Terkel, The Good War (19-38)
Kershaw, The Bedford Boys (7-39)
Rather than giving you specific questions this week, make a connection between the three readings. Stokesbury gives an overview of the Japanese attack (including Japan’s motivations) and the damage it caused to the U. S. Pacific Fleet. Studs Terkel introduces some Americans on the West Coast who felt the impact of internment and experience the chaos in the days following the attack. Then Alex Kershaw take things to Bedford, Virginia to introduce a set of ordinary young men who face extraordinary circumstances. Choose an idea, theme, or thought to link the readings together.
I have always felt a connection to World War II and especially the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor because I was born on December 7th. Granted it was 33 years after the actual attack, it was close enough for many people that I always heard a lot about it growing up. As soon as I could read about it, I began researching the events of WWII. My great aunt was a nurse who served in England, lost her paratrooper boyfriend in 1944, and brought a German Mauser rifle home with her given by a soldier who took it from a German officer. Enough about me.
One of the connections I made between our readings for this week, and has been an underlying theme in other Stokesbury chapters, is the state of preparation the United States was in prior to the attacks. Our nation was embroiled in a political debate prior to December 7 and the confusion caused by that debate led most to prefer inaction over making too aggressive an action. Every generation has its doves and hawks, and they don’t always hold true to specific political preferences because they exist for different reasons. In the Pacific, we were an Imperial force that was much like many of our young soldiers—well trained and well armed but little actual experience in the real world. In the Atlantic, we were much more at home but so gun shy from WWI that we sat on our hands rather than took decisive action. There were experts and leaders who knew what to do, but it was hardly a consensus and nobody had the political will or was willing to expend the political capital it would take for advanced action. But I digress, the will of the people was not there before December 7 and that date served as a great waking point in history.
Another related theme each of the readings had in common was the lack of knowledge and information possessed by leaders as well as the people. Living in the “information age” this is much more apparent but while commanders were making often ill-informed decisions in the field, people on the home front were confronted with ill-informed decisions of their own. MacArthur was ill-informed in the Philippines leading to his retreat and the Western Defense Command was ill-informed of the actual threat leading to the internment of Japanese Americans. The Japanese were ill-informed of the American spirit of ingenuity and people of the United States were ill-informed of the Japanese character.
One more rambling theme to discuss is the issue of motivation. Italy, Germany and Japan each achieved tremendous success and victories early on in their campaigns because they had a goal in mind and they set for it. Each of those goals unraveled for their own multiple reasons, but when they were rolling on they were prepared and focused. The wishy-washy policies of the democracies prior to attack, followed by the slow-turning juggernaut of democratic governance (even with tremendous power given to the executive), allowed for the offensives to be successful for a time, but once the juggernauts were turned and more focused, they proved to be the most formidable of war machines. I’m not sure if that translates to a maxim on life but I can’t help but think it does.
War is not just a question of who did what first. It’s not black, white cut and dry the way most textbooks will have you believe it is. War is a muddled shade of grey, a shade which can force a nation into bereavement or unify its broken heart. War is an instance where as much as one would have you believe it’s all about the politicians, the military, and the strategies, it’s just not. War is not something you can just put on a paper as a stat; it’s not something that only affects a patriotic few. War is convoluted, confused and complex.
Simply put, War is human.
When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor the reaction in America was fear; black outs, people running in the streets, cowering in terror on their couch because the Golden Gate Bridge was going to be hit too. This reaction some could say was expected amongst the confusion, but as the dust settled the tensions did not. Studs Terkel’s book “The Good War” blatantly exposes this idea of war being a human phenomenon. His heart wrenching anecdotes describing the hysteria present after Pearl Harbor show the reader how while we all have read that people were scared, the reality was something much harsher. The human element of fear drove a country to create internment camps and separate mother from child based sole on ethnicity.
This human element, from the perspective of the soldiers, is discussed not only by Terkel but by Kershaw as well. Kershaw when describing the soldiers’ reaction to the news not only highlights the perceived façade of a quick war, but the fact that many men didn’t want to go to war. Most of the Bedford boys had enlisted to avoid the depression, not to go to war. How can one look at a text book and measure that? How can you put yourself in the shoes of those young men, angry at the “dirty japs” drinking whiskey almost on a daily basis to cope with the horror and not classify war as human? Stokesbury too hints at this idea of a human aspect to the war. While much more technical in his delivery Stokesbury makes comments that provide a better rounded perception of the human aspect of war. Stokesbury when describing the Japanese in both this chapter and chapters prior the author describes the Japanese is such a way one can’t help notice their frustrations. The European powers keep yelling at them for trying to build an empire in Manchuria and China, when the nations themselves all have large empires over similar conquered peoples.
That national sense of wrong doing Stokesbury almost uses as reasoning behind the bombing of Pearl Harbor all together. The Basic component that is war as taught by a text book could never describe to you in any justifiable way the impact on the war that human reactions and emotions had. It is for this reason, not only, can a central theme in these three books of war being human in nature, be established, but in the entire direction that would follow as a result of this human aspect to war.