Perhaps I could have made this into a “book review” – the essay is certainly lengthy enough to justify it – but I rarely have trouble keeping up with book reviews, while writing Tuesday’s blog posts can be more of a challenge. More pertinently, I don’t so much want to review Losing the War for you, as I do want to share my thoughts on this peculiar, rambling essay. It was something my dad first found and shared with me several years ago, and it somehow came up in recent conversation, so I decided to revisit it. If you haven’t read it before, you can find it here: Losing the War.
At first, the essay seems to be about family, and the transience of heirlooms, and there is a thread of that topic running through the piece. As we go through life, we pick up little symbols and artifacts that come to represent memories, sort of like we have enchanted these objects so that when we touch them, we can recall the memories that were originally stored within that mass (which sounds like a neat idea for a magic system, by the way). Those objects will change their meaning as they begin to pass down through the years, and like entropy causes all things to slowly fade and become unremarkable, an artifact that for one person was terribly important may become little more than an outdated, unfashionable knickknack in a few generations. Your great grandparents sat around that rickety kitchen table every night during the meager years of the Great Depression, but to you it’s just an outdated, too heavy, too large piece of battered wooden furniture.
After a few paragraphs, though, the essay begins to head off in a different direction, instead of spending thousands of words pondering why our grandchildren don’t want the things we carefully preserved to pass down to them. The memento it began with was of the Korean War, but the essay takes a lengthy diversion – a diversion that proves the majority of the essay – to discuss World War II. There is an element of history in this, but it is more a kind of musing, a protracted cogitation upon the peculiarity and humanity of the Second World War. World War II looms like a leviathan over the popular consciousness, indeed over the entire modern world that was arguably born from its ashes, and has accordingly been subjected to an staggering diversity of treatments, such that I rarely find a piece on the topic that has something new to say, but Losing the War is an exception.
I’ve often heard it said that war is one of the things that makes humans unique, that no other creature feels such a drive for self-destruction as to visit death upon its own in an already deadly world. It’s since been found that other creatures, from chimpanzees to ant colonies, engage in wars of territory, resources, and conquest, so that claim holds little truth. It would be more accurate to say that humanity brings its unique capacity to adapt its environment to itself to the battlefield. War, for humans, becomes a place where our baser natures, the ancient parts of our brains that first evolved in Cambrian seas, collide with the calculating parts of our brains that allow us to thrive in every climate on Earth and survive even in the hostile environment of space.
To this day, World War II remains the ultimate expression of that colossal collision, and the ripples upended the world order that had previously existed. Like the campaigns of Alexander the Great or Genghis Kahn did for their eras, World War II took the predictable ordering of the world that had more or less remained steady since the European Renaissance, shook them about, and threw them into something completely different. In a way, World War I was the pre-tremor, so large that everyone mistook it for the main event, but it was insufficient to relieve the pressures that were building up, and that finally exploded in the Second World War.
The geopolitical effects and implications of that conflict have been extensively explored and even belabored, and Losing the War does touch upon them, like the idea that the move away from colonialism had at least as much to do with finances as any kind of moral awakening, but what it discusses in a unique way is the way the war was and is perceived. Between its scale, and the forces it leveraged, that conflict defied the ability of our higher brain functions to make sense of it and reduce it into terms suitable for a language intended to tell our family members where to find the best fruit. Losing the War argues that this is why so much of the reporting and writing of the time described the war in terms of the supernatural, and even compares it to The Story of Burnt Njal.
Of course, no essay that even touches upon World War II would be complete without a discussion of the use of nuclear weapons, and Losing the War falls into the category of works that assert they do not intend to discuss the morality of the use of nuclear weapons at the end of the war, while in the process discussing them quite explicitly. All I will say here is that the essay makes the claim that there was something different, shocking, about the atomic bombs that caught the attention of the world even amidst all the other horrors and technologies of the war, and from the amount that has been written on the topic ever since, I at least cannot argue with that assertion.
When an essay entitled Losing the War starts off talking about a memento from the Korean War, it is logical to assume it will be discussing the Korean War. While the outcome of the Korean War was not as clearly a loss for the US as Vietnam, the fact that North Korea continues to menace the 38th parallel is proof that it was not precisely a victory. Neither of these are the real subject of Losing the War. Instead, it returns to the thread with which it began, the idea of memory. Losing the War is not about losing or winning a conflict in the geopolitical sense. It is about forgetting what happened.
Thus the essay, like this post, returns to the heirloom with which it began, an object enchanted and imbued with one man’s memory of a time when he brushed close enough to death for the grass on this side to look a particularly dazzling green. If the grass is always greener on the other side, war and other experiences that bring us closest to death make life appear to be that greener pasture, and that is a sensation that it is worth trying to remember.
One of my favorite quotes is by Mark Twain: “history never repeats itself, but it does rhyme.” Granted, it first appeared in print in 1970 (attributed to him), and there is no substantive evidence that he ever said such a thing, but it seems like the sort of thing he would say. Regardless, Losing the War is not asserting that if we forget about what happened in wars past we will be doomed to repeat their horrors. Instead, worries that when the next stanza comes around and the rhymes come, we might have forgotten the dance that accompanies it.
These days, I think we look on World War II as something inevitable, and that the victory of the allies was equally inevitable. It can be difficult to hold in mind that for several years it appeared that the Axis powers would prevail in Europe and Asia. Had Germany been more careful in its dealings with Russia, and had Japan not miscalculated how the US would respond to the bombing of Pearl Harbor, there is a very good chance that history would now look very different.
Whether you’ve studied World War II so extensively that you could recite every battle in order and associate them with their respective troop numbers, maneuvers, resources, and leaders, or as the author supposed you don’t remember even what the Battle of Midway was, I would encourage you to read Losing the War. I don’t know what you will think of its musings, but I suspect that you will be thinking about them, and that’s really the whole point.