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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

The Great American World War II Story

The U.S. National WWII Museum buries the gruesome realities and uncomfortable moral complexities. Until Americans grasp the reality of war, they will not be sufficiently committed to making sure wars do not happen.

WARNING: this essay contains graphic descriptions of violence, several disturbing images, and quotes of racial slurs.

“For about twenty years after the war, I couldn’t look at any film on World War Two. It brought back memories that I didn’t want to keep around. I hated to see how they glorified war. In all those films, people get blown up with their clothes and fall gracefully to the ground. You don’t see anybody being blown apart. You don’t see arms and legs and mutilated bodies. You see only an antiseptic, clean, neat way to die gloriously. I hate it when they say ‘He gave his life for his country.’ Nobody gives their lives for anything. We steal the lives of these kids. We take it away from them. They don’t die for the honor and glory of their country. We kill them.”

Admiral Gene Larocque, U.S. Navy WWII Veteran, in Studs Terkel, “The Good War”: An Oral History of World War II

“Optimistic publicity and euphemism had rendered their experience so falsely that it would never be readily communicable. They knew that in its representation to the laity what was happening to them was systematically sanitized and Norman Rockwellized, not to mention Disneyfied. … The real war was tragic and ironic. … America has not yet understood what the Second World War was like and thus has been unable to use such understanding to reinterpret and re-define the national reality and to arrive at something like public maturity.”

—“The Real War Will Never Get In The Books,” in Paul Fussell, Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War

I was in the wrong gift shop. This one specialized in 1940s-era clothes—dresses, gloves, scarves, fedoras, trench coats, and military surplus bags. The cashier informed me that if I wanted to look at books, I would need the gift shop across the street:

“We have four gift shops now. We’re expanding all the time.”

Indeed, the National World War II Museum in New Orleans is in the middle of a $400 million expansion. It has just erected the Canopy of Peace, a 120-foot abstract “architectural piece” that soars over the complex, which the official website says will “establish the Museum as a fixture on the New Orleans skyline.” The full museum now occupies a sprawling campus across multiple city blocks. Its irregularly shaped warehouse-like buildings are sheathed in corrugated steel, like a Frank Gehry remix of a wartime munitions factory. Each building is called a “pavilion,” with exhibits covering a different facet of the war. The Louisiana Memorial Pavilion contains the museum’s flagship D-Day exhibit and “Arsenal of Democracy,” a tribute to workers on the home front, from the women who took factory jobs and grew victory gardens to the pioneering scientists of the Manhattan Project, who innovated a historic new method of efficiently incinerating civilians. The “Campaigns of Courage” pavilion takes visitors on tours through the European  Theater and the Pacific Theater in its immersive “Road to Berlin” and “Road to Tokyo” exhibitions, each a “richly layered, multimedia experience that invites exploration and connection.” The Freedom Pavilion (sponsored by Boeing, the world’s third-largest defense contractor1) is a spacious hangar displaying U.S.-made WWII aircraft (“warbirds”) including the B-25 bomber, the Douglas SBD Dauntless, the P-51 Mustang, and Boeing’s own B-17 Flying Fortress. It also features Final Mission: The USS Tang Submarine Experience, an interactive experience in which museum visitors board a replica of the control room of a submarine for a simulated battle with the Imperial Japanese Navy.2 In the neighboring  pavilion, the museum’s Solomon Victory Theater plays a 45-minute “4D cinematic experience” called Beyond All Boundaries, narrated by Tom Hanks. It is “4-D” because things pop out at you during the show—like a replica of an Auschwitz guard tower that rises from the floor—and the seats shake and such. (The theater is also available for rental, and “offers a state-of-the-art, digitally enabled, multimedia experience ideal for corporate presentations, award ceremonies, and film premieres.”)

all World War II Museum photos by Nathan J. Robinson except for photo of the USS Tang Submarine Experience, which is from the museum’s promotional literature

