The Vast Panorama and Perspective of World War II

sherman-sitting[1]The great United States Civil War General, William Tecumseh Sherman observed, “War is hell!” Gen. Sherman personified his utterance as he marched through Georgia toward Savannah and the “sea” late in the war, burning everything in his path. Perhaps you have heard that famous quote, and you have wondered how history and Sherman’s perspective square with the “rules of warfare” frequently implied in today’s news. One such tenet of war frequently cited is the desire of the United States military to avoid civilian casualties in its modern day engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan. While an admirable goal, is that truly a realistic policy in warfare? What lessons are to be learned from history?

The question of civilian casualties in warfare is but one of the myriad of many issues brought front-and-center by the world’s immersion in its greatest conflict, World War II. That war was surely the most momentous human-driven event ever to take place on planet earth during its long, four-plus billion year history. Never has there been a bigger drama on a larger stage than that which followed the “war to end all wars,” World War I, a mere twenty-one years prior.

For regular followers of my blog, the variety of my interests reflected in these posts is surely obvious. History, science and mathematics, human nature, education and learning, religion, music and the arts – these are all fair game in my blog. The more I survey the landscape of the Second World War, the more I appreciate the vastness of the human experience it represents as well as the many opportunities the war provides to “reason and reflect.”

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Like many of you, I know some history of the war – enough to pique my curiosity to learn more. I wish now to peel back the veneer of purely historical fact and take a closer look at the ultimate human motivations which precipitated the war and the lessons-learned from that war (if any). As I learn more along the way, I will occasionally post on information which is of particular interest – not just to war-history buffs, but to most of my readers.

What “burr under my saddle” could possibly prompt a personal project as ambitious as tackling the Second World War, late in life? My best answer to that is, simply: Curiosity. I wish to better understand the large-scale motivations and behaviors of us human beings – how we think (or not) and how we operate on the societal level. Although much of our accumulated knowledge about human behavior patterns is typically distilled through our interpersonal and family relationships, it seems that a thorough understanding of human nature requires a much larger stage, one which reflects the communal behavior of mankind. I can think of no better “theatre of human operations” than WW II.

The reader may ask, “Is not that war a totally depressing scenario? Why spend so much time dwelling on it?” Along with all its dark ramifications and human implications, the war also provided ample opportunity for the virtues of honor, sacrifice, and idealism to shine forth; it is that heady brew that makes the subject so fascinating and why I want to learn more. One other somewhat regrettable fact is at play: Major technological advances occur most rapidly during times of war, and the six years of World War II vividly support that contention. Truly, “necessity is the mother of invention,” and wartime is the greatest prod. I am, as always, very interested in both the technology developed and man’s choices regarding its use.

 Two events have kick-started my revived interest in WW II:

The first motivation: In the course of reading and researching, I came across some very interesting information having to do with allied bombing strategies in Europe. As I currently understand the situation, when the war began, both Churchill and Hitler eschewed the bombing of civilian populations in favor of attacking military installations. Their motivations early on may have been more practical than altruistic; in the early stages of the war, bombing raids on strictly military targets logically offered the most “bang for the buck.” That was to change.

Reichstag Rubble Still-smoking rubble of the German Reichstag, Berlin

I recently watched a PBS documentary titled The Bombing of Germany. Its version of the evolution of bombing strategies, on both sides, proved quite fascinating. Hitler had a change of mind soon after the war began, and London’s population became subjected to constant Nazi bombardment. By the end of the war and prior to D-Day on June 6, 1944, the German population centers of Hamburg, Dresden, and Berlin were decimated by Allied bombing raids – clearly a deliberate change of Allied policy from earlier intentions, but only toward the end of the war!

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Why the complete change from earlier policy? The Allies were growing desperate to end Germany’s participation in the war – both to focus on Japan and to achieve a swifter end to the weary European conflict. And we know what Japan’s ultimate fate was to be. Have you ever heard President Harry S. Truman’s rather bizarre radio announcement to the nation of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in August, 1945? He called the destroyed target, “a military installation.” I think not so much.

Wars do spiral out of control and become exactly what General Sherman said –  “hell,” where civilian populations are inevitably at risk. I am in no position to pass judgement on the decision-making of those who orchestrated events so monumental and complex as those in World War II, nor do I wish to. I can only point to the ultimate lessons embodied in Sherman’s utterance. Desperate societies, like individuals, do the desperate things required to survive and conquer. The rubble that was once Berlin, Hamburg, Dresden, Tokyo, and Hiroshima/Nagasaki provided tangible proof that even civilian population centers will be targeted when the chips of warfare are on the table. The ongoing popular support of both the Nazi regime and the Emperor of Japan, even late in the war, proved to be the handwriting on the wall for the people of both countries.

The second motivation: My sister and her husband gave me as a gift, some time ago, a large hardback book titled, The Inferno: The World at War 1939-1945. My reaction at the time was, “When will I have time to read this?” True to form, I kept the book…just in case “I might need it, someday.” That day is here, and the book appears to be an excellent one-volume guide to the entire sweep of the war. I am so glad that, once again, I heeded my inner book-voice which invariably reminds that the book in question might someday prove handy!

As I gradually work my way through that one-volume account, a new post will occasionally appear about the more interesting aspects of World War II. In between those posts, everything else under the sun is fair game as subject matter, here….as usual! Stay tuned.

2 thoughts on “The Vast Panorama and Perspective of World War II

  1. I have that book, also, yet to be read. I would enjoy working my way through it with you. WWII has fascinated me in many ways, including the Resistance which took place in Warsaw. After our trip to Poland, it came very much alive for me. Looking forward to following your reason and reflection regarding the War,

    • Visiting those wartime places adds so much to the picture, I agree. I look forward to comparing notes as we work our way through the book! My thanks to you and Jon for the well-chosen gift.

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