An excerpt from
The War Complex
World War II in Our Time
by Marianna Torgovnick
Hiding in Plain Sight
In F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, the narrator Nick Carraway tells us that he "participated in that delayed Teutonic migration known as the Great War" where he "enjoyed the counter-raid so thoroughly that [he] came back restless." So restless that he left the Midwest, which had always seemed to him "the warm center of the world," and migrated to the more savage East, where he met Gatsby. It's a peculiar set-up, a peculiar precondition for this story, which critics usually read as a novel about the American dream rather than as a novel about the aftereffects of World War I. Yet if we take the comment seriously—as I think we should—the passage suggests that Nick became afflicted with a blood-lust of retaliation, an enjoyment, to be specific, of killing up-close using bayonets and knives, that made him feel disoriented and out of place in his native Midwest. It took a sojourn in New York and other encounters with death—although smaller in scale, more personal than the war—to restore a sense of normalcy that made him fit to "come back home."…
Picking up on a speculation Freud makes in 1915, I want to claim that the altered state of consciousness produced by large-scale war, what Freud calls wartime and I call wartime consciousness, can last beyond the end of hostilities. For World War II, it persisted after 1945 through the Cold War, and (with lapses during periods of Soviet-U.S. détente and especially after the fall of the Berlin Wall) remained ready to be reanimated on 9/11. Like Fitzgerald's Nick, individuals and the collectivities they form feel a restless, disjointed feeling, the feeling of never quite being at home or even worthy of being there, disillusionment or hopeless passivity, and a heightening of our already uneasy attitudes toward death.
Under such conditions, war memory intensifies patterns found in memory-work more generally. It highlights some facts but distorts others and allows still others to exist in limbo—known, but somehow never registered—what I mean by hiding in plain sight. Such adjustments and ellipses are not so much a lapse or a failure of cultural memory, as they are commonly conceived; they are not even, properly speaking, an erasure or a forgetting, two other common conceptions. Instead, they form an integral and crucial part of how individuals and groups construct temporality—the ineffable part of memory itself, necessary for memory's very shape. The adjustment I am proposing in existing models of cultural memory represents a rhetorical shift, to be sure, but, more importantly, it represents a conceptual one.
To be specific for World War II: D-Day, "the greatest generation," citizen soldiers fighting against the forces of totalitarianism, the effectiveness of trials for war crimes and crimes against humanity, the Holocaust as an evil inflicted by Nazis upon Jews, genocide as something that should never happen again. These events and ideas form part of America's image of itself, frequently cited in public discourse and often memorialized. They place Americans in virtuous, heroic roles—how we like to think of ourselves and to present ourselves to the world, even at those times when the United States has been a belligerent and not-much-loved nation. Yet as we shall see, beginning with chapter 1 on D-Day, our narratives about even these uncontroversial events and ideas contain omissions, things misremembered, and more than a few outright distortions.
Narratives of D-Day, for example, tend to fall into the genre I call guy talk: a blend of historicity, retrospective confidence in victory at odds with narrative suspense, casual insouciance, jokes that mask the shock of death but seem too good to be true—the wartime equivalent of big fish stories. Parts of Stephen Ambrose's work exemplify the genre, which begins much earlier, in news reports, posters, and films made during the war inscribing the basic narrative Ambrose and many others follow: a narrative of good versus evil, American multiculturalism (within limits, since racial segregation remained in place) versus the homogeneous racial Übermensch or "Jap," citizen soldiers fighting a necessary war against the forces of totalitarianism, us versus them. The genre encourages hubris and includes a boisterous excitement about war, the sense that life was never quite as rich again in action or comradeship for those who fought, despite pious iterations, which also form part of the genre, that war is hell.
The best military histories—like John Keegan's or Gerhard Weinberg's—raise questions about military decisions and policies. Philosophical books about combat—like J. Glenn Gray's or Craig Hedges's—describe men's immersion in the destructive sublime as a seduction and, for some, an addiction. Guy talk doesn't favor questions or ambiguities in the conduct of war. It favors celebration and the clarity of events like D-Day, the raising of the flag on Iwo Jima (staged, as we learned in 2000), or the liberation of the concentration camps. Such events are typically represented in visual forms like photographs or films that are widely reproduced in the media, factors that help them root in the national imagination. They make us feel good about ourselves and show a face we like to show.