Next to the Victory Theater, the Hall of Democracy pavilion is flexible in its function, serving as a space for “new programming, scholarly research, special exhibits, distance learning, digital initiatives, and preservation efforts.” The Hall of Democracy also contains the largest of the museum’s four gift shops. Across the street, the John E. Kushner Restoration Pavilion houses a “STEM Innovation Gallery,” which showcases technological breakthroughs from the war years made possible through American know-how. (Its STEM Innovation Summer Camp for kids lets them “learn about the ingenuity and innovation behind the American victory in World War II.”3)

There are two eating establishments, the Soda Shop (a replica of a 1940s-era diner, complete with a jukebox playing “In The Mood,” “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” “Moonlight Serenade,” and other Glenn Miller classics) and the American Sector Bar & Restaurant (“Freedom Tastes Better Here”). There is also an entertainment venue, the Stage Door Canteen, a recreation of a period USO club with performances “showcasing the songs, style, stars, and spirit of this incomparable era” where patrons “enjoy evening and matinee performances by headliner acts, signature musical productions, big bands, dancing, the Victory Belles vocal trio, and more!” (The Victory Belles, an Andrews Sisters tribute group in military garb, do “a musical salute to each branch of the US armed forces.”) During my own visit, the Stage Door Canteen’s featured act was the “World’s Greatest Johnny Cash Experience” starring noted Cash impersonator Terry Lee Goffee.

The museum calendar is packed with events. (“Jan. 27: International Holocaust Remembrance Commemoration Ceremony / Jan. 28: Wartime Piano Happy Hour”) A “Family Block Party” promises “An unforgettable evening of family fun at The National WWII Museum!” There are lectures by historians and special conferences, such as the upcoming symposium to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers. When I visited, it was Scout Week, and the whole place was teeming with Scouts and Troop Leaders, who would be participating in special workshops (e.g., Cooking on Rations) to earn new badges.

The four gift shops offer a simply astonishing range of WWII-themed consumer goods: notepads, lapel pins, patches, aprons, jewelry, tote bags, desk toys, tea cozies, shot glasses, stationery sets, plus the obligatory selection of pens, mugs, sweatshirts, etc., albeit in unexpectedly numerous permutations. (I counted at least 50 different kinds of baseball cap.) They’ve got you covered if you have ever wanted any of the following: an Eleanor Roosevelt devotional candle, a notepad that says “To Hell With Hitler!” on it, a set of four gold drink stirrers shaped like shotguns, a thermos shaped like a shell casing, a T-shirt that just says “PEARL HARBOR” on it, a bottle opener shaped like a soldier crawling on his belly, a pair of whiskey glasses with grenades on them, a chess set in which the two kings are FDR and Hitler, a Christmas ornament depicting the famous image of a sailor sexually assaulting a dental assistant to celebrate the conquest of Japan, or a rubber duck stylized to look like Winston Churchill, a Tuskegee airman, or Rosie the Riveter. Rosie merchandise is ubiquitous; she is on everything from socks to mousepads to bibs.

For those seeking something somber, a set of Holocaust Memorial Cufflinks informs purchasers that:

“Wearing the Holocaust Remembrance Cufflinks shows a commitment to remember the innocent victims of the persecution and the horrors of the Nazi extermination camps. By relaying the survivors’ message you will help prevent such a tragedy from happening again.”

The bookstore specializes in the kind of war books that dads like: accounts of battles, biographies of generals, stories of Nazi spies and covert ops, plus separate books devoted to every imaginable kind of ship, plane, weapon, and piece of military apparatus (there’s even a book about the M-1 helmet). A book called Atomic Salvation: How The A-Bomb Saved The Lives of 32 Million People promises to explain how “the Truman administration had little choice but to use the new weapon” when it dropped nuclear bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The children’s books are more lighthearted and typically feature animals, and include Calliope: The Tale of a Police Horse During The Blitz, Spooky: The Adventures of a Ship’s Cat During WWII, Zip: The Story of a Carrier Pigeon During World War II, and Smoky: No Ordinary War Dog.

