Our Lust for War3/23/2016
It was a conflict that started out small, in fits and starts. A league of nations that fell apart, in disarray as one after another member became embroiled and dropped out. A standoff between France and Britain on one side, and Germany on the other. For a time, a “sitzkrieg” or phony war. At the same time, on the other side of the globe, Japan was spreading its hegemony and control farther and farther. But the one thing that was common to every area or “theater” of conflict was vast human suffering, misery on a greater scale than ever before.
Jews were rounded up and herded into ghettos, stripped of possessions and pride. When this wasn’t enough, they were killed — first, by firing squads, then en mass by machine gun, and finally in gas chambers. It was “factory killing,” efficient as could be, never seen before or since. Gypsies, homosexuals and other groups joined them. Hitler’s mantra seemed to be “kill them all.”
It started with Germany taking the Sudetenland, and then the rest of Czechoslovakia. This easy bite was followed by hurried consultation, and an agreement signed with Neville Chamberlain and the French Prime Minister that Germany would cease all further aggression. This gave Germany time to build up, as France and Britain hoped against hope for no war. The hope was short lived.
When Germany and Russia carved up Poland after signing a non-aggression pact, it was supposedly as allies. And yet, two scant years later, Germany sent four million troops and thousands of tanks roaring into the Soviet countryside. Stalin did not believe it at first, thinking it Western propaganda. Then he went into hiding and was finally forced to come out and make speeches, rallying what was left of his country to fight the invaders. Some towns welcomed the Germans as liberators from the terrors of Stalin’ secret police.
Naturally the Germans first act after seizing a town was to round up Jews and execute them summarily. Many Soviet troops they took as prisoner were allowed to starve to death. They brought an intense, hateful hell wherever they went, whether they were welcomed or not. The Soviets became an ally of the western powers, and Britain was no longer facing the Nazis alone.
As the years progressed, the Allies managed to finally turn the tide against the horrific Nazi military machine. The Soviets threw and lost millions of soldiers against them, and much hardware, too. The British and Americans began bombing and eventually opened up two new fronts, one after the horrific D-Day. By 1945 it was over. Everyone buried their dead, cleaned up their cities, and rejoiced. There was dancing in the streets. The United Nations was formed, and many said, “never again.” Yet war, as a tool to achieve political and even economic ends, did not cease. If anything, it accelerated.
Skirmishes broke out in Albania and in Korea (a large conflict in itself). Popular uprisings were crushed in Hungary and Czechoslovakia. The Vietnam War cost 58,000-plus American lives, and countless Vietnamese and Cambodian lives, not to mention costing untold billions of dollars. Even after the stinging lesson of Vietnam, humanity didn’t learn that war is a poor solution to problems. The Soviets drove into Afghanistan, killing and losing many people. The U.S. had to challenge them here and there, and finally underwent a major re-armament in the early 1980s. Even WWII battleships were refurbished and re-commissioned. By the time Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, the U.S. was ready, seemingly itching to go to war and show the world just how tough we really were. We did defeat Saddam, quite easily.
But one war leads to another, and defeat breeds resentment. It was not long before terrorists attacked us, on our own soil. So, after the Twin Towers were hit in 2001, along with the Pentagon, we girded for war once again. Afghanistan was invaded in October of 2001 and Iraq in 2003. Both fronts required huge amounts of materiel. Strike and counter-strike. We hit Al-queda hard, and they retaliated irregularly, but just as hard. A train station in London was bombed. Spain was hit by bombs. Many suicide bombers attacked in the Middle East. And the IEDs planted by insurgents took many of our soldiers lives or limbs. All for what? Profit? Yes, partly. A lot of subcontractors made a lot of money. And the U.S. got a lot of bad publicity from Blackwater, and Abu Graib prison, and Guantanamo. We spent a trillion-plus dollars to look like the new face of evil in the world? Not such a smart move.
So here we are today, in 2016. Vladimir Putin’s Russia is asserting a powerful presence on the world stage. He is forming alliances with other countries and sending troops abroad. His navy has been prowling along U.S. shores, and his bombers are nudging our borders. His jet fighters are attacking targets in Syria and Iraq. The U.S. congress is trying to acquire funding for the latest jet fighter sensation, the F-33. Also, a new bomber is being discussed. A recent defense appropriation request came in at $600 billion-plus. No wonder we can’t seem to afford anything else in this country. We are too busy fighting with the rest of the world.
