Sunday Forum: They died for you
The first thing to know about World War II is that it was a big war, a war that lasted 2,174 days and claimed an average of 27,600 lives every day, or 1,150 an hour, or 19 a minute, or one death every three seconds. One, two, three, snap. One, two, three, snap.
In an effort to get our arms around this greatest calamity in human history, let's examine 10 things every American ought to know about the role of the U.S. Army in WWII.
1) The U.S. Army was a weakling when the European war began in earnest on Sept. 1, 1939, with the German invasion of Poland. The U.S. Army ranked 17th among armies in size and combat power, just behind Romania. It numbered 190,000 soldiers. It would grow to nearly 8.5 million by 1945.
When mobilization began in 1940, the Army had only 14,000 professional officers. The senior ranks were dominated by political hacks of certifiable military incompetence. Not a single officer on duty in 1941 had commanded a unit as large as a division in World War I. The Army's cavalry chief assured Congress that four well-spaced horsemen could charge and destroy an enemy machine-gun nest without sustaining a scratch.
2) The war affected all Americans. A total of 16 million served in uniform; virtually every family had someone in harm's way; virtually every American had an emotional investment in our Army. That WWII army of 8.5 million existed in a country of about 130 million; today we have an army of roughly 500,000 in a country of 307 million.
Still, the U.S. Army mobilized only 90 divisions by the end of the war. That compares to about 300 for Germany; 400 for the Soviet Union, and 100 for Japan.
One reason was the gradual recognition that the Soviet Union was fighting most of the German army. Another was the recognition that the United States could provide industrial muscle unlike any nation on earth, to build tanks, airplanes, and trucks, to make things like penicillin and synthetic rubber, not only for us but for our Allies. That meant keeping a fair amount of manpower in factories and other industrial jobs, while getting women into the workforce as never before.
3) The U.S. Army did not win World War II by itself. We can be proud of our role, but we must not be delusional, chauvinistic or so besotted with American exceptionalism that we falsify history.
The war began 27 months before America joined the fray. It was fought on six continents, a global conflagration unlike any seen before or since. The British had done a great deal in those 27 months to keep alive the hopes of the western democracies. Russia lost an estimated 26 million people in the war, and its military did most of the bleeding for the Allied cause. By the end of the war, there were about 60 nations on the Allied side. In Italy alone, Brazilians, Poles, Nepalese, New Zealanders, French, Italians and a number of other nationalities fought beside us.
4) The U.S. Army's role in the liberation of Europe didn't start at Normandy. It started in North Africa.
President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill agreed that the first task was to defeat Germany, but they didn't agree on where to begin. U.S. military leaders wanted to cross the English channel and head straight for Berlin. Britain wanted to start by attacking the periphery of the Axis empire in North Africa. Roosevelt eventually sided with the British.
The initial landings occurred on Nov. 8, 1942, in Morocco and Algeria. Over the next two months, the Allies gained air supremacy and almost complete control of the seas, strangling the Axis supply line from Europe. After Africa came Sicily, then the campaign in Italy. Then came Normandy.
5) The U.S. Army for a long time after we entered the war was not very good. Part of the WWII mythology is that all the brothers were valiant and all the sisters were virtuous. War is the most human of enterprises, and it reveals every human foible and frailty, as well as human virtues: cowardice and tomfoolery, as well as courage and sacrifice. The Greatest Generation appellation is nonsense.
In the first couple years of American involvement the Army was burdened with clearly inferior equipment and commanders. Those first couple years of war required a sifting out, an evaluation at all levels within the Army of the competent from the incompetent, the physically fit from the unfit.
It has sometimes been argued that in an even fight, when you matched one American battalion or regiment against a German battalion or regiment, the Germans tended to be superior, the better fighters. But who said anything about an even fight? Global war is a clash of systems. What matters is which system can generate the combat power needed to prevail, whether it's in the form of the 13,000 Allied warplanes available on D-day; the 10:1 American advantage in artillery ammunition often enjoyed against the Germans; or the ability to design, build and detonate an atomic bomb. What matters is which system can produce the men capable of organizing the shipping, the rail and truck transportation, the stupendous logistical demands of global war.
