War II

A Photographic

David Boyle
In the fire and blood and general mayhem sweepstakes, World War II was a doozer. According to The Encyclopædia of Military History, it cost England and France 600,000 lives and $250,000,000,000. That's billions of 1945 dollars. Germany lost 2,850,000 military and 500,000 civilians, costing roughly the same.

The Soviet Union was the hardest hit: 7,500,000 military, 10,000,000 - 15,000,000 civilians. Japan lost almost 1,800,000 military and civilian lives , and "Other participants" (Jews, Poles, Chinese, etc.) suffered fifteen million military and fifteen to eighteen million civilian casualties.

No matter how you look at it, six years of human sacrifice (mostly concentrated in the period 1942 - 1945) ended up being a staggering price to pay for what the Germans called "Lebensraum," the Japanese referred to as "The Greater Asia Co-prosperity Sphere," and the Americans referred to as "The War Effort." It was nationalism in action: billions of dollars spent to destroy whole cities, to kill and maim people, just because they happened to be citizens of another country.

It was called a World War, but that's typical Western arrogance. Almost half the world --- much of Africa and South America, even in the far reaches of the "belligerent" countries --- were not forced to participate in the general madness.

I remember it as being a particularly pleasant time. We lived on the coast of Florida. I was 8, 9, 10, 11 years old. I recall the bright hot summer sun and the astringent smell of the sea. My father went to work everyday, my mother shopped. I was in grammar school: I fought with my schoolmates, shirked my homework, played football in a nearby playfield with friends, lost a dog, cried, went camping in the summer, played on the beach, swam in the Atlantic in the spring and fall ... in all, a life which we would call 'normal' now but in retrospect, considering what was going on to the east and to the west, was calm, free from fear.

We were not totally untouched. There were rationing coupons for meat and sugar. My dad carried a "B" coupon pasted on the windshield of his car --- 100 gallons of gas a month, (and when that ran out, his friend behind the Greyhound Bus terminal would fill the car up for him).

Since he had grown up poor, he stored fifty-pound smoked ham hocks up in the attic which, in the hot summer sun, dripped a thin smelly fat onto and through the floor which made the whole house stink of dead pig. The rats ate up most of the meat anyway so they had to be thrown out. Same with the sixteen car tires that melted out of shape. He also had twenty boxes each containing thirty-six cans of Argentine corned beef --- rhomboid cans that you opened with a key pulled off the base. When you did it, it leaked a clear gel that stunk up your hands and clothes. Long after the war was over we were forced to eat the corned beef just to finish it off.

We flattened tin cans and chewing gum foil and took it to school to be recycled. We bought red and blue and green war stamps with pictures of red and blue and green Minutemen on them. Our mothers collected "Bundles for Britain" in a bungalow up the street, and I remember rolling in the piles of soft woolens that had been collected there, sweaters and coats and jackets no doubt originally shipped over from England.

At night there on the beach we had to cover the windows in heavy drapes so that the U-Boats patrolling the shore could not see American merchant ships in profile, but thousands were sunk anyway between 1942 and 1944. For years the beach was strewn with sullen lumps of tar mixed with sand that turned our feet black whenever we tripped over one of them.

Four German saboteurs were brought ashore from a U-boat a few miles from our house but it was kept a secret for so long that we didn't find out about it until the recent to-do about terrorists and military tribunals. Every night there were patrols of Coast Guard on horseback that went back-and-forth back-and-forth on the beach. They never stopped to visit or talk to us.

I craved Fleers' Dubble-Bubble gum but it was nowhere to be found. Dad knew the captain at the Naval Air Station and was able to score ten black plastic airplane models that I hung on radio wire across my bedroom --- PBYs and B17s and "Wildcats" and the lovely twin-hulled P38s and my favorite, a large blue and silver Corsair F4U with a propeller that actually turned.

Many of my aunts and uncles went off to war, as did both of my brothers --- but I suspect someone pulled strings somewhere because all of them ended up pushing paper and none of them were killed or even wounded.

The day peace was declared, we had gone from Camp Pisgah to Crabtree Lake. I remember it clearly: a thousand undulating reflections of the mountain in the water, the slapping of tiny lake waves against the boat bottom, the smell of potatoes cooking in the ashes of the campfire. We were there with the camp master Mr. Sutter (red face, huge jaws, soft white hands) and his husky, blonde-haired wife. Ten other boys and I were frittering away our time at the edge of the icy water, skipping stones, stirring up the sand.

