I'm a believer in regular review of key moments in history. Since we're always trying to make sense of the present-day world, it's worthwhile to touch base with the past and recognize when we made good decisions and when we screwed up. That way maybe we'll recognize the key moment when it comes up next time. In that light, it is astonishing to consider that we (us Americans) let that war go so far and did not get involved. (My dad - that's him in Germany in 1945 - enlisted in September of 1939, shortly after the Nazis took Poland. He could see what was coming. And like a lot of guys, he didn't have a job, so what the hell.) I know we were still smarting from our losses in WW1, a war that a lot of people thought we did not need to join, and there was a strong sentiment to let Europe deal with its own problems. But for crying out loud - we let Hitler run wild for four or five years, and Japan the same, and in the long run our reluctance to get involved just made it that much harder and more costly when we finally did get down to business. Give that some thought the next time the topic of "pre-emption" comes up.
It is a challenge, from the perspective of our cushy American life today, to imagine what life was like for those who fought that war. You can read history to say we could have never lost in the long run, that our industrial capacity would win in the end - or that our indomitable American spirit was destined to prevail. But I think the truth is in a gray area. Take away some specific individuals, change the luck in some specific battles, and who knows what the result might have been.
Above it all, what boggles the mind is the selflessness that was required for millions of men and women to put their lives on the line for the cause. More than that, for so many to willingly go into battle zones where they knew there was a good chance they would not survive. For those who were there, perhaps there really was no choice. You hear the veterans and those who sacrificed on the home front say "it was something that had to be done." (My mom - that's her on the homefront in '44 or '45 with her firstborn and Grandma Sallie - taught us all about "doing what you have to do.") This attitude is so foreign to our American life today. There doesn't seem to be anything that simply "has to be done." We are so spoiled and so accustomed to having everything just the way we want it every day, if there was a true need would we remember how to sacrifice for the common good? I like to think we still have the capacity to do things that "have to be done" but it's been so long since we had a unified sense of purpose, I wonder if our national will has atrophied.
I learned some things watching The War. Like why my mom always kept a coffee can on the stove and put leftover bacon grease in it. It wasn't just a convenience for the next fried egg, I think it was a habit from the war, recycling the fat for the glycerin to make bombs. And I learned that the concept of the "butterfly effect" is very real. It would have only taken one bullet in the Rhineland - or for that matter, a munitions accident or an overturned truck - and my dad would not have survived, and I wouldn't be here, and my kids wouldn't be here, and their kids wouldn't be here. Think of all the families that lost not only their "today," but their "tomorrow," too, in that war...
I'm recording all 15 hours of The War. If I get to feeling sorry for myself and thinking I don't have anything to be thankful for, I've got the antidote.