What did they do in the war?
- Firing Line by Richard Holmes
Cape, 436 pp, £12.95, March 1985, ISBN 0 224 02043 9
- The Right of the Line: The Royal Air Force in the European War 1939-1945 by John Terraine
Hodder, 841 pp, £14.95, March 1985, ISBN 0 340 26644 9
- The Bomber Command War Diaries: An Operational Reference Book by Martin Middlebrook and Chris Everitt
Viking, 804 pp, £25.00, May 1985, ISBN 0 670 80137 2
- ’45: The Final Drive from the Rhine to the Baltic by Charles Whiting
Century, 192 pp, £7.95, March 1985, ISBN 0 7126 0812 5
- In the Ruins of the Reich by Douglas Botting
Allen and Unwin, 248 pp, £9.95, May 1985, ISBN 0 04 943036 X
- 1945: The World We Fought For by Robert Kee
Hamish Hamilton, 371 pp, £12.95, May 1985, ISBN 0 241 11531 0
- VE Day: Victory in Europe 1945 by Robin Cross
Sidgwick, 223 pp, £12.95, May 1985, ISBN 0 283 99220 4
- One Family’s War edited by Patrick Mayhew
Hutchinson, 237 pp, £10.95, May 1985, ISBN 0 7126 0812 5
- Poems of the Second World War: The Oasis Selection edited by Victor Selwyn
Dent, 386 pp, £12.00, May 1985, ISBN 0 460 10432 2
- My Life by Bert Hardy
Gordon Fraser, 192 pp, £14.95, March 1985, ISBN 0 86092 083 6
- Victory in Europe: D Day to VE Day by Max Hastings and George Stevens
Weidenfeld, 192 pp, £10.95, April 1985, ISBN 0 297 78650 4
When, in War and Peace, young Nikolai Rostov first rides, into action with his fellow hussars against the French at Austerlitz, he feels that the longed-for time has come ‘to experience the intoxication of a charge’, about which he has heard so much. At first he is indeed elated, but then the unseen enemy suddenly becomes visible, Rostov’s horse is shot under him, there is ‘around him nothing but the still earth and the stubble’. Frenchmen approach. ‘Who are they? Are they coming at me? Can they be running at me? And why? To kill me? Me whom everyone is so fond of?’ His family’s love makes it seem impossible that these people intend to kill him. Then as a Frenchman bears down with fixed bayonet, Nikolai flings his pistol at him and runs for the nearest bushes, possessed by ‘a single unmixed instinct of fear for his young and happy life’.
Richard Holmes’s impressive and absorbing Firing Line shows how accurately Tolstoy projected, in this episode and others, the psychology of troops in battle. Holmes quotes Lieutenant David Tinker on his first experience, during the Falklands War, of being shelled: ‘They must be mad. Don’t they know it’s very unsafe shooting things at other people?’ A US Sergeant in Vietnam recalled: ‘You thought, “How the fuck can they do this to me? If only I could talk to the cock suckers firing at me, we’d get along, everything would be all right.’”
Paintings, and latterly films and TV, have misrepresented the battlefield as a crowded, busy place. Like Nikolai Rostov, most soldiers experience it as strangely empty. Even on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, a British field artillery officer looking towards the German trenches could see ‘not a single soldier ... not a movement of any sort’. A British parachutist in combat in 1982 reported: ‘I didn’t really see any Argies properly until they’d started surrendering ... It was unbelievably confusing.’ Like Rostov, who doesn’t fire his pistol but throws it, some 85 per cent of American infantrymen, on average, did not shoot during actions in the Second World War. Many soldiers, in all armies, have run away – for instance, in Eritrea in 1940, British soldiers panicked and fled before Italians. That isn’t strange at all. What is mysterious is that relatively few soldiers desert – ‘only’ a hundred thousand from the British Army in 1939-45, while three hundred thousand deserted or went AWOL from the German Army in 1941-44.
