War colors


If the first September chill foreshadows the winter coming on, it also backshadows me into my childhood. The movies in that childhood were what we call black and white, though the best of them were artfully composed to display the subtle interplay of grayish shadows and shades. Since I was fated to be born in 1941, the Pearl Harbor year, those movies color how I still see my history. World War II has always been waged in the black and white theatre of my mind. Though sinners and saints can probably agree that no war is good, even for the many who make money from it, Studs Terkel named the war I was born into “The Good War.” The quotation marks are his way of telling us war is hell.

As I get older and sometimes forget the names of my cats I wonder not only about the factuality of my memories but about their coloration. I see World War II through the lens of those grainy movies and newsreels, and I’m convinced its darkish hues are not merely decorative. For me that war–and those shadowy blacks and whites–have presence as a force that shapes present belief.

I was four years old when Japan formally surrendered on August 15, 1945. That afternoon I piled into our Model T Ford with my mother, dad, and two sisters for a ride to the intersection of Michigan and Schaefer avenues in Dearborn, Michigan, my home town. We met there a huge crowd of very happy people cheering and honking horns. It is a distant but distinct memory, the only one I can directly connect to the war. So if I remember only this happy hour how can the horrors of this huge war be alive in me? Having experienced only its happy conclusion, you’d think it would have made a cheerful person of me.

I’m not.

The darker secretions of that war entered me in mysterious and uncountable ways. Old movies that pre-date the war come to mind–The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919), The Blue Angel (1929), “M” (1939)–all of them black and white German films made following World War I, all of them clearly foreshadowing the debacle to come. Books also darkened my view–row after row of black inkstains marching in paragraphed discipline like whole battalions of soldiers on parade. The words on those pages entered me, commanding my respect and sometimes starting quarrels about what was real before I was born.

Heraclitus the philosopher said we never enter the same stream twice, and I’m sure I seldom see the streams entering me. But one stream certainly entered me at the eleventh hour of February 16, 1941, the night I was born: World War II, a war that had to wait several more months for its Pearl Harbor waters to break. “The Good War” was swelling in me, and in our nation, before we formally entered the war. And I have no doubt that it is also present, for good or ill, in anyone born after 1945. I, for example, count myself among the beneficiaries of the affluence the war conferred on its survivors. Others, including many of its beneficiaries, feed on a regular diet of antidepressants, or make regular visits to their psychiatrists. The grayish shadows and shades of this black and white war still darken us all.

What concerns me most is not the accuracy of my memory of the war but the general impression still alive in me, and perhaps in us collectively. “The Good War,” the one still seen in newsreel black and white, made it easy for us to see the catastrophe as morally unambiguous. We were the good guys, and the Nazis, some of whom might have become nice neighbors in a nice Wisconsin town, were the bad guys. But these nice neighbors became faceless once the uniforms were put on. The giant forces of light and dark collided in war theatres all over the globe; the good guys won, and a curtain fell over the drama to mark its happy ending. History as epic melodrama, like apocalypse: The battles are fought, the evil overcome, the savior heroes come marching home, and the story’s done.

But it isn’t–ask the victims, the soldiers, and the dogs of war that still sniff around the wreckage of lives–because many of the shadows and shades that were alive before the war also survived the war. The distortions of common sense and scientific fact, the arrogant claims for national destiny, exceptionalism and racial purity, the failure of educational institutions to nurture critical understandings, the churches’ habit of looking the other way, the popularization of culture based on caricature, showmanship, distraction and fear, the privileging of military special interests–all these shadows and shades are not easily bombed, and they know how to hide, disguise themselves, and improve their images.

As a nation we’ve been almost perpetually at war since the end of World War II, with one difference: “The Good War” was one we fought, as a nation generally, because it seemed black and white, morally justified. We were collectively willing to make serious sacrifices to prevail. We believed in it.

Korea, Vietnam, the dirty little wars in Latin America and elsewhere, and our two decades in Iraq continue to trouble us morally as “The Good War” never did. The Korean war, “the forgotten war” we now find difficult to remember and forget, also came to me in black and white, but the picture was marred by the ugly smears of the Red Scare that cause us to entertain serious self-doubts about our motives. Vietnam came to us in full color, its technicolor blood and guts brought into our living rooms and wide-screen theatres via films such as The Deerhunter, Apocalypse Now, and Hearts and Minds. But the imagery and colors fade and shrink after that, mainly because our leaders learned well the most important lesson of the Vietnam war: Control the information, especially the imagery. So Iraq’s Desert Storm we see mainly as a virtual game shrunken into the size of a video screen, in colors we can’t recall. And how long have we been in Afghanistan? Have we looked up Afghanistan on a map to see how to color it in our minds? And the war on terror? What color is it? I have trouble seeing it.

Almost every news broadcast I see or hear these days double-features the souring of the economy, in the various shades and shadows of souring. This makes it hard to see or care about any of our current wars.