Wednesday, May 02, 2018

In over their heads (War is Hell, part 3)

Watching The Vietnam War sent me forward and back. It sent me forward in causing me to read various accounts of soldiers - some first-person works and some not. Then as I read them, I started remembering things from before, and working them into a greater context. Something I had read last July contributed too.

It actually started with another documentary, The Act of Killing. That came out in 2013, but I did not see it in theaters. I read the review, found it interesting, and eventually got the DVD and watched it at home. Then I was so enthralled with it that I kept doing searches for supplemental material.

Along with interviews with that film's director, Joshua Oppenheimer, an interview came up with the author of On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, Dave Grossman. I finished his book in September 2015, so all of this happened fairly close together.

The Act of Killing is about participants in the Indonesian mass killings that occurred throughout 1965 and 1966 after a failed coup. (Don't assume that the killings were about punishing the participants in the coup, because nothing ever goes that simply.) As we get a look into the past through re-enactment, we start to understand more about what it takes to kill. The featured killer himself understands more about what it took to kill, at least on one level, and it is not a happy realization for him.

The book is about the natural human resistance to killing each other, and how that gets broken down for war and other circumstances. Obviously the subject matters are related, but I think it was a title similarity that brought me the Grossman clip, which was fascinating.

The claim he made was that most war casualties happen during retreat. After reading the book I realized I had misinterpreted what he meant, but at the time it took me back to a graphic they had shows us for a French class when we were reading Balzac's Adieu.

A lot of his stories were related to Napoleon's assault on Russia with his Grande Armée. I imagine to understand the France of that time you had to understand that, but it is hard to visualize the loss. Yes, hearing that Napoleon started out with 442,000 men, was down to 100,000 as he took Moscow (a victory?), and returned to France with only 10,000 (the inverse of decimation for the way back?) - that means something, but it is still kind of baffling. That is why they showed us the Minard Map.

For probably a few months it made sense to me that more men died in retreat from cold and disease and not getting enough food, because there is more to war that is bad for your health than the combat. It seemed like a cruelty that the war might spare you but then getting back home would not, and another reminder of how carefully any decisions about war should be made. Then I read the book and that was not what he meant.

I took in the new information (I'll get to that in a different post), but then last July I read Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand, and I read that because of the poor conditions of the planes, more men went down on search and rescue missions than in combat. I think it was a 6:1 ratio. But every time a plane went down you had to send out a search party, in case they survived the crash and were out in a life raft. Then you might lose yet another plane and air crew. That was what happened to the book's protagonist, Louis Zamperini, but he was found by enemies, not allies, leading to his ordeal in a prison camp. 

This year, as I got to Ghost Soldiers: The Epic Account of World War II's Greatest Rescue Mission by Hampton Sides, I learned more about the Bataan Death March, and the rescue of the remaining survivors. There was a lot of deliberate cruelty to those prisoners, but much of the death came from not having adequate transport and rations for the captured men. The Japanese expected a much smaller group, but then the men only had to surrender because their leaders had miscalculated their ability to hold the peninsula and did not have an evacuation plan in place. That might remind you of Dunkirk, except there was no rescue force of civilian boats.

Maybe my first understanding wasn't completely wrong either.

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