In his classic work on collective memory, Maurice Halbwachs wrote, "the various groups that compose society are capable at every moment of constructing their past…[but] they most frequently distort that past in the act of reconstructing it." They distort to "erase from…memory all that might separate individuals, or that might distance groups from each other," especially "the group of people with whom we have a relation." Over time, "society tends to erase from its memory all that might separate individuals, or that might distance groups from each other." That is why "society, in each period, rearranges its recollections in such a way as to adjust them to the variable conditions of its equilibrium." If Halbwachs is right, as I believe he is at a basic level, collective memory begins in "relation"; that is, to put the matter concretely, it begins in the family, moves out into the group, neighborhood, town, or city, and then, sifted and refined still further through public discourse and media (newspapers, magazines, books, films and videos, popular clichés, rituals such as holidays, and memorials), becomes national or cultural. As part of a social bargain, individuals and groups agree to look away from unsettling histories, which then form the latent contents of cultural memory—not erased from memory (Halbwachs's concept) so much as a consequential, even active absence: the hole, to put it colloquially, that completes the donut, necessary for the donut's very shape.
What is almost always at the background for groups living in a state of war is an intense form of more general group dynamics: the willingness or felt necessity to suspend or surrender some of our critical faculties and feelings of dissent. The incipient work of memory thus links in multiple, complex ways not just to the creative, and often spontaneous, formation of communities—a factor to which I will want to return—but also to the formation of military or national policies. For the truth is that certain activities and choices (for genocide, for example) might not take place if governments and populations could not count in advance on protective future elisions within the work of memory. We frequently iterate the cliché that memory prevents history from repeating itself, sometimes as the very justification for doing history. But the holes in memory guarantee that the past will have a place to loop back into the present.
Once again, to be specific for World War II: internment camps for Japanese and Japanese Americans; incendiary bombings of cities in Germany and Japan; the atomic bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki; and, operating in a different register, the vital Soviet role in defeating the Nazis: while part of the public record, and hence provably "known," such events have never registered in America's image of World War II or in America's image of itself.
In the case of the Soviet losses, a subject to which I will return in chapter 1, fairly straightforward political factors controlled American "looking-away." Allies during the war, the Soviets very quickly became the United States' major postwar opponent, a development foreseen by many. If the claim to Europe after 1945 was staked in blood, as I believe it partly was, the 20 million Soviet dead—a number now expanding, as Soviet archives open, to at least 25 million and as many as 50 million—staked a claim the United States could not match and so could not, politically, acknowledge. Relatively few Americans understand that the Soviets drew the Iron Curtain not just as a power play but also, even primarily, as a buffer against any future possible German aggression. Without ceding Poland, the former Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and the other Eastern European states to the Soviets forever, most Americans could, I believe, have accommodated the complexity of Soviet motivations.
In the case of the internments and bombings, self-image controls the tendency to look-away. For the record has always shown that Americans interned fellow Americans in a history that, since 1973, has become increasingly known. And the record has always shown that British pilots and, to a lesser extent, Americans dropped the bombs that killed as many as 600,000 German civilians and that Americans flew the planes that killed, within hours, as many as 250,000 Japanese in Tokyo, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki. Yet we have still not found a way to talk or even to think about the bombings except in terms of "strategy," "military necessity," and lives potentially "saved" rather than lives lost. Current U.S. policy, designed to prevent other nations from having nuclear weapons even as deterrence, assumes that "we" know how to use nuclear weapons wisely, while "they" do not. Can I say that, without sounding quite glum and dour? Can I further note that the United States remains the only nation to have used nuclear weapons on civilians?
