Friday, January 9, 2015

Optimistic Imagination Minus Reality Equals Severe Trauma

This book is about the psychological and emotional culture of Americans and Britons during the Second World War.  It is about the rationalizations and euphemisms people needed to deal with an unacceptable actuality from 1939 to 1945.

So begins Fussell in the preface.  After touching on the physical damage, he continues:

Less obvious is the damage it did to intellect, discrimination, honesty, individuality, complexity, ambiguity, and irony.

In chapter 8 of Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace, edited By Harry Elmer Barnes, William Henry Chamberlin addresses this topic.  Chamberlin cites the hypocrisy of Roosevelt and his Atlantic Charter, the hypocrisy of the war crimes trials, the use of torture by the Allies, the lies of Roosevelt to the American people leading up to the war.

In chapter 9 of the same volume, George A. Lundberg cites Dr. Charles Beard, listing of twelve examples of the lies and manipulations by Roosevelt before and during the war.  There is no possibility of a properly functioning democracy or republic when lying is the means to secure support.

It is the damage done to the psyche of the American and British people that Fussell examines in this book.

Severe trauma was often the result of the initial optimistic imagination encountering actuality.

Obviously the line from which I drew the title of this post.  When reading this line in Fussell’s book, it struck me that besides having application to both those fighting and those at home regarding the war effort, it also might apply to the reason why so many worship those who fight.  But I will leave it to Fussell to tell the story.

At first everyone hoped, and many believed, that the war would be fast-moving, mechanized, remote controlled, and perhaps even rather easy.

Two things strike me about this: first, it seems a strange thought given the then-recent experience of the Great War, certainly for the British.  Second, nothing changes.  In every war, the lie is told that it will be quick and easy.  The first Gulf War is still being fought; it has merely had a few name changes – to include the latest chapter of Iraq, more than a decade old.  Its sibling in Afghanistan is even older.  I guess in this regard things are getting better – the mouthpieces now tell us that America will be at war for decades.

Wars are all alike in beginning complacently.

This hope was based on what, in hindsight, was naiveté: small tanks with one-inch armor, armed with nothing more than a 37-MM gun; 20,000 horses were procured for the cavalry, announced with fanfare; in Britain, lances and sabers were standard issue; rubber-tired armored cars with machine guns were a mainstay.  Such “preparation” makes the Polish defense on horseback seem not so silly.

Further silliness – and more evidence that nothing ever changes – was the belief that Yankee technology and precision bombing would win the war.  The B-17 could hit a target within 25 feet from an altitude of 20,000 feet, or so they said.

…it wasn’t long before soldiers and civilians would be killed in quantity and without scruple….

The reality of the Second World War is not so quaint, and does not need a refresher: hundreds of thousands of airplanes produced by the US alone; tanks of immense size and speed; carpet-bombing of civilian targets; the atom bomb.  Where the Great War put in knife in the idea of civilized warfare, the Second World War witnessed the obliteration of this concept – rules of warfare developed over centuries, having reached fruition in eighteenth and nineteenth century Europe.  By the end of the war, nothing mattered but heavy power and volume – fought as the North fought against the South under Lincoln. 

Outmoded now, hopelessly irrelevant, were such former military values and procedures as the alertness of the scout; the skill at topographical notice of the observer in the tethered balloon; the accurately worded message correctly written out (with carbon copy) in the nifty little book of Filed Message Forms.

Also quickly outmoded was the idea that the bombing could do the job, let alone do the job well or accurately:

As the war went on, “precision bombing” became a comical oxymoron relished by bomber crews with a sense of black humor.

In August of 1941 it was clear to the RAF that only one in ten bombers could even fly within five miles of the assigned target.  “We made a major assault on German agriculture.”

The Germans, when bombing London, dropped half of their bombs over the water.  On May 10, 1940, a Luftwaffe squadron…

…setting out to bomb Dijon, by some error dropped a load on its own civilians in Freiburg-im-Breisgau, killing fifty-seven of them.

When RAF reports indicated that bombers wholly missed the intended targets, the reports were rejected as inaccurate.  This inaccuracy (along with other, more sinister, reasons) eventually led to area bombing and ultimately Dresden and Hiroshima.

