Term Paper: World War II

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World War II

When attempting to discern what the "real war" was in a world involving as many international powers such as those represented in World War II, it is easy to examine this issue in regards to the goals sought by those sides. For Hitler and the other Axis leaders, those goals were the implementation of fascist, totalitarian governments and the eventual conquest of the world itself. For Franklin Roosevelt and the other Allied leaders, the war was a means of preserving democracy and a free market. All of these ends become complicated by the economic value of this conflict for the participants involved, as well as by definite social concerns related to genocide and a host of other evils. Yet when one examines the question of the nature of the true war from first-hand sources, primarily those involving combatants and other direct participants in the military engagements, a different depiction of the nature of this armed conflict emerges. World War II was easily the most devastating war of the 20th century, and occurred at the point when the rearing of new technology emerged with the global aspirations of all the participants involved. The deliberate carnage and wreckage inflicted had a profound effect upon many of the participants, regardless of the winners and the losers in this affair. A thorough analysis of multiple first-hand accounts of the war explicates the fact that the true war was a daily battle to preserve one's humanity and morals in conditions that were anything but conducive to doing so.

One of the principle texts that elucidates this aspect of World War II is E.B. Sledge's With the Old Guard. Sledge's credentials for interpreting the nature of the true war in World War II as one in which participants fought to maintain their humanity is beyond dispute -- Sledge saw combat on innumerable occasions with the 3rd Battalion, Fifth Marines of the first division's mortar team in Okinawa. The location of his service during World War II is extremely important, as many U.S. combatants viewed Japanese soldiers as more evil and less human than European Axis soldiers 1. Sledge's manuscript emphasizes three things: the inherent brutality and sheer magnitude of the violence rendered during the war, the intense camaraderie that such conditions fostered among the American soldiers, and the confluence of both of these points. It is this confluence that primarily concerns this discussion, since it was in the merging of wanton violence and savagery of combat with the intense loyalty and love that the soldiers felt for one another than the true nature of this conflict -- the battle for one's humanity -- is best seen.

Sledge offers a number of examples in which, for the participants actually fighting the battles, the true war was to preserve their sense of mores and human nature. When one reads the many graphic scenes of violence that the author depicts -- inadvertently digging ditches through human bodies, witnessing maggots ravage the remains of dead soldiers -- it is not surprising that many soldiers became desensitized and lost all conception of right, wrong and conventional morality that constitute a large part of human nature. An excellent example of this aspect of the real war is evinced in the following quotation, in which the author recounts a fairly common practice among American marines when encountering Japanese soldiers -- cutting the gold crowns out of their mouths to engage in acts of plunder for monetary value, which has no intrinsic relationship to stopping fascism or any of the other purported objectives of the war. The author recalls

Stopping beside a corpse with a particularly tempting number of crowns, I took out my kabar and bent over to make the extractions. A hand grasped me by the shoulder, and I straightened up to see who it was. "What are you gonna do, Sledgehammer?" asked Doc Caswell. His expression was a mix of sadness and reproach as he looked intently at me…"Don't do it."2.

On one hand, this quotation illustrates a young, opportunistic soldier taking some time out from defending freedom to indulge in personal gain. However, pillaging, plundering, and disregarding any sort of respect for the dead are all dangerous pitfalls on the path to inhumane treatment and to the fostering of an inhumane mind state. Sledge was only going to engage in this sort of behavior because so many of his peers were doing the same -- engaging in acts that are beneath their character, beneath that of their representation of the U.S. armed forces, and which are a direct effect of the brutality of war that can easily override a man's humanity and conquer his soul. This conflict, between carrying out one's duty with one's mores and humanity intact, and giving reign to the barbarous effects of war that strip one of both of these facets is the "real war" in World War II.

The conditions that the soldiers had to endure were largely responsible for this conflict. They were taken to places far from home where, during the course of combat, their only true objective was to stay alive -- which frequently meant killing the enemy in the process. As such, conventional notions of caution, of foresight, of a host of other virtues that civilians extol and attempt to exercise are wantonly disregarded by soldiers whose sole concentration is on the moment and living through it. This sort of impetuous, brash thinking and behavior that may actually be of benefit on the battlefield also threatens to strip a soldier of his humanity, oftentimes with disastrous consequences. For example, when U.S. soldiers learned that Japan had surrendered, "Every soldier just took a gun and started shooting…Thirty-two men out of our outfit were killed that night by stray celebrating bullets"3. Such an occurrence is nothing less than a travesty, and alludes to the real nature of the conflict present during World War II. It almost seems inconceivable that soldiers could endure all of the vicissitudes and horrors of the battlefield, actually triumph over their collective foe, and die at the trigger-happy, unrestrained hand of a comrade who had become so desensitized to the struggle between life and death that he could not restrain from shooting in the air in an inappropriate place. These men who pulled their guns and killed their comrades were the ultimate losers in this battle between the humane and inhumane, which the Great War was truly about. They had lost their ability to distinguish appropriate behavior from inappropriate behavior, had lost so much of themselves in the struggle for life that the war called for that they could not foresee any consequences for their actions or reason beyond the moment, and killed their own triumphant allies as a result.

What is revealing about this quotation is the commonality it shares with that of Sledge's manuscript. In both case the behavior exhibited by the soldiers was spawned from simply watching and following the actions of others. War has its own rules, similar to prison in this respect, in which there is really only one objective, to survive. All of the other behavior that soldiers engage in is learned from others, so that there effectively are no restraints, and the effects can become particularly disturbing, as in both of these examples.

Yet as in any sort of war, there are partisans that can account for the waging of the struggle for one's humanity. Whereas the kind of learned behavior from other desensitized, brash soldiers represents one side in the ultimate debauchery of one's behavior and mores, the titular "old breed" referred to in Sledge's work represents the other side that assists soldiers in battling the urge to commit acts that forsake their moral fiber and behavior. The old breed is best defined as the veteran marines that… [END OF PREVIEW]

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