Don’t mention the war

I couldn’t talk to my grandfather much. Around the time I was born, he had an operation that left him permanently faint and hoarse. Even if I could have, I probably wouldn’t have brought up the time he spent serving in the Second World War. 

Our relationship wasn’t like that.

Lately, though, Lee Sandlin’s article “Losing the War” and Paul Fussell’s book Wartime have given me a taste of what I might have heard if both of us were entirely different people.

They try to break through the historical narrative of World War 2 to explore the human experiences that underlie it. At the same time, they lament the inability of those who were there to communicate “the real war” to the rest of us, the total inaccessibility of the past.

Having served in the war, Fussell writes from personal experience as well as extensive research. Having been a child during the early post-war years, Sandlin records the war’s impact on his childhood as well as the wider culture.

What stood out for me? The messiness and the uncertainty of it all, and the fear. From Sandlin:

[E]verything about the war was ad hoc and provisional. The British set up secret installations in country estates; Stalin had his supreme military headquarters in a commandeered Moscow subway station. Nobody cared about making the system logical, because everything only needed to happen once. Every battle was unrepeatable, every campaign was a special case. The people who were actually making the decisions in the war – for the most part, senior staff officers and civil service workers who hid behind anonymous doors and unsigned briefing papers – lurched from one improvisation to the next, with no sense of how much the limitless powers they were mustering were remaking the world.

And from Fussell:

You would expect front-line soldiers to be struck and hurt by bullets and shell fragments, but such is the popular insulation from the facts that you would not expect them to be hurt, sometimes killed, by being struck by parts of their friends’ bodies suddenly detached. If you asked a wounded soldier or marine what hit him, you’d hardly be ready for the answer, “my buddy’s head,” or his sergeant’s heel or his hand, or a Japanese leg, complete with shoe and puttees, or the West Point ring on his captain’s severed hand.

Can I find my grandfather in any of it? If he was ever afraid or overwhelmed – ever outmatched by anything at all – he never said. Gone less than two years, he’s as far away now as the world of seventy years ago, and further. And always has been.