So recently I watched a documentary about the absolute horrors visited on populations in WWII. How France had as many as 6 million refugees on the road, trying to flee the Nazis. How even the Nazi-German soldiers on their march to Moscow endured horrific living conditions, unprepared for a long siege. They and the Soviet defenders both underwent hunger, typhus and scabies, being unable to bathe or wash properly. Only one in 10 German soldiers were able to return home after the war, some as long as 15 years after their initial attack.
Us older Baby Boomers remember hearing the stories. I recall my father telling of mass graves with no names, and men walking among the bodies with pliers, pulling out any gold teeth they found. He said to me, “People wouldn’t think war was so great if they were ever in one.” The survivors who made it back, and lived in post-war prosperity such as it was, felt guilty at making it out when so many of their comrades perished in conflict or prison.
I don’t know what it is that makes people so prone toward war. Whether they must prove their superiority, like the German’s Aryan Race. Or the Japanese wanting territory and empire, the land of the Rising Sun. Or the Communist movements around the world, killing and torturing in the name of “the proletariat.” All the proletariat, (the common man, the people) want are three square meals, a comfortable place to live and happy times with family and friends. They don’t want to march off and kill or die for some obscure political cause. But very often they are sent off by the power elite anyway, and it involves someone else making a fat pile of money. War is big business, and very profitable. Someone has to make and sell those $100 hammers and $10 bolts.
So perhaps greed is a huge motivator. Still, the absolute scale of horrors in WWII, coming so soon after the horrors of WWI, did seem to give most world leaders pause. Few understood the depths of Nazi hatred of the Jewish people, until the first pictures and info came back from concentration camps.
It is understandable why the Jewish wanted to establish their own homeland, and defend it to the death. Inside Israel, no one is likely to round you up and send you to a ghetto or gas chamber. Their fiery determination is well understood and sympathized with.
Still, the angry Israeli policy toward the Palestinians is incendiary, and provokes hatred in itself. Over here in the States, a common refrain is “Those people have been fighting for thousands of years. We’re not going to stop it.” No matter what any optimistic Secretary of State may say, Middle East peace is an oxymoron at best. There are even branches of Islam, Sunni and Shiite who hate each other so much they send suicide bombers to each others mosques.
Fictions circulate about various wars. During my youth, some guys would say, “We should have just carpet bombed North Vietnam into compliance.” It was only later on that I learned we did send wave after wave of B-52s at them. It caused much destruction, but we lost many planes, too. In the end, it did not end the NVA’s determination, and they prevailed after our pullout. South Vietnam became part of Vietnam, and Saigon became Ho Chi Minh City. Another fiction was that the French just threw up their hands in surrender in 1940, when invaded by Germany. To the contrary, they mobilized as best they could and sent much heavy artillery and many troops against the Germans. But it seems that superior strategy on the part of the Nazis, a pincer movement, was able to catch the British and French by surprise, and send them reeling. Despite this, the French sent tank battalions and many troops against the advancing German armies. These were defeated with the help of a very powerful air force (Stuka dive bombers). This close air support may have devastated French tanks, but not for lack of French bravery. The French sacrificed 40,000 of their own troops defending Dunkirk to hold off German divisions and gain time for the rest of the troops to evacuate to Britain. Yes, France fell to the Nazis, but it was not due to simply giving in. They fought as bravely as any other military, ever.
There are lots of commonly held misconceptions, and some of them I am learning the truth behind even today in 2016. What is true and what is false seem to change daily. The only ones who truly know what happened are those who lived through it. But the human race has not learned its lesson yet, even after atomic hell has been unleashed, and mass genocide attempted, not once, but several times. If we make it out of this war-loving adolescence we find ourselves in, it will be by sheer luck. We have not destroyed ourselves yet, but every day seems touch and go. We can long for some “Star Trek”-like society where conflict is settled by some esoteric game, not mass killing and destruction. But even in the movies, there is a lot of shooting and explosions. That is what makes them so popular — we seem to thirst for it. I cannot foresee what will happen, only hope that we can grow out of our war-lust. See you on the other side. CV
Mike Wilson has been writing short stories, poetry and the occasional novelette for the last decade. A long-time resident of Des Moines, Mike has been published in a variety of periodicals, including Tales of the Talisman, www.aphelion-webzine.com, and OSP Magazine. He is a long-time member of the Iowa Poetry Association.