I remember when I was a little boy, looking at a field of grass and reflecting that the bodies of countless soldiers were buried underneath. I assumed that the War had happened everywhere and that every piece of ground had been a battlefield. I don't think I even knew there was a difference between World War One and World War Two. This was when I was very young. But it shows how, even in the early eighties (and indeed, still today) we are all living in the shadow of the two World Wars.
Come to think of it, though, I'm not sure that "shadow" is a good term. When I was a boy, I was conscious of the World Wars without having any notion that they had been a cataclysm or a Valley of Darkness. It was a very matter-of-fact awareness, based upon war comics, Action Men (doll-size soldier figures with moveable eyes, real hair, historically accurate clothes etc., much like the American G.I. Joe) and little plastic soldiers that came in packets of fifty or a hundred or so. Americans were deep-green, the Germans were grey, the Japanese were yellow (of course), and the Russians were a very pleasant purple colour. I can't remember what colour the British were. I seem to remember them being yellow, too, but that would make them the same colour as the Japanese. My favourites were the Russians, because of their colour, but I was also fond of the Japanese. They were less widely available, giving them an air of exoticism, and I liked the Japanese flag which often came in the packet. (I still think the Japanese flag is one of the nicest national flags, along with that of Canada and Israel.)
I can remember playing soldiers with some other children in the school yard once. I imagine I would have been eight, nine or ten. First the commanders of both sides were chosen. I volunteered to be the German commander, and was surprised nobody else did. Then I was surprised that nobody would agree to be a German soldier, even though I theoretically had the authority to conscript them. I realised, even then, that the other boys did not want to be Germans because the Germans had been the bad guys and had lost. I remember looking down on them for this-- so obvious, so predictable!-- and thinking I was very grand and original for wanting to be the bad guys, the losing side. I think I also liked the German uniforms and helmets.
(I still like the Nazi uniforms. I will go further and admit that I like all the National Socialist regalia, symbolism and style. Nor do I think I am at all uncommon in this. Can anyone look at the footage of the Nuremberg Rallies and be absolutely sure that they would not, if they had been alive back then, have been in the crowd cheering? I am not at all sure that I wouldn't have been. This is one of the reasons I am not at challenged by the concept of Original Sin.)
War comics in my childhood were a curious mix. Some were as jingoistic and crude as you could imagine, with Allied troops shouting, "Eat lead, Fritz!" (and much worse), and German soldiers popping off like flies left, right and centre. Others were more sophisticated, and yet others were downright anti-war. (The most famous was Charley's War, which I think might have achieved the difficult feat of making World War One seem worse than it actually was.) It only occurs to me now that having anti-war comic strips in comics whose whole purpose was to draw entertainment from war is rather hypocritical.
All this makes it sound as though I was fascinated by war, and by the World Wars. But I wasn't. That is what I find so interesting about all these memories. It was simply assumed that boys would be interested in war, soldiers, war comics, and so forth. My elder brothers were interested in it, and that's why we had the toys and the comics. The other boys in school were interested in it. But I was never very interested it.
The funny thing is, I felt rather ashamed of this. I thought it was very grown-up to know the names of fighter planes and rifles, and to understand those maps with arrows showing the fortunes of military campaigns. I noticed that when grown-up boys, and men, and people on television, spoke about the nitty-gritty of the world wars-- the tactics, the equipment, the squadrons-- they spoke in a particular voice, at one dispassionate and absorbed, that I recognized as the voice used for Adult subjects. Or more particularly, for those Adult subjects that were interesting and important for their own sake, as opposed to all the horrible stuff like money and sickness and jobs.
All this has been on my mind because, a few weeks ago, I had some pretty heavy things on my mind and I was eagerly looking for some distraction. I found it in a "World War Two weekend" on the Discovery History channel. It was episode after episode, all weekend long, of a documentary series about the war-- not The World at War, but obviously modelled on it, with non-stop archive footage and an unseen narrator with a Laurence Olivier-like accent.
It was exactly what I needed, and after decades of having no interest in World War Two I was suddenly enthralled and couldn't get enough. What really intrigued me was how comforting it was. Why should a documentary about the most awful period in human history be comforting?
I think I know why, though. Even though, by all rational standards, everything to do with World War Two should carry with an air of Apocalypse, and darkness closing in, and the future of civilization hanging in the balance, the atmosphere that actually seems to hover over the War is quite the opposite. The best word I can use to describe it is "boyish". Documentaries about World War Two don't seem to show us a civilization coming to an end, but-- somehow-- the bright light of morning.
I don't seriously believe that this is how people felt during the siege of Leningrad, or the Battle of Berlin, or the bombing of Dresden, or indeed any other combat situation. If I had people shooting at me or dropping bombs on me, the only emotion I can imagine is pants-wetting terror. But I also believe this perception is based on something real.
Partly, I think it has something to do with the footage itself. I can't separate World War Two from the footage we have of it, which I find very aesthetically appealing. I like the grainy black-and-white. I like its rather jerky, slowed-down tempo (or does it just seem slowed down?) The sky always seems cheerfully bright. The lack of colour gives it an internal harmony that colour footage lacks.
And the footage all seems so dispassionate. Soldiers go into battle with impassive faces, even smiling and laughing faces. Outside the battle-zone, everyone seems implausibly cheerful. I don't for a second believe this reflects the realities of war. But the fact that it's what you see on film can't help producing a certain effect.
Most of all, I think there is this air of boyishness about the history of World War Two because it's all so matter-of-fact. Everybody was thinking about the same thing, and busy about the same thing, and the thing was something self-evidently important. Most of the time (I think it's fair to say), there's an air of unreality over everything we do. Is it important? Will it amount to anything? Does anybody else care about it? None of this seems to be true of war-time, at least seen from the outside. Everything then is public, outward-looking, solid.
I begin to feel like a fascist, writing all this. But all I'm trying to do is understand why the footage and documents and records of World War Two carry this oddly brisk, even cheerful air about them. Of course, it could be that it's simply my perception, but I somehow imagine it's not just me.
(One exception to all this-- the actual monuments and memorials to the dead of both World Wars, which I've encountered in both England and America. Somehow, it's only standing before these soul-chilling monuments and reading their inscriptions that awakens me to any sense of how unfathomably awful and macabre the whole business really was.)