Monday, September 23, 2013

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.


            Allow me to take you by the hand and lead you on a mild excursion I recently undertook.

            It was a Sunday afternoon, with rather indifferent Auckland weather, now rain, now shine, as is the way with this temperamental isthmus in early spring.

            I had been indoors too long and was feeling stale and irritable, probably the result of reading all these damned books that I cover on this blog. I needed fresh air and exercise. So I hopped in the car and drove to Takapuna Beach, meaning to stride vigorously up and down it for about forty minutes. But as soon as I arrived at my destination and got out of my car, the gentle Irish mist turned into light spitting rain, and then the light spitting rain turned into a hard driving downpour.

            I hastily changed plan, and sought shelter in the Takapuna Library, which I visit very infrequently.

            The old horrors returned, of course. I consider myself a reasonably well-read person. But in the fiction section was shelf after shelf of authors, in shiny new jackets, of whom I had never heard. This set off those familiar gloomy thoughts on how impossible it is to keep up with everything that’s published – and how redundant much that is published probably is anyway. Not sour grapes, my friend. Experience.

            So I turned to the non-fiction sections, wondering why so many flashy self-help books had infiltrated what would once have been the soberest section of the library. The Science parts looked interesting, but scant. There was a reasonable amount of Sociology, much of it on wimmin’s themes. But it was the History section that really gave me pause, and induced me to write this little memoir.

            There were some volumes of New Zealand history with an emphasis on colonial wars and Maori issues. There were a few general histories of European, American and Asian countries. There were quite a few books on ancient wars and nineteenth century wars (Napoleon, the American Civil War etc.) and a respectable number on the First World War, with an emphasis on Gallipoli and Passchendaele and the Anzacs. At times it seemed that the words “history” and “war” were regarded as synonymous. But, at a very rough and approximate estimate, I would say that fully half the books in the History section had to do with the Second World War. All aspects of that war – Nazis and death camps; the European war; D-day and the Russian front; the War in the Pacific; commando raids and bombing raids; occupied France; collaborators and resistance movements; The Home Front; experiences of prisoners of war etc. etc. etc.

            Librarians do regularly check on what books are most often borrowed; do relegate unread books to the stacks or biff them out in cut-price sales; and do ensure that what is on the shelves – apart from the [very] few “classics” and the indispensible reference books – follows a rough sort of market demand. So I do not for one moment believe this dominance of the Second World War in the History section was the result of some malign plot. It simply meant that there is a steady demand for books on the Second World War. Yes – there is a lesser interest in the First World War, and doubtless it will spike next year when we begin commemorating that war’s centenary. But to all intents and purposes the Second World War remains king.

            Of course this phenomenon is not confined to just one Auckland branch library. It is fairly universal in our public libraries. Old codgers come to get books that will help them re-fight Crete or the Battle of Britain or their dad’s time as a coast-watcher in Oz. Teenage boys get books that let them ogle Nazi uniforms and believe the heroic stories about the Dam Buster raid and pretend they are researching an important history assignment for school. Women want to see what their auntie was doing as a nurse during the war and how their grandpa survived Stalag Something.

            To extend the evidence, this phenomenon isn’t a uniquely New Zealand one. Some years ago, and for a relatively short time (about six months) I subscribed to a TV pay channel which purveys fictions loosely based on history. It is called the History Channel. In my first week as a subscriber, I thought that some important event in the Second World War was being commemorated that week. Every second programme on the channel was about US Marines at Guadalcanal or how the atom bomb was made or what exactly was the armament and payload capacity of the B17 or a “now it can be told” tale of a “secret” raid on Nazi Germany. The trouble was, I found the same sort of programming in my second and third and fourth weeks as a subscriber to the History Channel until it clicked that this was the channel’s standard fare. Like the History section of an Auckland branch library, “history” on the History Channel meant the Second World War with guest appearances by a few other things.

            All of which brings me to this overwhelming question; why is there such a popular fixation on the Second World War?

            In the 68 years since 1945, wars have been fought and atrocities have been perpetrated which, collectively, have destroyed as much of humanity as the Second World War did. (Count your way through Korea, Vietnam, Algeria, Afghanistan, colonial struggles in Africa and Asia, civil wars in many parts of the world, and mighty bust-ups in eastern and south-eastern Europe as the old Soviet Empire collapsed.) But - rivalled only by the Taiping Rebellion - no other single war destroyed as many people as the Second World War did. This may be part of its ongoing fascination. There is a clear “before” and “after” in history, with the Second World War as the divider.

