Posts Tagged World War II

Fighting ironic battles

Pearl Harbor posterI never thought I’d see the day when World War II became a source of irony. It was the definition of “good fight,” a time when the nation harnessed all of its resources to defeat what one of my high school history teachers called “made to order bad guys.”

Yet here we are. Barbasol is running a commercial featuring the viewer’s “ great grandfather” on the ground in a French village, perhaps Ste.-Merie-Eglise or St.-Lo, laconically comparing his attempt to stop Hitler with the current young generation’s obsession with tweeting and Facebooking.

Like “first world problems,” this is another example of a perverted form of thought. Its as if people think that, by noting their shortcomings in an ironic way, they don’t have to actually do anything about them.

It’s also a silly comparison. I’m not saying that my generation is perfect, but it’s not really fair to compare us to the “Greatest Generation.” We’ll never know how the social media-savvy would deal with a Great Depression or a World War, because we lived through a Great Recession and a pseudo-War on Terror.

Twitter and Facebook can lead to some shallowness, but we’ll also never know what our grandparents’ generation would have done if they grew up with these luxuries. I recently ate lunch at a restaurant packed with senior citizens, and most of them had smartphones.

Maybe we should cut back on the irony before we lose track of what we’re making ironic jokes about. This reminds me of a New York Times blog post I read recently called “How to Live Without Irony.” The author argued that too many people are using irony to avoid honest (and sometimes painful) emotional commitments.

That seems like what’s going on here. People need to accept the fact that they’re better off than others, including their own grandparents and great grandparents. That’s what those World War II soldiers were fighting for, after all.

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History, uranium particles and all

Manhattan Project Trinity testAccording to a recent NPR piece, certain parts of Los Alamos National Laboratory are on their way to becoming a National Park. In case you slept through high school history, Los Alamos was the key site of the Manhattan Project; the park would include the building where the “Little Boy” atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima was assembled.

Obviously, Manhattan Project National Park could generate controversy, and where there’s controversy, there’s Congress. The bill to create the park was shot down in the House of Representatives in September.

“We’re talking about the devastation of the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki — hundreds of thousands killed, $10 trillion Cold War between the U.S. and Russia, tens of thousands of nuclear weapons which today threaten the existence of the world — and this is something we should celebrate?” Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) said at the time.

Kucinich may have (gloriously) tried to impeach President George W. Bush, but this time he’s not seeing the big picture. Aside from the obvious logistical issues inherent in opening a former nuclear test, and current weapons lab, to the public, Los Alamos would be an incredibly valuable educational tool.

The atomic bombs dropped on Japan during World War II were the most destructive weapons ever unleashed by humankind, and constant recognition of that fact is what has kept the United States and other countries from using them again.

Seventy-one years after Pearl Harbor, Americans still remember World War II with reverence and respect for the people who fought and died. Ignoring how it ended because it might not make the country look good would be a bit silly.

The bombs may have killed thousands of people and started the Cold War, but they are still a part of our history. So while we shouldn’t celebrate the deaths of our former enemies, we should acknowledge them.

If it is true to the story of the Manhattan Project, this park should do just that. It won’t depict mad scientists gleefully working on a weapon of mass destruction, but the most brilliant minds of a generation trying to end a war while expanding humanity’s scientific knowledge, and knowing exactly what they were doing.

This is the kind of thing that sounds like a political or moral issue only if you don’t think about it. American national parks commemorate the bloodiest battles of the Civil War, and expose the exploitation of slaves and sweatshop workers.

In fact, there are already publicly-funded museums that already discuss the atomic bomb. The United States Miliatry Academy’s museum includes a replica “Fat Man” bomb, like the one dropped on Nagasaki. Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the first atomic bomb, is one display at the National Air & Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center.

History isn’t pretty, and sanitizing it won’t change that. Atomic weapons killed many people, but they were the weapons that ended the Second World War. Trying to teach people about those events has nothing to do with glorifying them, it’s just an acknowledgment of the truth.

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The presidents: relative greatness

FDRPerspective is a good thing which, I guess, is why Newsweek decided to release a list of the 10 best presidents since 1900. With 18 presidents vying for a spot, each had about the same odds of making the list as they did of getting elected in the first place. However, the stakes were much lower here.

People (especially people with history degrees) like to say that the real measure of a great president is his legacy. That’s true; it is hard to know what a president’s impact on the country will be until we see the long term effects. Still, I’m not a fan of ranking the presidents.

Certain presidents are obviously greater than others: FDR topped Newsweek’s list, and rightfully so. The problems come when historians, pundits, or the general public try to compare incomparably great acts.

FDR won World War II, but Abraham Lincoln won the Civil War and freed the slaves. So which one is better? America wouldn’t be the same without either man, so how can one be better than the other?

The United States of America has had many moments that have defined its history and character. Singling out one triumph or crisis as the moment that made America the country it is today is nigh impossible.