Bombs were dropped by Allied aircraft on Allied troops, resulting in Allied troops firing on Allied aircraft.  Weeks before D-Day, in an effort to soften the Germans fortifications, 480 B-27s dropped 13,000 bombs well inland, killing only French civilians and their livestock.  Naval bombardments cost thousands of Allied lives.

Even after being told beforehand that it would be Allied gliders overhead during the invasion of Sicily, the troops fired upon the aircraft, shooting down 23 planes carrying 229 men.  In 1943 it was a US PT boat – not a Japanese submarine – that sunk the Marine Corps transport McCawley.

“The loser of this war will be the side that makes the greatest blunders,” according to Hitler.

A world in which such blunders are more common than usual will require large amounts of artful narrative to confer purpose, meaning, and dignity on events actually discrete and contingent.

That this war is known to many in America as “the Good War” demonstrates the success of the narrative builders in their task.  The blind passion by which this narrative is accepted is, perhaps, proof of the severe trauma.


  1. One of the most damaging thing to happen to US democracy was in 1940 when Wendell Willkie somehow became the Republican candidate

    In 1940 there was a significant amount of anti-intervention sentiment in the US. So much so that Roosevelt had to keep on pretending he was not in favor of joining the war. Yet even though there were at least 3 major Republican candidates who had at least moderate anti-war beliefs the Republicans at the last minute of the Republican convention chose Wendell Willkie as their candidate.

    This was even though Willkie was

    A life long Democrat
    Had voted for and given money to Roosevelt in the 1932 election
    Had never run for office
    Only claim to fame was being a lawyer and running a power company
    Was just as much an interventionist as Roosevelt and in fact went to work for Roosevelt pushing interventionism after losing the election

    Stalin is supposed to have said "Those who cast the votes decide nothing. Those who count the votes decide everything." Yet in fact the communist system was set up where it did not matter who won the vote since the only candidates were ones approved by the communist party.

    This is what happened in 1940, the interventionists could not lose since they had set up the election where the only candidates with a chance of winning were interventionists. The same thing happens today, for all they hype does anyone think that Obama, Bush, Clinton, Bush, have major differences in policy. Sure they have some small groups they throw a bone to once in a while in order to pretend they have differences but in major policy they have few differences.

    You can say that Obama pushed through Obamacare but it was based on Romneycare and was similar to Bush II program for prescription drugs where the prescription drug makers wrote the rules just like the insurance companies wrote the rules for Obamacare

    Foreign policy is still invade the world, invite the world, go in debt to the world.

    Economic policy is still to do whatever makes the international financiers happy

    Etc, etc

    1. Thank you very much for this comment. I was not aware of those aspects of the 1940 presidential election. Now that I am, I definitely think that election was rigged.

      My understanding is that the US joined the side of the UK in both world wars because of business interests. Basically, if the UK lost (especially if it was conquered by Nazi Germany), the financial losses in the US would be tremendous. Clearly, the people who'd be facing those losses stopped at nothing to prevent them.

  2. You have to wonder what happened to the American psyche between World War I and World War II. After the Great War, Americans, by and large, decided they had been duped. German imperialism? The sun never set on the British Empire!

    Americans could see the con. They weren't having any of this League of Nations nonsense.

    Oh, how things would change after World War II! The U.S. knew it could no longer be "isolationist." It had to play the role of globocop, intervening always and everywhere--for no reason, for bad reason, for contradictory reason. War without end. Amen.

    It represented a sea change in public opinion. And it all happened in one lousy generation. This is to say the Greatest Generation. Of course!

    1. Tony, you might have just very succinctly explained why the meida labels that generations as "the greatest generation," meaning they were greatly responsible for making the final shift to the worship of state and empire.

      Thank you!

    2. Tony, it's been the same song-and-dance for a while now, and apparently it's been all too easy. As Hermann Goering said: "All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger."

      The pro-interventionism soundbite has always been "It's a dangerous world out there, and it'll get more and more dangerous unless we stop it." Apparently, the most effective way of convincing "the masses" of the first part is to show them directly - by way of allowing (or causing!) certain events to happen that strike mortal fear in their hearts. They'll go along with it because they've been inculcated to trust "the authorities". The whole enterprise is basically a glorified cattle prod.