In 1969, Kurt Vonnegut wrote in Slaughterhouse Five that "there was almost nothing [in standard histories] about the Dresden raid, even though it had been such a howling success. The extent of the success had been kept a secret for many years after the war." Forty years after Vonnegut wrote, the situation has not changed all that dramatically. W. G. Sebald's "Air War and Literature: Zurich Lectures" initiated sustained public discourse in Germany about the incendiary bombings but may or may not do the same in the United States. In February 2004, Frederick Taylor published Dresden—part detailed and grim history, part apologia for the bombing. Most books about the war, even quite good books, omit or move quickly over the topic because, in moral terms and even military ones, they remain quite messy.
Factories, transportation systems, and communication networks were the primary and specified targets. But breaking enemy morale was also seen as likely to contribute to victory. And, though it is less often said out loud, the bombings also served as retaliation. The incendiary and atomic bombings targeted cities, and therefore civilians, not as a genocidal strategy (like the Final Solution) but as a military one to end the war more quickly. The efficacy of the bombings has been challenged and was challenged at the time. Yet even very good histories dwell on the liberation of France and the opening of the concentration camps but move much more quickly over Hamburg and Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Why? And to what effect?
The incendiary and atomic bombings targeted, of course, aggressor nations: I know that; you know that. And both Japan and Germany had caused, and indeed initiated, many millions of civilian deaths. I do not mean to scant those facts at all nor to set up glib comparisons between German and Japanese civilian deaths and those killed in nonaggressor nations and in the many gratuitous horrors of the Holocaust: the numbers do not match, nor do the contexts, nor do the intentions, nor (for the Holocaust) do the methods. When the Germans used incendiary bombs on London and Coventry, they sealed the fate of their own great cities. When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and, later, prolonged the war with kamikaze missions, they confirmed the idea—widespread after the fierce battle for Okinawa and the chief justification for the A-bomb—that invasion of Japan would cause massive casualties. By contrast, British and U.S. killing of civilians was understood as a regrettable, but unavoidable, consequence of war, part of war's undeniable ethics of retaliation, which tends, as everyone knows, to escalate out of control.
President Truman's first announcement of Hiroshima and many materials afterward have stressed that the A-bomb eliminated the need for an invasion that would have cost many lives—250,000 in Truman's original statement, 500,000 in his memoirs, 1 million in later statements by U.S. presidents: the numbers have grown in cultural memory and were always hypothetical. The first and major Nuremberg trial, the International Military Tribunal (IMT), carefully structured charges against the defendants to avoid the possibility that using atomic bombs against civilians could be construed as war crimes. Such explanations and actions seem plausible, even now. One understands, though one need not applaud, the needs such decisions served in their historical contexts. Still, that was then and this is now—except that "now" isn't as different as one might think, especially, and surprisingly, on the subject of Hiroshima.
In 1995, for example, an exhibition at the Smithsonian was scheduled to include photographs of the first atomic victims, with brief quotations from their statements. The announcement of the exhibition prompted accusations that the Smithsonian would disrespect the military and be unpatriotic. Under intense pressure, the curators reduced the exhibit to the fuselage of the Enola Gay and a smiling photograph of the pilots, entirely normalizing what had been, after all, a world-historical mission, and omitting the Japanese as victims. In 2003, the Smithsonian permanently installed the Enola Gay in a similarly sanitized exhibition. Then. Now.
After the explosion of the atomic bombs, dissent in the United States was limited and mostly confined to intellectuals, including African Americans and clergymen: it had been a long and difficult war and most Americans were simply happy, indeed overjoyed, to see it ended. John Hersey's Hiroshima (1946) was discussed at the time but that slender, journalistic text, which wears its weaknesses on its sleeve, still remains a major book on the subject almost sixty years later. In what looks like a case of writers' self censorship or publishers' aversion, a surprisingly small number of major books of nonfiction in English tackle Hiroshima and Nagasaki head-on as historical realities, and they have appeared at widely spaced intervals, most in the 1990s. Richard Rhodes's The Making of the Atomic Bomb (1986), Robert Jay Lifton's Death in Life (1991); and Lifton and Greg Mitchell's Hiroshima in America (1995) are three such books—to a lesser extent, so is Jonathan Schell's The Fate of the Earth (1992). An important, though fairly abstract, collection of essays in the journal Diacritics (1984) never found book publication, and its energies among literary critics and theorists dissipated. An excellent edition that included many primary materials, Hiroshima's Shadow, was not published by a well-known press, a factor that limited its distribution and influence. If one compares the many books on the Holocaust and on aspects of the Holocaust since 1961 and adds, in addition, the many memoirs and testimonies that also exist, one can feel the paucity.