There are other methods of ranking presidents, though. If weighing the relative importance of different historical events is too subjective, why not make it a popularity contest? Instead of pretentious historians, why not leave the decision of up to the people each president has sworn to serve?

That would be even more subjective. Frankly, the public may not know enough to make the choice. People live in the present, which is where they need to be to make informed decisions in the 2012 election, but it’s not so good if they’re judging the president from 1912, or 1812.

Ronald Reagan made Newsweek’s list, and he was also chosen as the “Greatest American” in a 2004 Discovery Channel poll. Most people think the Gipper deserves these accolades because he ended the Cold War. In reality, other parties deserve more credit. Reagan didn’t make the people of East Germany and the Soviet Republics to overthrow their governments.

Historians can be pedantic sometimes, but they have the contextual knowledge that allows them to understand the “big picture” of a president and his time. That’s why Barnes & Noble sells their books.

A quality like “greatness” may be too subjective to quantify although, like certain other things, people know it when they see it. That will inevitably lead to arguments over relative greatness, which will lead to a new search for an objective measure. It’s vicious cycle time.

Even if there were an objective way to measure presidential greatness, it wouldn’t accomplish anything. We might know that the man who ended slavery is greater than the man who fought World War II, or the man who was president first, but what meaning does that distinction actually have?

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Superheroes in the real world

Green Lantern figureMort Weisinger had a problem. The executive in charge of National Periodical Publications’ (aka DC Comics) most prized property, Superman, was being called out by Albert Einstein. An MIT class had sent Weisinger a letter from Einstein, who said that no one, not even Superman, could fly faster than the speed of light.

No problem, Weisinger though. He convinced science fiction legend Isaac Asimov to draft a reply. “Professor Einstein’s statement is based on theory,” Asimov said. “Superman’s speed is based on fact.”

Comic book fans are often accused of having a fragile understanding of reality, but the flip side is that, aside from their otherworldly powers, superheroes have always been grounded in the real world. Why else would Einstein feel the need to play cosmological traffic cop with Superman?

The superhero comic book genre is built on an important conceit. Just as people who enjoy Broadway musicals need to take for granted characters’ tendency to break out in song and dance, so readers of comic books need to assume that their favorite heroes live in the real world.

It all began with Superman. The first superhero may be from another planet, but he grew up in a typical American town and lives in a typical American city. The only difference between Superman’s world and our world is the man himself.

The existence of utterly fantastic beings in an otherwise realistic world creates many paradoxes, and comic book writers have been dealing with them since Superman first took flight in 1938.

When the United States entered World War II each hero (through his or her writers) had to decide whether to enlist. DC’s near-omnipotent pantheon could have ended the war in five minutes, which presented a problem. That’s why most of the DC heroes stayed stateside; Clark Kent feigned poor eyesight to give Superman an honorable way out, while the Justice Society of America feared the corrupting influence of the Spear of Destiny.

DC’s rival Marvel Comics, created a hero specifically for fighting the Nazis. In his debut issue, Captain America socked Hitler in the jaw, a moment of catharsis for his Jewish creators whether it ruined the illusion or not.

Since then, comic books have tried to address real-world political issues, from racism in Green Lantern-Green Arrow to privacy and national security in Marvel: Civil War. Just like World War II, the trick to getting these political comics to succeed is acknowledging the problems of the real world without having superheroes intervene in a totally unrealistic way.

What about the superheroes themselves, though? In theory, they are real people under their masks and capes, and they should do what they do in a somewhat plausible way.Thor figure

Since he has no powers, Batman is a popular candidate for an ultra-realistic treatment. In Batman: Year One, Frank Miller had Bruce Wayne go on a practice mission in street clothes, driving a stock Porsche instead of the Batmobile.

This approach helped inspire Christopher Nolan’s series of Batman films. Particularly in the first two movies, Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, plausible explanations are given for Batman’s methods and technologies, and those of this enemies. The Batmobile is a discarded military prototype, and the Batsuit is made of Kevlar body armor.

However, even Batman has his limits. No matter how realistic he appears to be, he’s still a vengeful billionaire skulking around in a cape and cowl, and that, unfortunately, does not exist outside of comics.

“Once a depiction veers toward realism,” Miller said, “each new detail releases a torrent of questions that exposes the absurdity at the heart of the genre.”

Giving a superhero a realistic environment and realistic equipment isn’t enough, which brings us back to the person under the mask, and on to the Marvel movie universe.

Marvel’s movies are not as focused on realism as Batman Begins, but they still strike fans as authentic. That’s because the characters themselves are realistic.

Green Lantern and ThorWormholes may not be a convincing explanation for Thor’s arrival on Earth or his powers, but he reacts to everything the way a real person would. When confronted with the victorious Avengers, Thor’s brother, Loki, doesn’t shake his fist and twirl his nonexistent mustache, he just says, “I think I’ll have that drink now.”

