retribution. In this way you are motivated to fight on—even decorated with medals as a hero.
As the war drags on and Nazi Germany begins to lose, Koschorrek writes of “deserters and dissenters” within the ranks. “They are called traitors to the fatherland,” he notes, but Koschorrek concludes with an important insight: “Nobody can be himself during a war—we all belong to the people and the state.”
War witnesses the death of individuality in the name of a collective: the people, the state. More frightening is the death of individual conscience, as even the worst war crimes are excused in the name of “defending” the state.
As the Soviets close in and begin to invade Germany proper, Koschorrek encounters the aftermath of horrific reprisals committed by the Soviet invaders on the German people. In one case, he notes how ordinary German villagers “were surprised in their sleep by the Soviets and couldn’t escape. The [Nazi] party bigwigs, however, were all able to get away in time.”
When the war is finally over, Koschorrek was able to evade capture by the Soviets and transportation to Siberia as a POW. He writes of trading his war medals (such as the Iron Cross) and ribbons for cigarettes, noting how American soldiers lusted after German war memorabilia. Koschorrek’s medals and ribbons—marks of valor he wanted so keenly at war’s start—became by war’s end nothing but barter for smokes.
His last words reflect the hard-won wisdom of a man who fought as part of a war of annihilation on the Eastern Front:
when will people realize that it is possible for any of us to be manipulated by domineering and power-crazed individuals who know how to motivate the masses in order to misuse them for their own ends? While they keep well out of the way [of war], in safety, they have no hesitation in brutally sacrificing their people in the name of patriotism. Will mankind ever stand together against them?
Koschorrek, a frontline combat soldier, can be faulted for not being more critical of Nazi ideology and its megalomaniacal designs. He has little to say about Nazi war atrocities. His account is focused on combat and comrades, in the thick of the fighting, where the desire to stay alive is all-consuming.
It’s a book to be read carefully by anyone who thinks war is glorious.