Mose the caretaker came over and when his heavy row-boat stopped on the sand beach he turned around and, still holding the dripping oars, announced, in a monotone, "War's over. Heard it on the radio." (He pronounced it "ray-dyo.") He then lit up a half-burned butt of a Camel and spit in the lake.

There had been rumors, but this announcement was the defining statement. Tommy Peters said that he wished he was in Brevard when the news came out because he was betting our fellow campers who had chosen to go into town were raising hell there, but Mr. Sutter turned his patrician head and said "No. At times like this, this is the best place to be." The water made little sucking noises around the boat, Mose spat again, the smoke from his cigarette floated up towards the Great Smokies and in the nearby black-limbed Carolina oak a Bob White started singing its name, telling us who it was.

§     §     §

World War II --- A Photographic History consists of more than 700 black-and-white photographs. The text is divided between Europe and The Pacific, and each is divided into four sections (e.g., "The Axis Invasions," "The Rising Sun," "Liberation").

There are endless shots of airplanes against the sky and smoke rising and bombs falling and people putting up flags and people pulling down flags and factories burning and sailors loading cannons and ships crossing great bodies of water and ships burning and ships sinking and soldiers marching and soldiers shooting and soldiers running and soldiers with their hands in the air and soldiers pulling huge guns and soldiers tired and soldiers sleeping.

But there's a couple of things missing. Like the dust and shrieks (of bombs, of people) and smoke and fear and the full bore tedium of waiting --- waiting to eat, waiting to fight, waiting to run, waiting to die.

And the stink. There's no stink of war here. I know, I know --- how do you make a picture book stink? Do you hide a flask of decayed parts in one of the pages and when you open it suddenly the room is filled with the unmistakable musky stomach-turning stench from the trenches?

And the bodies, the bodies, the bodies. Where are the bodies? Oh, there are a few scattered shots: Mussolini bloodied up and dead next to his mistress, pitifully thin souls from the camps, five or six dead Japanese, a couple of dead Germans or Russians. But what about the thirty million? Few of them are to be seen here, because, perhaps, when you think about it, it would be too depressing to fill a volume with page after page after page of corpses.

After all, pictures of the dead can turn the stomach, stop the heart, weaken the soul. The heads and arms and legs --- if they are there at all --- are skewed at impossible angles, the blood (black in black-and-white photographs) leaks through clothes, stains the ground beneath. The eyes are half opened (or half closed), the mouths skewed open, and there are flies. The movelessness of it all, and the knowledge that these people are no more, disappeared from the face of the earth sixty years ago, and that the reason for dying was as mysterious then as it is now. The words used --- "patriotism" and "enemy" and "sacrifice" --- meant their being a part of bloody years of slaughter that was meaningless at best, tragic at worst.

The only writer I have found who has been able to capture the brute force of it all was Curzio Malaparte, in Skin. This, after the bombing of Naples:

    By midnight more than four hundred corpses and about a hundred injured had been dug out. At about one a few soldiers arrived with a searchlight. A blinding shaft of white light penetrated into the mouth of the cavern. At a certain stage in the proceedings I went up to an individual who seemed to be in charge of the rescue operations.

    "Why don't you send for more ambulances? One is useless," I said to him.

    The man was a municipal engineer --- an excellent fellow.

    "There are only twelve ambulances left in the whole of Naples. The rest have been sent to Rome, where they don't need them. Poor Naples! Two raids a day, and we haven't even got ambulances. Thousands of people have been killed today: as always, the working-class districts are the worst hit. But what can I do with twelve ambulances? We need a thousand."

    I said to him: "Requisition a few thousand bicycles. The injured can go to a hospital on bicycles, can't they?"

    "Yes, but what about the dead? The injured can go to a hospital on bicycles, but what about the dead?" said the engineer.

    "The dead can go on foot," I said, "and if they don't want to walk kick them in the ass. Don't you agree?"

    The engineer looked at me strangely, and said: "You're trying to be funny. I'm not. But it will end as you say. We shall only get the dead to the cemetery if we kick them there."

    "They deserve it. They're a real nuisance, the dead. Always corpses, more corpses, and still more corpses! Corpses everywhere! For three years we've seen nothing but corpses in the streets of Naples. And what airs they give themselves --- as if they were the only people in the world! Let them lay off, once and for all! Otherwise, boot them to the cemetery, and to hell with it!"

    "Exactly. To hell with it!" said the engineer, giving me a strange look.

--- L. W. Milam

Go to the full reading from Skin

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