It is still more extraordinary that armed forces maintain impetus to attack despite heavy casualty rates. John Terraine’s The Right of the Line, a comprehensive, judicious and humane account of the RAF’s experience in the last European war, gives sympathetic attention to the stress experienced by aircrews in Bomber Command, which realised as time went on that men could take a maximum of only 30 successive sorties before they began to crack. The night-in, night-out bombing of Germany, however doubtful the value of much of it, probably needed more sustained courage than any other wartime operation. The Bomber Command War Diaries, an invaluable reference book giving details of every attack, calculates that about 125,000 aircrew served Bomber Command, and of these 55,500 were killed; wounded and POWs brought the total casualties up to 73,741, or nearly 60 per cent. The gross casualty rates among British infantry fighting in North-West Europe in 1944-45 could be even higher – in the 15th Division, 62.9 per cent of men, 72 per cent of officers – but ‘only’ 16.8 of the former and 28.7 per cent of the latter were killed. The death rate in bombers was exceptional.
Charles Whiting, in his ’45: The Final Drive from the Rhine to the Baltic, provides repulsive detail which makes such statistics all too vivid. Eight months after D Day, one company of the 2nd Battalion of the Gordon Highlanders had just three men left out of the 115 who had landed in Normandy. But desertion and ‘combat exhaustion’ were rare as British troops in this sector moved through the Reichswald on Germany’s border with Holland. This was perhaps because newcomers still had some way to go before, as even the bravest would do, they cracked. Men reached a peak of performance in the first three months of a spell of combat, and most were useless before the next three were over. In the Reichswald, British youngsters led by almost equally young men defecated in shell holes or, under fire, in their own fox holes, and could not wash properly for days on end, but could keep going in hopes of looting a ‘feather bed to sleep on in their dripping damp slit trenches’, or a German’s pig to slaughter and eat. Meanwhile, the enemy, who should have known that the Reich was beaten, still tenaciously fought back. Blijenbeek Castle, whose defenders had mown down an entire company of the 52nd Lowland Division when it had tried to scale the walls, was ‘finally taken only after the RAF had dropped nine 1,000-pound bombs directly on top of it’. Charles Whiting, who writes war fiction as ‘Leo Kessler’, has a style which could fairly be called sensationalist, but the well-attested happenings of 1945 make the alternative discourse of genteel historical scholarship seem inadequate.
Douglas Batting’s slightly more restrained In the Ruins of the Reich has convinced me that no year in human history produced such appalling man-made destruction and misery. The invasion of Germany by armies from East and West committed to a policy of ‘unconditional surrender’ culminated in ‘the destruction of a modern state on a scale without precedent’. In mid-April, the three Russian Army fronts which moved in on Berlin for the kill comprised about 1.6 million human beings. The number of Berliners who had been evacuated was nearly as large, but rather more – 1,750,000 – remained. In 18 days of battle the Soviet forces destroyed 93 German divisions, took nearly half a million prisoners, but themselves lost 305,000 dead, wounded and missing. ‘Between half a million and a million human beings thus lost their lives, their sanity or their freedom as a result of this terrible and unnecessary final battle’ – many more than the total of British Empire dead in six years of war. German survivors had more suffering to come. World food shortage was such that by the end of 1946 civilians in the British-occupied zone got as little as 400 calories a day – half the ration for Belsen camp inmates under the Nazis.
Morale in armies, as Richard Holmes points out, tends to slump when the need to carry on fighting evaporates. Douglas Botting writes of a ‘catastrophic collapse’ of discipline among the Western allies after VE Day. Cynicism which treated German property and German people alike as objects ripe for exploitation had been building up before this. Botting points out that ‘during the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944 the American effort to throw back the German counter-offensive had been bedevilled by some 19,000 US Army deserters involved in large-scale robbery and black market dealings in the rear areas.’ One group syphoned off petrol needed for tanks and sold it on the French black market. Whiting’s italics and exclamation-mark seem amply justified when he reports that from February to May 1945 there were on the Western Front ‘five hundred cases of convicted rape a month!’ But matters got worse after the ‘unconditional’ victory.
The huge heists of jewels and bullion masterminded by US officers, though they were the biggest known thefts in history, now seem more excusable than smaller-scale operations which exploited the plight of German civilians. Army stores were pilfered for goods to trade on the black market, where a Gobelin tapestry could be had for a carton of grapefruit juice. The British Sector of Berlin became a centre of illicit dealings which, according to an official report of July 1946, threatened to ‘ruin’ what remained of Germany’s financial and economic structure, but corruption was widespread at such high levels that not much could be done to check it. One American general sent home 166 crates and boxes full of valuable antiques in a single shipment.
