LosingTheWar.doc

I think i had the worlds largest collection of torn

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assembled, glue-encrusted panzers and Spitfires and Zeroes. I think I had the world’s largest collection of torn and mangled World War II decal insignia. We all had toy boxes stuffed with World War II armaments — with toy pistols and molded plastic rifles and alarmingly realistic rubber hand grenades. We refought World War II battles daily and went out on our campaigns so overloaded with gear we looked like ferocious porcupines. Decades after it was over the war was still expanding and dissipating in our minds, like the vapor trails of an immense explosion. So what did the people I asked know about the war? Nobody could tell me the first thing about it. Once they got past who won they almost drew a blank. All they knew were those big totemic names — Pearl Harbor, D day, Auschwitz, Hiroshima — whose unfathomable reaches of experience had been boiled down to an abstract atrocity. The rest was gone. Kasserine, Leyte Gulf, Corregidor, Falaise, the Ardennes didn’t provoke a glimmer of recognition; they might as well have been off-ramps on some exotic interstate. I started getting the creepy feeling that the war had actually happened a thousand years ago, and so it was forgivable if people were a little vague on the difference between the Normandy invasion and the Norman Conquest and couldn’t say offhand whether the boats sailed from France to England or the other way around. What had happened, for instance, at one of the war’s biggest battles, the Battle of Midway? It was in the Pacific, there was something about aircraft carriers. Wasn’t there a movie about it, one of those Hollywood all-star behemoths in which a lot of admirals look worried while pushing toy ships around a map? (Midway, released in 1976 and starring Glenn Ford, Charlton Heston, and — inevitably — Henry Fonda.) A couple of people were even surprised to hear that Midway Airport was named after the battle, though they’d walked past the ugly commemorative sculpture in the concourse so many times. All in all, this was a dispiriting exercise. The astonishing events of that morning, the “fatal five minutes” on which the war and the fate of the world hung, had been reduced to a plaque nobody reads, at an airport with a vaguely puzzling name, midway between Chicago and nowhere at all. Is it that the war was 50 years ago and nobody cares anymore what happened before this week? Maybe so, but I think what my little survey really demonstrates is how vast the gap is between the experience of war and the experience of peace. One of the persistent themes in the best writing about the war — I’m thinking particularly of Paul Fussell’s brilliant polemic Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War — is that nobody back home has ever known much about what it was like on the battlefield. From the beginning, the actual circumstances of World War II were smothered in countless lies,
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evasions, and distortions, like a wrecked landscape smoothed by a blizzard. People all along have preferred the movie version: the tense border crossing where the flint-eyed SS guards
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