Perhaps I have a jaundiced eye, but it sure seems that a lot of recent World War II history has focused on making heroes out of the victims of events that most historians classify as gigantic fuckups. For example, consider Halsey’s Typhoon: The True Story of a Fighting Admiral, an Epic Storm, and an Untold Rescue and In Harm’s Way: The Sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis and the Extraordinary Story of Its Survivors.
Bull Halsey certainly was a “fighting admiral” — he was the man who ordered that the slogan “Kill Japs, Kill Japs, Kill More Japs” be painted on the side of a bombed-out hulk in Pearl Harbor to inspire his sailors. He also had the habit of sailing his fleet into typhoons. “Halsey’s Typhoon” caused the loss of 800 men, and the only reason he wasn’t relieved of command was his prior success in the Battle of Leyte Gulf. A year later, he did the same thing, and only the intercession of Chester Nimitz kept Halsey from being relieved of duty. The sober histories that I’ve read consider Halsey’s stubborn unwillingness to move his fleet out of the way of storms a major shortcoming, and the loss of life and materiel he caused is considered a blot on his otherwise great military record.
Similarly, the Indianapolis was sunk by Japanese torpedo. Because of a Navy fuckup, nobody noticed that the Indy had not arrived in port, so the survivors of the sinking endured over four days of shark attacks, starvation, dehydration and desquamation (shedding of skin) while waiting for rescue. Some of the survivors killed themselves or others due to hallucinations or delirium.
I’m sure that there were many instances of individual and group heroism in both of these tragic events, but to create books that focus on that heroism is to miss a fundamental fact about wartime tragedy: much of the death in war is caused by stupidity and could have been avoided.
A culture that will tolerate endless wars has to believe in a heroic ideal of noble sacrifice. As long as the victims of every action, no matter how pointless, are portrayed as noble heroes rather than tragic victims, their deaths are justified. I shudder to think what revisionists will write about Iraq in 60 years, and how that will be used to salve consciences inflamed by whatever folly we’re engaged in then.