‘Fraternisation’ with Germans was a t first proscribed for Allied soldiers; of course that broke down. Botting believes that concubinage was ‘universal’ in the first two years after the war. The price of a woman was a warm room for the night, a few cigarettes, a little food. Venereal disease reached epidemic proportions: a spot check in Berlin in the first post-war winter found that nearly a third of girls examined were sufferers. But Allied top brass did not stand austerely aloof. One general in US Army Intelligence took a former mistress of Dr Goebbels to New York for a ‘furlough’ in the Waldorf and Ritz hotels, though part of his job was to root out politically damaging liaisons with Nazis.
The politics of the aftermath were tragic in the true sense of that devalued word. Why has the 40th anniversary of VE Day prompted such wallowings on TV, so many events, exhibitions, books? Partly, I suppose, because numerous veterans won’t survive till the 50th – but isn’t it also the case that the Russians had reasons for wanting to refresh memories of the Patriotic War and the West has responded with its own version? Cold War reflexes ensure that otherwise sensible writers of commemorative books are unable to resist inane ‘if onlys’. Eisenhower, for all his limitations, seems to shine as a beacon light of decency, yet Douglas Botting appears to blame him for preventing the Western troops he commanded from beating the Russians to Berlin, though he cannot help noting that Berlin lay deep inside what had been agreed as the Soviet zone of occupation. Charles Whiting claims melodramatically that Karl Timmerman, the US officer who captured that famous bridge over the Rhine at Remagen which the Germans had failed to blow up, settled our post-war fates adversely by preempting Montgomery’s crossing of the river further north and ‘changing’ the direction of the main Allied attack towards Bavaria. But ‘Berlin, Vienna and Prague’ were not ‘lost to the Western allies’ by Timmerman’s action. To defeat Hitler, the Western allies had depended on Soviet advance into Germany. The deal between West and Soviets at Yalta in February 1945 can be represented as hideously cynical, but also as a triumph of realism. Stalin was ready to let the British wipe out Greek Communists. There was nothing the Western allies could have done to stop him putting his own puppets in charge of Poland. Besides military might in the field, the Soviet Union had a moral case. They had suffered far more heavily than the British, North Americans or even French, and had some right to be allowed to secure themselves against future German aggression. It is absurd to suppose that the post-war world would have been safer or less divided had the Allies flouted agreements, seized Berlin and Vienna and willy-nilly resurrected a powerful united Germany.
It is just as silly of Whiting to say that he accepts the ‘low’ estimate of thirty-five thousand dead as a result of the British fire-raid on Dresden on the assumption that higher ones, ranging up to two hundred thousand, reflect Soviet use of the event as a ‘symbol of capitalist brutality’. Yet John Terraine points out that a widely-accepted figure of twenty-five thousand dead and thirty-five thousand missing originated in East Germany itself, and it corresponds pretty well with Martin Middlebrook’s cautious estimate, in The Bomber Command War Diaries, that deaths ‘may have exceeded 50,000’. Any visitor to the present-day DDR can see that the still-occupying Soviets continue to impress upon its citizens that Germany suffered just retribution; such propaganda made my blood boil when I visited Dresden itself.
As the bombing of Dresden illustrates, the tragedy of 1945 was that Westerners and Soviet people, fighting a just war against racialism and aggression, ordered and carried out actions which now seem ethically indistinguishable from Nazi atrocities. The very brave British aircrew of Bomber Command outraged their own country’s infantry, as Charles Whiting reports, by what looked like indiscriminate assault on towns which the PBI were trying to capture. Caen in Normandy was bombed several times soon after D Day. Whiting claims that ‘the RAF killed five thousand French civilians and three Germans.’ Middlebrook notes less excitably that the raid of 7 July 1944 killed ‘few Germans’ but ‘ruined’ the town’s northern suburbs. Its centre had already been ‘badly bombed’ on 6-7 June. The place was turned into a handy base for stubborn German defence. Terraine agrees with the Official History of the British bombing offensive that the ‘Battle of Berlin’ earlier in 1944 had been ‘more than a failure. It was a defeat.’ Over a thousand British aircraft had been completely lost, and the ‘awe-inspiring’ damage done to the German capital was futile. German weapon production had continued to soar. Morale held up in Berlin, where they told a joke in the cafés about how Goebbels met Goering one day and announced that Hitler had hanged himself. ‘There you are,’ Goering was said to have replied, ‘I always said we should win the war in the air.’ As Terraine says, ‘not a particularly brilliant joke’, but ‘according to British orthodoxy, Germans were supposed not to be able to joke at all, still less to do so under devastating aerial bombardment, and least of all to joke at the sacred person of the Führer.’
