Tough as leather

“The 45th was a National Guard division, among eighteen that had been federalized early in the war. Some Regular Army officers sneered that ‘NG’ stood for ‘no good,’ and most of the Guard’s senior officers had been purged by the War Department for age or incompetence. But the Pentagon considered the 45th—known as the Thunderbirds—‘better prepared than any division that had left our control to date.’ They were westerners, with one regiment derived from Colorado mining camp militias like the Wolftown Guards and the Queen’s Emerald Rifles. Two other regiments hailed from Oklahoma, and their ranks included nearly two thousand Indians from fifty-two tribes, including Cherokee, Apache, Kiowa, Comanche, and Navajo.” – Rick Atkinson, The Day of Battle

Same as it ever was

“A single crude acronym that captured the soldier’s lowered expectations—SNAFU, for ‘situation normal, all fucked up’—had expanded into a vocabulary of GI cynicism: SUSFU (situation unchanged, still fucked up); SAFU (self-adjusting fuck-up); TARFU (things are really fucked up); FUMTU (fucked up more than usual); JANFU (joint Army-Navy fuck-up); JAAFU (joint Anglo-American fuck-up); FUAFUP (fucked up and fucked up proper); and FUBAR (fucked up beyond all recognition).” – Rick Atkinson, The Day of Battle

A way we find now strange

“The [Second World W]ar infiltrated every kitchen, every closet, every medicine cabinet. Sugar, tires, and gasoline had been rationed first, followed by nearly everything else, from shoes to coffee. ‘Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without’ became a consumer mantra. Plastic buttons replaced brass; zinc pennies supplanted copper. To save fifty million tons of wool annually, the government outlawed vests, cuffs, patch pockets, and wide lapels.” – Rick Atkinson, The Day of Battle

Tell me a story

“We need narrative not because it is a valid epistemological description of the world but because of its cognitive role. It’s how we make sense of things. An inability to render life experiences into a coherent narrative is characteristic of psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia. Text that fails to deliver narrative coherence, for example in terms of relating cause to effect and honouring the expectations of readers, is harder to understand.” – Philip Ball, “The Story Trap”

Under the hood of history

“Tongues had begun to wag about Eisenhower and his willowy driver, Kay Summersby. Nicknamed Skibereen after her Irish hometown, Summersby had worked in England as a model and movie extra before enlisting as a military driver in London; she had been assigned to Eisenhower the previous summer, joining him in Algiers in mid-January after surviving the U-boat sinking of her transport ship off the African coast. At thirty-four, discreet, divorced, and comely, she served not only as the commander-in-chief’s ‘chauffeuse,’ but also as his bridge partner and riding companion. . . . One drollery circulating in North Africa had the commander-in-chief’s sedan stalling on a lonely road. Summersby tinkers under the hood until Eisenhower appears with the toolbox from the trunk. ‘Screwdriver?’ he supposedly asks, to which she supposedly replies, ‘We might as well. I can’t get the goddam motor fixed.’ ” – Rick Atkinson, An Army at Dawn

A rough count

“September 1, 1939, was the first day of a war that would last for 2,174 days, and it brought the first dead in a war that would claim an average of 27,600 lives every day, or 1,150 an hour, or 19 a minute, or one death every three seconds.” – Rick Atkinson, An Army at Dawn

Fallen

“Twenty-seven acres of headstones fill the American military cemetery at Carthage, Tunisia. There are no obelisks, no tombs, no ostentatious monuments, just 2,841 bone-white marble markers, two feet high and arrayed in ranks as straight as gunshots. Only the chiseled names and dates of death suggest singularity. Four sets of brothers lie side by side. Some 240 stones are inscribed with thirteen of the saddest words in our language: ‘Here rests in honored glory a comrade in arms known but to God.’ A long limestone wall contains the names of another 3,724 men still missing, and a benediction: ‘Into Thy hands, O Lord.’ This is an ancient place, built on the ruins of Roman Carthage and a stone’s throw from the even older Punic city. It is incomparably serene. The scents of eucalyptus and of the briny Mediterranean barely two miles away carry on the morning air, and the African light is flat and shimmering, as if worked by a silversmith.” – Rick Atkinson, An Army at Dawn