There’s plenty more to buy for kids, like buckets of green Army men, a build-your-own-periscope kit, fighter pilot uniform baby clothes, and lots of toy planes and jeeps. A full Iwo Jima playset comes with dozens of plastic Marines and Japanese troops, plus tanks, sandbags, barbed wire, etc.—everything a child needs to playfully replicate one of the war’s bloodiest battles, in which over 6,000 Marines and 18,000 Japanese soldiers were killed with bullets, mines, grenades, shells, and flamethrowers.

It must be said that the National World War II Museum is one of the most elaborate and impressive museums in the world. You can see where the $400 million went. At the start, attendees board a replica of a Pullman train car to watch a video about soldiers leaving home. Each visitor is assigned a unique historical individual whose “journey” through the war you follow at computer stations throughout the museum. (Usually this is a soldier, but my person was Bob Hope, who sang, danced, and wisecracked his way through the war.) The museum has something like a quarter of a million artifacts, and they seem to have most of them on display. There are planes, jeeps, tanks, and landing craft, plus every weapon imaginable, but also  the little everyday artifacts that get us close to the human beings who fought the war: letters home, wallets, combs, watches, candy wrappers, canteens, binoculars, dog tags, soap, K-rations, D-rations, razor blades, and a bottle of Dr. Lyon’s Tooth Powder.

The museum’s promotional material is accurate in promising “a richly layered, multimedia experience that invites exploration and connection.” In the Pacific Theater exhibit, you walk through an entire artificial jungle, with noises of combat playing in the background. Giant film screens throughout show archival newsreel footage. In the European Theater you find yourself in the wintry forests of France, complete with simulated snow. The website elaborates:

From faltering first battles in North Africa to the bloody struggle at Germany’s doorstep, the immersive galleries in Road to Berlin recreate actual battle settings and villages—with crumbling walls, bomb-torn rooftops, icy pathways, and a chillingly realistic soundscape—as the evocative backdrop for period newsreels, video histories, interactive kiosks, macro-artifacts, and digital displays dive deeper into the story … Visitors are able to walk in the shadow of Normandy’s brutally dense hedgerows and imagine the challenges that followed D-Day; attend a mission briefing with the Bomber Boys and gain perspective inside America’s all-important air strategy; and see personal artifacts—cigarette boxes, photographs—scattered over real Normandy sand, providing a touching perspective on the human cost of the war.

There is all this, and much more. It is impossible to fault the National World War II Museum on the grounds of effort or expenditure. It is also commendable and progressive in some ways. There is an exhibit on the Japanese American internment, featuring video testimonies from Japanese Americans on life in American concentration camps. Curators have also clearly put some thought into highlighting the stories of Black Americans and women in the war. There is very little that is overtly “problematic”—a display on Japanese anti-American propaganda also shows that American anti-Japanese propaganda could be equally vicious. The team of American historians that has worked with the museum has clearly been conscientious in presenting the war accurately. There is probably not a single technically inaccurate statement across the hundreds of thousands of words of text across all the labels for all the hundreds of thousands of artifacts in all the dozens of rooms.

A young boy is photographed next to a Waco glider. A nearby sign informs visitors that many of these fragile gliders killed their occupants upon landing, and features a photograph of an unrecognizably mangled soldier in the wreckage of his glider.

And yet: I still cannot help but feel that the National World War II Museum is not really about World War II. In fact, for all the aircraft parts, telegrams, machine tools, tattered flags, uniforms, black-and-white photos, and newspaper front pages that visitors look at over the course of their “journey” through the “immersive experience,” I don’t think the average person comes away with a much better understanding of the war than they went in with. They may even leave the place more ignorant. Preserving the memory of the Second World War is necessary, even urgent. But, despite the $400 million, the team of historians, and the Smithsonian affiliation, I’m not convinced that having a museum like this is better than having no museum at all. And I think a man named Paul Fussell might have agreed with me.

In 1939, when he was 16, Paul Fussell joined the ROTC at his junior college in California. He wanted to get out of gym class, where he had been embarrassed by his flabby body and didn’t like having to be naked in front of other boys. The ROTC didn’t make you strip down completely. Plus “if you worked up to be a cadet officer, you got to wear a Sam Browne belt, from which depended a nifty saber.” Within a couple of years, Fussell found himself nudged into the Army itself, and in 1944, at age 20, he was sent off to Europe as a second lieutenant with the 103rd  infantry division, a pack of “hillbillies and Okies, dropouts and used-car salesmen and petty criminals” who “wore a colorful green-and-yellow cactus on their left shoulders.”