‘Unconditional surrender’ of Germany had the advantage that it was a clearcut policy of which Western allies and Soviet Union could share a common understanding. But it seemed to give ordinary Germans no option except to fight to the last. It ensured the maximum prolongation of brutality, then gave the Allies direct responsibility for coping with the colossal movement of people arising from the German defeat. Eleven million Germans were prisoners of war. Perhaps 17,700,000 Germans had had homes in Eastern and Central Europe from which they were evicted in 1945. Over a million had died in the war, over two and a half million stayed put. Of the ‘displaced’ 14 million, two million now died. Botting avers that the expulsion of German civilians from long-established Eastern homes ‘was carried out amid so much cruelty and suffering that it must be seen as no less a crime against humanity as those for which the Nazi leaders were at that very time being tried in Nuremberg.’ His grammar is awry and his argument is shaky. Calculated genocide is not the same thing as the cruel hot-blooded revenge which Czechs and Poles exacted. On the other hand, the calculations of diplomats prompted the hand-over by the Allies of Soviet nationals found on their side of the Elbe. Some fifty thousand Cossacks who had welcomed the Germans as liberators from Great Russian rule had trekked west with the Wehrmacht after Stalingrad in fear of Soviet reprisals. In May 1945, British officers had the grim task of handing Cossacks camping in Austria back to the Soviet forces and almost certain death. Major Davies wept as he carried out his orders, but heartless German concentration camp guards could equally well claim they had merely ‘carried out orders’.
The detail given by Botting, by Whiting and, more soberly, by Holmes can help us get the bombing of Hiroshima into proportion. It was one example among many of large-scale atrocity, the long-term danger of radiation was not foreseen, and the short-term result was good. It was better for the human race in general, and even for the Japanese themselves, that the latter were brought to swift surrender. Lord Louis Mountbatten, neither an inhumane nor an unimaginative man, judged the ethical issue nicely:
I am responsible for trying to kill as many Japanese as I can with the minimum of loss on our side. War is crazy. It is a crazy thing that we are fighting at all. But it would be even more crazy if we were to have more casualties on our side to save the Japanese.
This is quoted in Robert Kee’s 1945 – The World We Fought For. Kee’s method is to construct an account of the year from contemporary newspapers and journals. Its vice is that it can look rather lazily tacked together. Its virtue is that it helps us to see events as the average well-informed civilian or inactive serviceperson could perceive them at the time. Many things were hidden from such people. Times readers on 14 February learnt of ‘Smashing Blows at Dresden’: they would not hear of the grave misgivings about the attack expressed by Churchill himself to Portal of Bomber Command in a memo written a few weeks later. But Kee’s book reminds us of the rhetoric through which events and issues were publicly presented.
On 2 May, Count Schwerin von Krosigk, Foreign Minister in the near-phantom government of the Reich headed by Admiral Doenitz after Hitler’s suicide, spoke over the radio of a Soviet ‘iron curtain’ in the East moving steadily forward. By 16 August, Churchill was using the same phrase in the House of Commons. Referring to the expulsion of Germans from Poland, he said: ‘It is not impossible that tragedy on a prodigious scale is unfolding itself behind the iron curtain.’ He had just lost the general election, in which he had claimed that his Labour opponents had desired a ‘totalitarian’ state. That adjective, conflating Communism with Nazism and both with democratic socialism, remains a useful smear word even now. The rhetoric of Cold War, and the use of the Cold War in domestic British politics, were all too clearly foreshadowed.