Convinced to die

“Words like ‘watershed’ or ‘turning point’ are easy to deploy but hard to justify—except in the case of World War I. Like few other episodes—the fall of Rome, the Black Death, the Protestant Reformation, the French Revolution—it really did leave a different world in its wake. The technology of mass destruction was perhaps the most obvious respect. Barbed wire, trench warfare, the machine gun, the tank, poison gas, artillery barrages, and aerial bombardment all meant that war would no longer evoke enthusiastic reactions like that of one characteristically brainless young aristocrat in the first weeks of the war: ‘It is all the best fun. I have never felt so well, or so happy, or enjoyed anything so much.’ Such upper-class twits were killed off even more rapidly than the plowboys and factory workers who followed them into the maw of the new industrial killing machines. War would no longer be noble sport; it was professionalized. And so, more subtly but no less fatefully, was government. The technology of mass persuasion (otherwise known as propaganda or indoctrination) was first introduced not by the totalitarian regimes of the interwar period but by the democracies during World War I. As John Buchan, the British Empire’s tireless propagandist-in-chief, put it: ‘So far as Britain is concerned, the war could not have been fought for one month without its newspapers.’ The same was true of Germany and France. The first total war imposed unprecedented burdens on the population and therefore required unprecedented lying and coercion on the part of governments to preempt or suppress dissent. They rose to this challenge brilliantly, cajoling newspaper owners, cultivating friendly journalists, subsidizing ‘patriotic’ writers, speakers, and film-makers, prohibiting or sabotaging antiwar meetings and publications, and harassing or, when necessary, imprisoning critics. Government was no longer largely a hobby for the more earnest, non-fox-hunting members of the aristocracy. It became public administration, one of the social sciences.” – George Scialabba, “To End All Wars” (emphasis in original)

Full up and out

“That morning Private Bain had climbed to Roumana past the bodies of Seaforth Highlanders, ‘scattered like big broken dolls’, on the hillside. . . . As the living began to strip them of their few possessions he shouldered his rifle and began walking steadily back down the hill. No one accosted him. There seemed to be no straggler line, no stop line. In a couple of days he reached Tripoli where he was arrested. ‘I found the whole business of being in the ranks and in the infantry a brutalising business,’ he explained years later. The battle had been, ‘one almighty confusion and shambles’, in which the ordinary soldier, as usual, had no idea of what was going on. Reaching the end of his personal resources he deserted.” – David Rolf, The Bloody Road to Tunis

Sucking all into the megalomaniac’s void

“To the very end of the war, few Germans sensed the depths of their Führer’s alienation from them, his indifference to their suffering, his deranged determination to drag them with him to Wagnerian cataclysm.” – Max Hastings, Bomber Command

Light up your science

“There is no more open door by which you can enter into the study of natural philosophy than by considering the physical phenomena of a candle. There is not a law under which any part of this universe is governed which does not come into play, and is not touched upon, in these phenomena.” – Michael Faraday, “The Chemical History of a Candle”

Hate to see you have to go

“The experienced had little pity to spare for the newcomers in the mess. Statistically, seven or fourteen or twenty-one of us have to die tonight, so please God, let it be the nervous young face in the corner whom I do not know, rather than Harry, Bill or Jack laughing at the bar, who are my friends. Thus their jokes . . . . It was part of their defenses against their own fear, of the schoolboy immaturity that was always close to the surface among so many young men of eighteen, nineteen and twenty, who still thought it the greatest sport in the world to pull somebody’s trousers off after dinner. It was this same feather-light tread of youth that enabled so many thousands of their generation to fly for Bomber Command through six years of war, amidst the terrible reality that, statistically, most of them were dead men.” – Max Hastings, Bomber Command