Looking back after the war at his letters home from Fort Benning and then from France, Fussell could not believe what a naive and earnest little kid he seemed. “I feel very confident and safe,” he wrote to his mother. The youthful prewar Paul Fussell was such a stranger to the grown postwar Paul Fussell that as an adult he spoke of his younger self in the third person: “Like a bright schoolboy, he is pleased when grown-ups tell him he’s done well,” he comments of the letters, cringing at eager-beaver quotes like “I got a compliment on my clean rifle tonight.”

The child did not know what war was, but in France he would soon find out. Conveyed to the front lines in Alsace, “after a truck ride up the Rhone valley, still pleasant with girls and flowers and wine,” the 103rd  division came under German shellfire. There “our civilized period came to an abrupt end.” For the awkward boy who had been keen to wear a nifty Sam Browne belt and get an A+, waking up the next morning in the pine forest would show him what war really meant:

“[W]hat I saw all around were numerous objects I’d miraculously not tripped over in the dark. These objects were dozens of dead German boys in greenish-gray uniforms, killed a day or two before by the company we were relieving. If darkness had hidden them from us, dawn disclosed them with open eyes and greenish-white faces like marble, still clutching their rifles and machine pistols in their seventeen-year-old hands, fixed where they had fallen.”

Nothing in Fussell’s wholesome, all-American prior life had prepared him to confront a forest full of the corpses of boys who looked like him. At first glance, he said, they almost seemed beautiful, like something Michelangelo could have painted. But then there was “no feeling but shock and horror … My adolescent illusions, largely intact to that moment, fell away all at once, and I suddenly knew I was not and never would be in a world that was reasonable or just.” There was no meaning in these deaths, and the scene “sorted so ill with modern popular assumptions about the idea of progress and attendant improvements in public health, social welfare, and social justice.” What kind of world could transform “guiltless boys into cold marble after passing them through unbearable fear and humiliation and pain and contempt”?

The up-close experience of combat, Fussell says, turned him from earnest and humorless to someone who saw in the world a deep sense of irony, that “great gulf, half-comic, half-tragic, between what one expects and what one finds.” One had been told that the war was a great struggle between freedom and tyranny, in which noble and meaningful sacrifices were made. At the front lines one realized that, to those fighting it, war was little more than a grisly, traumatizing chaos, in which perfectly nice teens from American towns and German villages were blowing each other to pieces by any means available, in the middle of a gorgeous Alsatian forest. It was nothing but killing, terror, and destruction without end, and a person thrown into it found ideas like “democracy” difficult to even conceive of.

Faced with sights he was totally unprepared to process, overcome with fear, and desperate to get out of it all, Fussell became something of a wreck. Yet he pushed forward:

I was psychologically and morally ill prepared to lead my platoon in the great Seventh Army attack of March 15, 1945. But lead it I did, or rather push it, staying as far in the rear as was barely decent. And before the day was over I had been severely rebuked by a sharp-eyed lieutenant colonel who threatened court martial if I didn’t pull myself together. Before that day was over I was sprayed with the contents of a soldier’s torso when I was lying behind him and he knelt to fire at a machine gun holding us up: he was struck in the heart, and out of the holes in the back of his field jacket flew little clouds of tissue, blood, and powdered cloth. Near him another man raised himself to fire, but the machine gun caught him in the mouth, and as he fell he looked back at me with surprise, blood and teeth dribbling out onto the leaves. He was one to whom early on I had given the Silver Star for heroism, and he didn’t want to let me down. As if in retribution for my cowardice, in the late afternoon, near Ingwiller, Alsace, clearing a woods full of Germans cleverly dug in, my platoon was raked by shells from an .88, and I was hit in the back and leg by shell fragments. They felt like red hot knives going in, but I was as interested in the few quiet moans, like those of a hurt child drifting off to sleep, of my thirty-seven-year-old platoon sergeant—we’d been together since Camp Howze—killed instantly by the same shell. We were lying together, and his immediate neighbor on the other side, a lieutenant in charge of a section of heavy machine guns, was killed instantly too. My platoon was virtually wiped away. I was in disgrace, I was hurt, I was clearly expendable—while I lay there the supply sergeant removed my issue wristwatch to pass on to my replacement—and I was twenty years old.