Not all propagandising had such staying power, however. The Daily Mirror, while warmly supporting Labour, had criticised the party’s declaration of policy for saying nothing about the Empire ‘and the part it alone can play in sustaining Great Britain as a Great Power in the world of tomorrow’. The Mirror in this case was out of tune with its readership. The manifest difficulty which the British public found in sustaining interest in the war with Japan after VE Day surely betokened its general lack of concern about overseas possessions; the war in the East had been an ‘imperialist’ one.
Britain’s mood at that juncture mingled weariness and disenchantment with self-satisfaction. Since mid-1941, when the German invasion of Russia had brought full support for the war effort from British Communists, the nation had been united behind the ‘war effort’ to a far greater degree than at any time during the First World War. Few realised that the war was bankrupting British imperialism and establishing American world-domination. The British believed that they had ‘stood alone’ against Hitler, had enlisted useful allies at last, and had finally beaten him. That made them as great a power as they wanted to be. Despite the reputed ‘mingling of classes’, rich and poor had not submerged their prejudices against each other. All sections of the community enjoyed a good grumble. Robin Cross’s VE Day: Victory in Europe 1945, a commemorative volume which is stronger on domestic than on military matters, notes how queues formed for bread on the very day itself – food shortages were worsening – and records an exchange ‘worthy of Harold Pinter’ which was overheard by a Mass Observer in a tobacconist’s shop. It is a virtuoso display of British Moaning, stirred by the protracted and confusing way in which Victory had been proclaimed. A middle-aped woman says: ‘They played us a dirty trick – a proper dirty trick.’ A young labourer joins in – ‘A muddle it was – just a muddle’; then a young woman: ‘People waiting and waiting and nothing happening. No church bells or nothing.’ A man about fifty takes up his cue.
Yes – what ‘appened to them church bells, I’d like to know! ... The way they’ve behaved – why it was an insult to the people. Stood up to all wot we’ve stood up to, and then afraid to tell us it was peace, just as if we were a lot of kids ... No bells, no all-clears, nothing to start people off.
The woman who began the Moan now clinches it: ‘That’s just what they’re afraid of. I reckon.’
‘They’ had nothing to fear. The crowds who thronged central London saluted King, Parliament, Churchill, even allies with cordial appreciation, and were so harmless that the young princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret, were allowed to slip out around 11 p.m. to mix with the crowd around Buckingham Palace. (Margaret recalled that ‘everyone was knocking off each other’s hats and we knocked off some too.’) Restrained elation was followed after VE Day by a feeling of hungover flatness. Reports from Europe were bound to dismay people with sensitivity to suffering.
Young Christopher Mayhew, scion of a country-house family, former President of the Oxford Union, but soon to be a Labour MP, had reached Germany as a soldier in March. His father, Sir Basil, vice-chairman of Colman of Norwich, didn’t like what his son wrote home about friendly relations between British troops and German civilians. Christopher retorted:
Who has the right to order someone to loathe someone else? ... If you were out here, would you loathe that old man in the street there with the wheelbarrow with the crockery in? ... You will say ‘they must be taught their lesson.’ But have you a clear conception of the lessons they have already been taught? Have you seen a blitzed town? London isn’t blitzed. Norwich is practically undamaged, a prosperous peaceful town. German towns are blitzed.
The letter can be found in One Family’s War, compiled by Christopher’s brother Patrick from the wartime correspondence of a large, affectionate, disputatious and very literate cousinage. Patrick began as a conscientious objector in the Medical Corps, but after winning a Military Medal for his heroism in the Dunkirk withdrawal, transferred to combat duties and was wounded in Italy. A third brother, Paul, died in the RAF. Sisters and cousins found various kinds of war work. The values of the clan were conditioned by serious interest in religious and moral issues and by upper-middle-class traditions of public service. The young males were keen on rugger and good dinners and had useful connections in High Places, but the family valued classical music, and into their privileged world – into what Paul described as ‘the indescribable and inimitable atmosphere of Oxford’ – the Thirties had intruded left-wing ideas. In 1940, Christopher read the New Statesman at the French front while Patrick agonised over pacifism. By 1945, their Uncle Bertie Howarth, secretary of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, was confiding that he had voted Conservative all his life but couldn’t do it again, though the Labour Party was ‘still half-educated or less’. His son David, who had served in the Navy, had found it delightful on HMS King Alfred ‘to be among outwardly similar people who read Penguin Specials, and do the Times crossword puzzle, and speak pure Oxford’.
