Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Post Memorial Day Philippic

Karen L. Mulder, guest blogger

Some vets, though their number shrinks daily, may still recall the visceral feeling of cold leaden fear in the pit of their stomachs as they anticipated the D-Day attacks on the Normandy coast. As that complicated, violent maneuver unfolded, on June 6, 1944, Eleanor Roosevelt addressed an audience back home with her fervent hope that perhaps “this time, the sacrifices—whatever they are—will bring results that will justify in the eyes of those who fight whatever they have gone through.” Thinking back to her exchanges with the mangled survivors of the so-called Great War, she added a cautionary finial: “It is not enough to win the fight. We must win that for which we fight—the triumph of all people who believe that the people of this world are worthy of freedom.”
 My father, a bombardier/navigator on a Flying Fortress over Germany, never spoke in such elevated terms, but he understands them in a fundamental way. Like his generational compatriots, he hardly ever mentioned the nine months he endured, strafed out of his plane over Berlin, as a starving 21-year-old POW in a stalag.

If you’re still in a reflective mood about the nobler link between the military and the pursuit of freedom after the usual Memorial Day holiday distractions, there are several unusual, enlightening reads that address the origins, effects and moral aftermath of the European front in particular. For starters, a relatively economical explanation of the rise of Hitler’s party emerges in Martyn Whittock’s The Third Reich: The Rise and Fall of the Nazis (2011). Whittock, who wrote out of his passion for the topic, is a 'brief history' kinda guy who regularly contributes to BBC programs, so even though he collaborated with a group of British dons, his descriptions don’t get too bogged down with detail, and he provides an c skim-worthy accounting of the Nazi rise.
For a more personal, therefore eerie eyewitness view covering the same time period, there is Hitler: The Memoir of a Nazi Insider Who Turned Against the Führer (2011). Its Harvard-educated author, Ernst Hanfstaengl, became mesmerized by Hitler’s speechifying in 1922. As a relative of Civil War generals through his American mother’s lineage, his knowledge of American ways enticed Hitler, in turn. Ultimately, he became not only one of Hitler’s few close friends during the formative decade of the Nazi party, but eventually served the Reich as Press Secretary, hoping in part to stem some of Hitler’s mounting excesses regarding racial purity. By 1936, however, Hitler’s wholehearted acceptance of Aryan German superiority made Hanfstaengl’s life untenable. He escaped to Zürich during a press trip, and then London, where he was eventually imprisoned as a radical alien until the Allies permanently exiled him to Germany after the war. His view of events, while inescapably self-justifying at times, is extremely unusual.

Finally, what retribution for the massive atrocity of genocide could possibly make anything ‘right’ again? Neal Bascomb’s bestselling Hunting Eichmann (2009), currently optioned for movie rights, pursues the almost mythological escapes of Adolf Eichmann, the operational head of the Final Solution, over 15 years, from POW camps in Europe to Buenos Aires. Eichmann, the quintessential ‘crazy old Nazi’ archetype, deftly eluded Israel’s newly-formed Mossad spy agency, Simon Wiesenthal’s international network, and suspicious Argentinian acquaintances. Although it’s footnoted and responsibly compiled, Hunting Eichmann reads as thrillingly as a Ludlow or Le Carré spy novel. Eichmann’s capture, trial and execution in Israel ultimately contributed to the new nation’s solidarity, inspiring philosopher Hannah Arendt’s stirring indictment of evil in her 1963 Eichmann in Jerusalem. In some small way, Eichmann’s hanging provided a scintilla of justifiable retribution after one of the darkest episodes in human history. While Wiesenthal received the lion’s share of credit for apprehending Eichmann, the Mossad operated in secret and kept its role undercover for years. Bascomb uses newly released documents to construct a more accurate and balanced account of the case’s complications.  
While it’s true that these offerings certainly couldn’t be called light reading of the summer variety, such books remind us about one of the greatest moral campaigns, and possibly the last one, that justified the use of might in an unmuddied way for the sake of freedom. Subsequent ‘police actions,’ or war by any other name, including the harried skirmishes that occupy our armed forces today, have been judged against this standard and have sometimes been found wanting. What mere mortal can accurately justify, however, the cost of freedom for the oppressed?


  1. Although a country's policies may be debatable, a soldier's sacrifice never is.
    Thank your father for his contributions to our present freedoms.
    And thank you for your post, reminding us of the purpose and meaning of this holiday.

  2. Since we are on the topic of Memorial Day, another great book I would like to recommend is An Album of Memories: Personal Histories from the Greatest Generation by Tom Brokaw. A wonderful collection of stories, letters, and photographs that tug at the heartstrings.

  3. I just finished reading Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes(got my copy at Daedalus!) which focuses on a company of Marines during Vietnam. Though a novel, it reads like nonfiction and is a strong reminder that whether you agree with a war or not, there are still men out there giving literally everything for families, friends, and their country. Definitely not a light read but really powerful stuff.