Aside from these major books, what one finds about Hiroshima in the archives is a miscellany—the only word I can use, really: policy reports on matters from bomb shelters to preparations for radiation sickness, to calls for international treaties and debates about nuclear deterrence, to how-to books such as The Nuclear Survival Handbook: Living through and after a Nuclear Attack and The Nuclear Survival Kit. Sometimes, Hiroshima resides in the imagination as a nameless mushroom cloud, signifying natural or man-made apocalypse, a persistent interest in popular culture.
Anyone who remembers the pre-Vietnam 1960s, as I do, can recall how safety drills at school and popular periodicals like Life primed us repeatedly to think about nuclear war in terms of survival, covering with zest the craze for building bomb shelters in suburban backyards. My own private fantasy, in my parent's small two-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn, was outfitting a large armoire as a shelter that would, miraculously, save us all. My private fantasy, I wrote, except that it seems to have been a national fantasy as well. In all these instances, consideration of the past disappears in favor of apprehension for the future. Why? And to what effect?
The War Complex
The holes in the archive, the ellipses constitutive of cultural memory, exemplify the war complex at work, forming patterns that make a certain intuitive sense. Most of us do not dwell upon what enemy civilians experienced: the disappearance of homes, the loss of families, the destruction of the fabric of lives in single days or even moments—events terrible to contemplate. They resemble the Holocaust, with the significant twist that the victims were enemy civilians and that we, rather than Nazis, made them happen. Not so coincidentally, in contrast to the widespread dissemination of photographs after the opening of the concentration camps, we often lack, sometimes as a matter of government policy, photographic records of dead civilians and of events like the mass burning of bodies in Hiroshima. And so we personalize apprehension with regard to civilian bombings, moving it from the definite past to some potential future. Such terrible things might happen to us or to our families, but have not yet.
Apprehension for the future, most pointedly for our personal futures, seems or has come to seem a natural reaction to catastrophic events. We look to the nation for protection while we cling to those we love. Hannah Arendt and, more recently, Giorgio Agamben have shown that the state serves as the sole enforcer of what we confidently call "universal" or "human" rights, phrases that have no practical force without states willing to guarantee them. Stateless people, or those disowned by the state, are subject to arrest, abuse, and death. The Nazis exploited this fact to kill millions, removing citizenship from German Jews and, in occupied countries, deporting refugees before citizens. The United States exploits it too, most recently, to imprison hundreds of suspected terrorists at Guantnamo, Cuba.
Although we have looked away repeatedly, analogous conditions of the state withdrawing its protection from some individuals and even killing its own citizens, have pertained in China (Nationalist and Communist), in the former Yugoslavia, in Rwanda, in Sudan, in Israel and the former Palestine, and in other states where human life is subject to nations that do not recognize certain lives as protected. Large-scale war and the events around it open up, as a matter of course, acute instances in which nations knowingly expend their citizens' lives, military and civilian. As a hallmark of modernity, life in the nation-state, especially though not exclusively totalitarian nation-states, which remain far more likely to kill their citizens, can be fragile. Using detailed statistics, R. J. Rummel has shown that in Death by Government.
How likely, then, even logical, that we have difficulty imagining—steadily and unblinkingly—our nation in oppressive or even murderous roles? How much easier to think of mistakes or misconceptions or temporary aberrations or imperative actions against "barbarians" or "terrorists" rather than national will? How much easier, given the conjunction between our dependence on nations and the priority we give to our safety and that of those we love?