Those Penguin Specials, sometimes as Red as their covers ... Victor Selwyn, introducing the ‘Oasis Selection’ of Poems of the Second World War, proclaims that the verse he has chosen is ‘the product of a literate, aware and compassionate generation’ of young idealists. ‘The tanks going into EI Aliment were well stocked with Penguin paperbacks.’ The anthology is sponsored by the charitable ‘Salamander Oasis Trust’, founded in 1976 among those who served and wrote in the Middle East in the Second World War, which has aimed at collecting manuscripts written during the war itself. It goes at once into Everyman’s Library, and Victor Selwyn hopes that it will become set reading in schools and universities.
No real harm will be done if it is, though it is one of the oddest anthologies I’ve ever handled. A few first-rate writers mingle among ‘over two hundred names’ of people who tried their hand at being ‘war poets’. Selwyn, clearly not one to leave the Philistine unsuited hip and thigh, argues that First World War poetry has been overrated and that Second War writers often go ‘deeper’ because of their compassion for the fates of individuals on both sides – their ability to relate ‘the experiences of the many through that of the individual’. Well, such individuals as Dirk Bogarde and Quintin Hogg, Spike Milligan and Enoch Powell can be found projecting intelligence and compassion in these pages, along with such recognised poets of high accomplishment as Gavin Ewart and Henry Reed, Norman Cameron and Robert Garioch, Roy Fuller, Hamish Henderson and Sorley Maclean – and many others wholly unknown to fame. It’s true that sensitive annotation of individual experience was the hallmark of their generation of writers. Owen and Rosenberg had, in a sense, already ‘said it all’ about modern mechanized warfare, and grandiose political statement in Thirties style would have courted mockery by events. Keith Douglas, as always, stands out as the writer who best expressed the common sense of distance between sensibility and action, ‘individual’ and ‘warrior’. In his ‘How to Kill’, an enemy stands in view through gun sights:
He smiles, and moves about in ways
his mother knows, habits of his.
The wires touch his face; I cry
NOW. Death, like a familiar, hears
and look, has made a man of dust
of a man of flesh. This sorcery
I do. Being damned, I am amused
to see the centre of love diffused ...
That, with its frank recognition of relish, helps to explain how, in present-day war, a nice boy like Nikolai Rostov can be killed. There’s an impressive poem by R.N. Currey which begins, ‘This is a damned inhuman sort of war’ – a longer, more diffuse but more interesting version of one printed by Ian Hamilton in his Poetry of War 1939-45 (first published in 1965 and in my opinion still the best anthology covering this terrain). Serving in the artillery, Currey describes shooting down an enemy aircraft, then running to try to rescue its crew from the flames:
We could not help them, six men burned to death –
I’ve had their burnt flesh in my lungs all day.
The humanity of wry young idealists who read Penguins and the New Statesman before battle was ironically denied by the conditions of a war which idealism insisted must be fought and won. The poetry is quiet because such humanity could not engage fully with what was going on as confused warriors bombed and shot their own side, as young flesh was ripped up, as European ‘civilisation’ dishonoured itself. The poems, reminding us of this fact, have value, but cannot, as Victor Selwyn seems to hope, bring home to school-children what was going on then.
Nor, probably, can photographs and film. Charles Whiting’s book is particularly well-illustrated, but it’s his over-the-top text which gives the photographs significance. Bert Hardy, whose photographs had adorned so many ‘documentary’ features in Picture Post, was serving in the Army Film and Photographic Unit as the war howled and shrieked to its close. He believes that the photographs from Belsen which he reproduces in My Life ‘explain themselves horribly clearly’. But they don’t. Even now, one’s eye cannot without captions ‘read’ the dumped starved corpses as dead people. A self-taught working-class Cockney, the good-natured Hardy survived without becoming a cynic an apprenticeship in a Fleet Street agency which faked stories to go with his photos. Covering the East End Blitz for Picture Post, ‘after having taken so many “laid-on” pictures’, he ‘almost hesitated’ to photograph certain vivid subjects in case they ‘didn’t look “real” enough’. When he had seen Belsen, he carried round one particularly nasty print which he showed to Germans. The experiment convinced him that ‘the average German did not know what was going on’ in the camps – they ‘didn’t believe that such things had really happened.’ But perhaps he had merely proved that photographs by themselves don’t teach or convince.