            But I can think of a more compelling reason for the Second World War’s enduring popularity.

Unless we have not yet got past propaganda concepts generated when that war was being fought, we now know that the Second World War was filled with ambiguities and dark areas that do not reflect well on anybody. I do not mean the Nazis’ attempted genocide, or Japanese atrocities, about which we have always been informed. I mean ambiguities and grubbiness related to the winning side, which have been revealed only piecemeal in the intervening years.

There is, for example, the awkward historical fact that to defeat one rapacious and genocidal totalitarian power (Nazi Germany), the services of another rapacious and genocidal totalitarian power (the Soviet Union) were required. And the largest and most significant defeats of Nazi Germany took place on the Eastern Front, where opposing armless were equally ruthless in their methods. The war was not a simple game of goodies and baddies.

There is the fact that kamikaze pilots and the Japanese will to defend their homeland were, in the end, countered by history’s sole use of nuclear weapons. And there were the dubious deals that carved up countries and spheres of influence in the east after the war was over, basically betraying people like Poles and Czechs who had tried to resist Nazi aggression. And there were nasty things like the bombing of Dresden and the frying of non-combatants in the fire-bombing of Hamburg and Tokyo. At least one of the Allies (France) tried to reassert its mastery of a colonial empire once the war was over; while another (Britain) was also very reluctant to let its empire go. Hardly good publicity for the values of democracy, which the Allies were supposedly upholding.

Yet in spite of all this, we can still see the Second World War as a “good thing” – a war justified by the need to defeat things that were universally recognised as wrong. This, I believe, is its real trump card as the popular war that still dominates the History sections of libraries. You can make up all sorts of pacifist fables if you are dealing with the First World War, with its meat-grinder slaughter of soldiers for no purpose that is easily discernible from our point in history. But (despite the odd effort to do so), it is much harder to write pacifist fables about the Second World War because it still seems to most people that defeating Hitler was worth doing. Using the old “just war” morality, it was the most just of wars.

So it still defines what History is for browsers in libraries, as I found on a rainy day in Takapuna. The Second World War is the archetypal Good War.

CODA: A few weeks after this soggy day in sight of Rangitoto, one of my three teenage daughters decided she wanted to revive a family custom by having us all watch a movie together one Friday evening. I pointed to the living room’s untidy pile of DVDs and told her to choose one. She chose Noel Coward’s 1943 flag-waver about the Royal Navy, In Which We Serve. So the five of us sat down and watched it.

Sometimes the girls laughed at Noel Coward’s rapid-fire clipped delivery of lines. Sometimes the class stereotypes (frightfully proper middle class officer with country home and servants; cheerful, cheeky working-class sailors and their women) were too much for us. But as the movie progressed, I kept taking surreptitious looks to see how the girls were coping with it – and most times I saw nothing but absorption and delight in the domestic scenes of husbands and wives (Noel Coward and Celia Johnson; Bernard Miles and Joyce Carey; John Mills and Kay Walsh) and admiration in the naval scenes where the ship gets blown up and the men cling to a life-raft. We could easily pick the scenes that would have had British audiences weeping when the film was first shown – the Christmas dinner scene where Celia Johnson gives a speech on how sailors love their ships; the scene where John Mills breaks to Bernard Miles the news that his wife has been killed in an air raid. They still play well.

And then, just before the closing credits, laughter returned when the patriotic music blared and a commentary trumpeted the virtues of the Royal Navy for “our island race” over montages of ships and naval parades. The crudity of the appeal was too much for us, let alone our teenage daughters.

So what am I saying here? Of course we could see that it was wartime propaganda and play-acting. The cynic in me is aware that neither Noel Coward nor “Dickie” Mountbatten (upon whom Coward’s character in the film is based) were as interested in the opposite sex as they were in handsome young sailors. There are huge elements of falsity in the film, and it rigidly supports the class system with its capable upper crust officers and its lower class other ranks who badly need to be led.

Yet in spite of all this, we could still watch it with affection and some degree of admiration. After all, flaws and all, it was about people fighting in a good cause against something that had to be stopped.

You see, the sense of the Second World War as a justifiable war had invaded my living room, and coloured the way my family and I watched a wartime film.

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