Older than the idea of the state, the idea of the individual within a family or a set of loving relationships, while it can be differently conceived, permeates the models we live by. From our oldest narratives, through recent Holocaust narratives, to narratives of 9/11, we tend to imagine historical catastrophe as it affects loving relationships and families. In this regard, the familial metaphors we adopt toward nations—motherland, fatherland, homeland, Uncle Sam—may point to the hope and faith we place in nations, akin to that we place in families.
Displaced out of the past and into the future, detached from what has actually happened to others, disaster can be contemplated as potential spectacle, not yet experienced, and certainly not experienced by us or by our families. Potentially preventable, such disasters form a kind of familial or national Perils of Pauline narrative in which the hero always arrives before the train wreck. The pattern seems like a controlled experiment in simulated loss, a complicated, adult instance of the toddler's game Freud called Fort/Da.
By looking-away from events such as civilian bombings and the Soviet losses, cultural memory in the United States effected social unity based on processes of othering. The Germans, while like "us" in so many ways (remember Fitzgerald's "reverse Teutonic migration") were evil Nazis; as posters routinely reminded viewers, the Japanese were fanatical, racially different, and even bestial "Japs" who had attacked us at Pearl Harbor; as Ronald Reagan later put it, the Soviets were "an evil empire." Such forms of othering forestall what I will call in this book a more creative—if sometimes problematic and difficult—process toward an ethics of identification.
"Othering" forms the normal and, to some extent, necessary dynamic within war since sane people need to dehumanize enemies to kill and maim them. We can't think about "the enemy" as individuals with faces, interests, and families—and so, by and large, we don't. The enemy becomes a stereotype, a mass, an abstraction. At the furthest extreme, the enemy becomes subhuman or even demonic, linked by some ineradicable trace, often conceived as racial or religious, to pure evil that must be destroyed. Regarding the enemy as pure and irremediable evil is a step beyond the more common "looking-away" from the enemy dead, which is not finally the worst that we can do. For demonizing creates the systematic will to destroy all members of the enemy group; it leads, in fact, to genocide.
Othering forms a link—an important and surprisingly under-explored link—between theories of imperialism, which are abundant, and theories of world war, which scarcely exist as distinct from specific histories. And yet it's easy to see that imperialism and world war occupied the same time and space in the twentieth century. And any number of thinkers from Buber through Levinas and Derrida have written ethical texts after world wars—moved by history, though usually speaking in a universal voice rather than one geared to specific situations.
I am not a philosopher and will not attempt…to plumb in detail the large and complex topic of ethical theory. Yet all that a process toward an ethics of identification really requires is awareness of others as beings as important to themselves as we and our friends and families are to us, and a willingness to face realities, even the harsh realities of war, in those terms. All it really requires is an expanded sense of connection and community. "Of course," one says—my reader is likely to say—dismissing the idea in the process. I would point to a different and less knee-jerk kind of process: the process of evaluating and, when appropriate, working toward an ethics of empathy and identification, situation by situation, even in circumstances that take us outside the norms of our culture. While no sure thing, such a process nonetheless can lead to meaningful action and can be, in certain situations, itself a meaningful action.
The war complex—and it is no easy claim to make or, I know, to read—is the difficulty of confronting the fact of mass, sometimes simultaneous, death caused by human volition under state or other political auspices, in shorter and shorter periods of time and affecting not just the military but also, and even more, civilians: a fact urged on us insistently by World War II but as insistently deflected. It exposes how life within the nation-state, while necessary and even desirable in modern life, can be quite fragile, especially during times of total war, when the sacrifice expected of the military can, and often does, spill over.
The war complex arises when death comes to too many, too quickly, often through technological means and with rhymes and reasons that remain arbitrary and even meaningless. It undermines our normal tendency to "lay stress on the fortuitous causation of the death" (Freud's words), and to treat those recently dead with "something like admiration for one who has accomplished a very difficult task." It intensifies our natural fear of death, the bracketing off of death that has become routine in many Western cultures—and it ups the ante by not just killing bodies, but sometimes burning or vaporizing them. The war complex shows up as gaps or ellipses in public discourse around histories of quick, technological mass death—which have nonetheless become our familiar.