War, Noir, Atheism

October 2, 2010

On the beach

In earlier posts, I have commented on the connection of film noir and the experiences of millions of men during WWII.  I thought of this yet again after reading this human interest story in the NYTimes about two men who both landed at Normandy on D-Day and happened to be next to each other in a hospital ward in NYC awaiting open heart surgery.  Naturally, they formed a bond quickly.

Before the surgery, the doctor told one of them not to be afraid.  The patient, who is 90, scoffed.  He said, ‘There’s nothing you can do that I can’t get through — I’ve been through Normandy.”  There’s a man who has built his life on bedrock.  Later on, he remarked, “After getting out of World War II, I’m not afraid of nothing and I’m not impressed by nothing.

The two men profiled worked in retail and construction.  Another war story I have read comes from Victor Brombert, who taught 19th century French literature at Princeton for many years.  (He is a noted expert on Flaubert and Stendhal).  He came from a family of secular, unreligious,  prosperous, bourgeois, French Jews who had the sense to leave before Hitler could rout them out and gas them.  After attending school in the USA, Brombert enlisted in the army and found himself on the beach at Normandy on D-Day.

The saying goes, there are no atheists in foxholes.  I’ve never heard much evidence for this – to me it sounds like wishful thinking on the part of advocates of religion.  I have read stories similar to Brombert’s.

He relates that he was scared beyond belief, scared senseless.  He was trying his best to make his body as small as possible, clawing the ground so hard that his fingernails were in agony as he forced sand under them.  He was deafened and stupefied with terror at the sound and concussions of the shellfire around him.  At that moment, he came as close to prayer as he ever came in his life.  He promised himself that if he survived, he would never complain about anything again.

Not exactly a prayer to God, but not a bad way of life, either.


How We Won the War…NOT

September 25, 2007

Man! I know I sound like a crank, but I have to comment on the WWII frenzy that is building in this country, what with the memorial fund raising spearheaded by the Great Hero, Tom Hanks (ooops, only in the movies) , and the new Ken Burns film coming out. From what I’ve read, it pretty much leaves one free to think that, gee, the USA won WWII all on its own. I’m not saying that there is no value in seeing and hearing about the experiences of our veterans, and I don’t have any desire to minimize their achievement. No, what I’d like to see and hear a little is some perspective on the historical role we played in WWII.

I guess this is my hobbyhorse sometimes. After all, this is the country that is still obsessed with our defeat in Vietnam, in which we lost 50,000 dead, and that still flies flags implying that P.O.W.s are being held captive, secretly, somewhere, in the not-so-evil empire of Communist Vietnam. And while I think we should give full attention to the soldiers who were ruined by Agent Orange and other innovative American inventions, it would be good to recall, oh, now and then, that about 1,000,000 Vietnamese died, their country was pulverized, and that’s not even mentioning what happened to their neighbors.

So, back to WWII. Well, we didn’t want to get in it, many of us, but when we were attacked, we went full bore ahead. Fought a war on two fronts. I know far less about the war against the Japanese, which was basically us slugging it out with them, and they were doomed from the start. The war in Europe, however, was already won by the time we got in it. The Russians had broken the back of the Nazi war machine, and the British had ruined their air force. D Day, the titanic Mother of all Battles in American mythology was a picnic compared to what went on along the Russian Front, the largest and most brutal theatre of war ever seen. The Russians had a D Day everyday. Losses? Maybe 25,000,000 soldiers and civilians. The USA lost 500,000 soldiers in WWII.

We did our part, but we didn’t destroy the Nazi army any more than the French or Canadians did.