Germany could not cross the English Channel, which is only 21 miles wide, to invade Britain. The United States projected power across the Atlantic, the Mediterranean and the Pacific and into Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent. Power-projection, adaptability, versatility, ingenuity, preponderance -- these are salient characteristics of the U.S. Army in WWII.
6) The U.S. Army in WWII comprised much more than riflemen. It included, for example, the Army Air Forces, which in turn embodied the single greatest military disparity between us and our enemies: the ability to flatten 50 German cities, to firebomb Tokyo, to reduce Hiroshima and Nagasaki to ashes.
Those fleets of airplanes -- a thousand bombers at a time attacking enemy targets -- are perhaps the most vivid emblem of the "arsenal of democracy" that outfitted our military and our allies. The United States built 3.5 million private cars in 1941; for the rest of the war, we built 139. Instead, in 1943 alone, we built 86,000 planes, 45,000 tanks and 648,000 trucks.
All of this gave the U.S. Army a mobility that permitted the rapid movement and concentration of firepower. The German army relied on hundreds of thousands of horses to pull their artillery and to haul supplies.
7) The Army remained under civilian control throughout the war. When the president made the decision to invade North Africa contrary to the advice of virtually all of his military advisers, he signed the order: "Franklin D. Roosevelt, commander in chief." Harry S. Truman, not the military, made the decision to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
8) The U.S. Army in WWII was perhaps the greatest agent of social change in the country during the 20th century. This is ironic given the inherent conservatism of the institution.
In 1939, fewer than 4,000 blacks served in the Army. By early 1944, that number exceeded 750,000, and the disparity between the avowed principles for which the nation fought and the stark, hypocritical reality of American life in the 1940s gave impetus and legitimacy to the civil rights movement. Many African Americans endorsed what they called the "Double V" campaign: a righteous struggle for victory over both enemies abroad and racism at home.
Restrictions on combat roles for black troops gradually eased; a group of fighter pilots known as the Tuskeegee airmen demonstrated the inanity of those restrictions, including assertions that black pilots lacked the reflexes to be good fighter pilots. It's hard to imagine Barack Obama elected as president of the United States in 2008 without the accelerated social change of WWII.
The Army in WWII was also an overwhelmingly male institution, and exclusively male in senior leadership roles. But the extraordinary demand for military manpower meant that women were drawn into the national workplace in exceptional numbers; it's hard to put that genie back in the bottle.
The Army was a democratizing institution, too, even though it was and remains relentlessly hierarchical. Of 683 graduates from Princeton University's Class of '42, 84 percent were in uniform by 1945, and those serving as enlisted men included the valedictorian and salutatorian; 25 classmates would die during the war, including 19 killed in combat.
9) The history of the U.S. Army in WWII is among the greatest stories of the 20th century. It ought to be taught and learned as a story, with character, plot, conflict and denouement.
John Updike wrote that WWII was the 20th century's central myth, "a vast imagining of a primal time when good and evil contended for the planet, a tale of Troy whose angles are infinite and whose central figures never fail to amaze us with their size, their theatricality, their sweep."
Two cautionary notes: first, as the British historian Sir Michael Howard warns, military history has "all too often been written to create and embellish a national myth, and to promote deeds of derring-do." Triumphalism is not the point.
Second, we should not view the present and the future through the distorting lens of the past. One residue of WWII is a tendency to narrowly define power in military terms, and to define threats in terms of traditional human enemies bent on doing ill. Climate change and our addiction to foreign oil have the potential to do more damage to American sovereignty and our way of life than anything al-Qaida can pull off.
10) They died for you. We've talked about the WWII Army as both an organism and a machine, an institution that grew stupendously, that demonstrated flexibility and adaptability. But we ought never forget that at the core of this story is suffering. The U.S. military sustained almost 300,000 battle deaths during the war, and about 100,000 others from accidents, disease, suicide. Many of those deaths were horrible, premature and unspeakably sad. One, two, three, snap.
War is a clinic in mass killing, yet there's a miracle of singularity; each death is as unique as a snowflake or a fingerprint. The most critical lesson for every American is to understand, viscerally, that this vast host died one by one by one; to understand in your bones that they died for you.
First Published May 24, 2009 12:00 am