That is the superhero conceit in action. The characters may be super soldiers, irradiated monsters, and gods, but they live in the same world as readers and viewers and thus act the same way.

That’s why the laws of physics don’t bother fans of Superman. His powers might be impossible, but he is not.

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History isn’t boring, people are

FDRHistory isn’t boring, unless you make it boring. Last week, I went to FDR’s home in Hyde Park, New York to learn more about America’s only four-term president. I thought it would be cool to see the place where so much history happened firsthand, but that’s not what any of the other visitors seemed to care about.

Most of the people in the tour group were probably old enough to remember Martin Van Buren’s presidency. They must have slept through World War II, because all they cared about were mundane details. Are the palms in front real? (Yes, but they go inside during wintertime). What did the King and Queen of England eat when they visited? (Hot dogs on paper plates). How big was FDR’s stamp collection? (He had 1.2 million stamps).

It saddens (and angers) me when people miss the point of history like this. Yes, FDR was a person like anyone else, but why so much focus on the minutiae of his life? This house is where one of America’s greatest presidents met with world leaders to organize the largest war effort this country has ever undertaken. Who cares about the bloody hot dogs?! Biographers think it’s important to humanize their subjects, but this is ridiculous.

In school, people are taught that there are no such things as dumb questions. I disagree. If you’re in a group of people eager to see a historic site and suddenly have the urge to ask whether the large bell on the porch is the “dinner bell,” maybe you should keep it to yourself.

That’s why I’m proposing what the ad men call a “movement.” We should replace the older tourists at historic sites with young people. They won’t care about minutiae; they’ll be too busy texting. So if anyone comes to one of these sites and actually wants to see it without being bogged down by trivia, they can.

That is the choice we have: hyper-interest or no interest. No wonder people think history is boring.

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USS Olympia: A flagship in need of a port

USS OlympiaThere are many historic warships that survive as “floating museums,” but none of them has the pedigree of the USS Olympia. The Age of Fighting Sail and World War II are well represented in this museum fleet, but what about the Spanish-American War?

The U.S. fought Spain over 110 years ago, ostensibly over the USS Maine explosion, but really for a desire to seize territory and expand America’s influence overseas. It was also a complete cakewalk; more soldiers died from malaria than from enemy fire. The Spanish-American War was like the Guilded Age version of Desert Storm.

The only difference was that, instead of cruise missiles, the high-tech showpieces were armored battleships and cruisers like the Olympia. She was the flagship of Commodore George Dewey at the Battle of Manila Bay, where the U.S. fleet sank or captured its Spanish counterpart without any loss of life. Six days later, when news of the battle reached the U.S., Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt headed down to Texas to join a cavalry regiment. That is a battle worth remembering.

Today, the Olympia is moored at the Independence Seaport Museum in Philadelphia, along with the submarine USS Becuna. Olympia is the only vessel from the Spanish-American War still afloat, and consequently you’ll never see another ship quite like her.

She may have been the most powerful ship in the U.S. fleet in 1898, but Olympia looks like a toy compared to modern warships, or even the WWII-era USS New Jersey, which is moored across the river in Camden. Olympia wears white paint (in wartime she would have worn gray) with a U.S. shield on the bow, a scheme meant to impress foreign dignitaries.

Also meant to impress foreign dignitaries are the six-pounder guns sticking out of Olympia’s flanks. There is no gun deck; several of the guns are mounted in the wood-lined officer’s mess, where diplomatic negotiations would take place. In fact, the Olympia looks like a child’s drawing of a battleship, with guns coming out of everywhere. It’s much cooler looking than the sleek and stealthy look of modern warships.

Unfortunately, like many historic artifacts, the Olympia needs help. She was stewarded by the Independence Seaport Museum and Cruiser Olympia Association for decades, but the cost of maintaining a 100-year-old construct of steel and wood that floats on water were too much. I visited the Olympia several years ago and, while she was a beautiful ship, she was also in need of some repairs. Now, she is also in need of a new home.

After failing to come up with $10 million needed for stabilization work, the Independence Seaport Museum decided to give up the Olympia, and is currently trying to transfer Dewey’s flagship to another museum. As of November 2011, four groups were in the running: one wants to keep the ship at its current location, another wants to move her to Beaufort, South Carolina, and a third group wants to set up a museum in Washington, D.C. Mare Island Historic Park, located at the old Mare Island Navy yard in Vallejo, California, also wants the Olympia.

Regardless of where she ends up, the Olympia deserves some attention. The USS Constitution (“Old Ironsides”) and USS Missouri (the ship where Gen. MacArthur accepted the Japanese surrender) have become national shrines, but we wouldn’t have gotten from one to the other without the Olympia. That ship and the war it fought in brought America onto the world stage as a military power. History is important because it tells us where we have been, but we need the whole story.

For updates on the Olympia preservation effort, click here.

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