Pitchforked

“The crew of a stricken aircraft had a one-in-five chance of escaping alive. Fighting the G-forces of a diving or spiraling, uncontrollable descent, they had to ditch the hatches, reach their parachutes and somehow struggle clear before the bomber struck the ground. They tried desperately to avoid baling out in the immediate target area, for they had heard too many stories of bomber crews killed by enraged civilians or soldiers, a fate not unknown to Luftwaffe airmen in the London blitz.” – Max Hastings, Bomber Command

Reaping the whirlwind

“The wartime bombing of cities remains a bitterly controversial issue in the twenty-first century. More than a few writers, not all of them German or Japanese, claim that it represents an Allied war crime. . . .  I believe that we should never for a moment waver in our conviction that the Allied cause in World War II, even granted the embarrassment of the association of the United States and Britain with Stalin’s tyranny, remains immeasurably morally superior to that of the Axis. I am highly critical of many aspects of the bomber offensive, especially in its last 1945 phase, when it contributed more to punishing the Germans than to defeating them. But it was undertaken with the military purpose of achieving or hastening the defeat of Germany, and later Japan. Those powers were responsible for initiating the bombing of civilians and had no possible legitimate grounds for complaint when their own peoples suffered the same fate.” – Max Hastings, Bomber Command

Neither cruel nor unusual

“If punishment is at all proportionate to the offense, then power becomes watered. The only way you generate the proper attitude of awe and obedience is through immense and disproportionate power.” – Norman Mailer, The Naked and the Dead

We move backwards whenever we can

“The flowering of equality, self-reliance, and civic virtue in the non-slave states from the mid-18th to the mid-19th century is one of the political wonders of the world, a signal achievement in humankind’s moral history. It was made possible by a great crime: it all took place on stolen, ethnically-cleansed land. Likewise that other pinnacle of political enlightenment, Athenian democracy, which rested on slavery. But in both cases, didn’t the subordination or expropriation of the many allow the few to craft social relations from which the rest of the world has learned invaluable lessons? Is some such stolen abundance or leisure a prerequisite of moral and cultural advance? Even if we acknowledge the dimensions of the crime, can we really regret the achievement?” – George Scialabba, “Floats Like a Vulture”

How we freed the French

“At Ste.-Marie-du-Mont, a village just beyond Pouppeville, French baker Pierre Caldron had been awakened before sunrise by the sound of gunfire. A German officer had been billeted at Caldron’s home, but had left two days earlier. Looking out his second-floor window, Caldron caught sight of an American paratrooper moving through the yard. The soldier pointed a rifle at Caldron, but fortunately for the Frenchman, he was wearing his white baker’s hat. ‘I think he must have thought I was a medic from my hat,’ Caldron reasoned. The American moved on without firing. At 7 AM, a railway guard from the village rushed into Caldron’s house, kissed him on the cheek, and cried, ‘They’re here! They’re here! They’ve landed, and if you don’t believe me, here’s an American cigarette.’ ” – Roy Morris, Jr., “ ‘We’ll Start the War from Here’ ”

Keep ’em diverted

“The preponderance of the entertainment and desire market is a stage in the social-pacification enterprise, in which it has been given the function of obscuring, provisionally, the living contradictions that cross every point on the fabric of imperial biopolitics.” – Tiqqun, Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl (trans. Reines)

Assemblage

“We become ourselves by wanting other people: not only wanting to have them, but wanting sometimes more urgently to become them, to feel as we imagine they feel, to think or create or whatever else we wish to do as naturally as we imagine they do. We take assignments in being by adopting as our ideals the things other people never were, or failed to become, and then never stop doubting whether what we are is theirs or ours.” – Jedediah Purdy, “Maybe Connect”

Not a job for everyone

“The toughest job in the military is that of infantry platoon leader. The fresh second lieutenant who finds himself in command of 40 other infantrymen is often a newcomer to combat, younger than many of his soldiers and poorly prepared for the rigors of battlefield leadership. In spite of these obstacles, the new lieutenant must come to terms with the fact that the futures and fortunes of his men are in his hands. He must apply his theoretical training to the battlefield and learn fast. Truly, a young person can work under no greater pressure.” – John McManus, review of William L. Devitt’s Shavetail: The Odyssey of an Infantry Lieutenant in World War II