Increasingly, color photos and films of the Second World War have come to light. At first glance, they make the war seem more ‘real’. But they also make it seem less drab and sordid – monochrome, after all, has its consonance with the vilenesses of 1939-45. Max Hastings’s Victory in Europe is ‘brightened’ by stills from color film shot by George Stevens, a Hollywood director (he later made Shane). Stevens ran an official unit attached to the Allied Armies’ Supreme Headquarters, but military procedures called for all movie coverage to be in 35 mm black-and-white, so what Stevens created with the color film he’d brought with him was a kind of private diary. Now it’s been seen at last, on TV, and has instantly become rather famous.
For obvious reasons, images from this one man’s war rarely match Hastings’s text very well, since the latter covers, in a competent, uninspired way, the whole campaign, including everywhere Stevens wasn’t. The book is a rather sad example of how opportunist publishers sling commemorative volumes together. The stills are perversely pretty. A high proportion show people, amid war ravage, smiling, the way we do when a movie camera is on us. They do not help answer the question posed by Richard Holmes’s book: how do people bring themselves to kill each other horribly in war?
Holmes draws much evidence from the Second World War, but also from the First, from 19th-century wars, and from recent conflicts in Korea, Vietnam, the Middle East and the Falklands. As he systematically analyses battlefield experience, he tries to explain how armies cohere, and at the beginning and end he challenges the conclusion of The Face of Battle by John Keegan, his colleague at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst.
When Keegan’s book first appeared, in 1976, it changed the way many people, myself included, thought about military history. It showed how the set formulae of historians had obscured those confused realities of fighting which Tolstoy had so brilliantly projected. Keegan deduced that a Third World War might be impossible. People surely would not and could not fight under such conditions as we now foresee. ‘The suspicion grows that battle has already abolished itself.’ Holmes now finds this judgment ‘unduly sanguine’. Conventional war, as in the South Atlantic, ‘retains utility as a political instrument’. TV has turned war into ‘moving wallpaper, and its familiar pattern no longer horrifies us.’ Armies continue to drill soldiers into automatic obedience. Harsh basic training which systematically degrades groups of young men to their ‘lowest common denominator’ still seems to work. Enemies, distanced even further than Keith Douglas’s or R.N. Currey’s by new weapons which fire more lethally to longer ranges, are increasingly anonymous and suited to the process which one ‘scientist’ of the Lorenz school has called ‘cultural pseudo-speciation’, an aptly ugly phrase to describe our disgusting propensity to react towards humans who differ from us in religion, ‘race’, colour or nationality as if they belonged to a different, inimical species. From 1941, Nazi ideology presented the Russians as untermenschen, and in return that one-time revolutionary idealist, the novelist-turned-propagandist Ilya Ehrenburg, exhorted Russian troops to ‘Kill! There is nothing that is innocent in the German. Neither in the living nor in the unborn.’ The massacre at My Lai followed the US Army’s dehumanisation of the Vietnamese to ‘mere gooks’.
Reading this spate of war books has literally given me nightmares. I find that I cannot now dissolve these in optimistic rhetoric. I am not a pacifist and believe that sometimes people must fight. Large-scale ‘conventional’ war with modern weapons is perhaps intrinsically no more appalling than the Thirty Years War, but that is small consolation. We cannot know whether Keegan was wrong and Holmes is right unless someone starts the Third World War. Perversely, the most heartening information in Holmes’s book reveals that the US Army in Vietnam was not very good at maintaining the basics of morale. In previous big wars, the moral authority of officers had been enhanced by the fact that their casualties proportionately outnumbered those of their men. In Vietnam there were more officers, fewer officer casualties and an absurd ratio of staff jobs to front-line soldiers. Medals were debased by grotesque over-profusion. The ‘grunts’ at the front were resentful. Men who were ‘identified as being too eager for action’ risked ‘fragging’ – murder by their own comrades. ‘As many as 20 per cent of US officers killed in the war may have died at the hands of their own men.’ This nauseating suggestion at least offers some support to Keegan’s view.