A similar story of disillusionment is told by Robert Rasmus, another All-American boy who fought in Europe (an Eagle scout, tuba player, and ham radio enthusiast in high school, who later became the CEO of a wood paneling manufacturer). As his train wound its way through occupied Germany to the front lines, he was overcome with delight at the architecture and the landscapes. He describes a surreal mix of fear and awe:

As we were moving out of this area of sheared-off buildings, there were courtyards with fruit trees in blossom. And there were our heavy mortars blasting away across the river. … [W]e really hadn’t been in it ourselves. It was still fun and dramatics. When the truck took us from Cologne south through Bonn, for me it was, Hey, Beethoven’s birthplace! But when we crossed a pontoon bridge and I saw a balloon  of fire, I knew the real combat was going to begin. I had the feeling now that we were gonna be under direct fire, some of us were gonna be killed. But I was also enormously affected by the beauty of the countryside. We were in rolling hills and great forests. It stretched out for mile after mile. I could almost hear this Wagnerian music. I was pulled in two directions: Gee, I don’t wanna get killed. And ‘Boy, this is gorgeous country.’ … Our uniforms were still clean. We were still young kids who hadn’t seen anything. … I was struck by the sheer beauty of the countryside, the little villages, the churches. This sort of thing the impressionists did. I was sort of schizophrenic all through this period. I was a participant, scared out of my wits. But I was also acutely aware of how really theatrical and surreal it was.”

The time for admiring the cathedrals and smelling the flowers came to an abrupt end, as Rasmus saw the sheep in the meadow exploding, hit with mortar shells. On the first day of fighting, Rasmus’ platoon sergeant—hated by the men for his tyranny—was killed, and the teenage Rasmus grew up fast:

We had to improvise stretchers. I took off my field jacket and turned the arms inside out. We poked rifles through the arms and fashioned a stretcher. We got the sergeant on ours and, jeez, half his head was blown off and the brains were coming out on my hands and on my uniform. Here’s the mama’s boy, Sunday school, and now I’m really in it. I remember lying in that slit trench that night. It was a nightmare. I’d now seen what dead people look like, the color out of their face. I think each person in my squad went through this dream of mine. Daylight came and we moved out into another town. This is twenty-four hours of experience. Those who really went through combat, the Normandy landings, the heavy stuff, might laugh at this little action we’d been in, but for me… We had one day of this. Our uniforms were now dirty and bloody and our faces looked like we’d been in there for weeks.

Stories like this are common among those who were plunged into combat. They were essentially children, who knew war was scary and deadly and bad, and knew that they would be “fighting,” but hadn’t the faintest idea what the experience would actually be like. (Fussell came away disliking the word “fighting” altogether, since much of the time one is simply trying to avoid being hit by the next shell.) They found out quickly that it meant constant deafening explosions destroying everything nearby, and close contact with violently dismembered human bodies. They found out that words and images could not even begin to prepare someone for the kind of sights, sounds, and smells they would confront. They found out that “war is hell” does not just mean war is extremely unpleasant and you get mud on you, but rather war is like seeing the inside of Hell itself, like having the worst imaginable nightmare come to life all around you.

Fussell wrote a number of books and essays after coming back from Europe, and became known for his strong opposition to the sanitization of war. He was a conservative, not a pacifist. But he thought everyone needed to face up to the reality of what war actually is and what it does to people who live through it. Too much discussion of the Second World War, he said, is conducted using pleasant euphemisms or abstractions. If we are to understand what the war was, we have to understand its brutality in full, rather than think only about those parts that don’t upset us too much. It may be discomforting to hear Fussell speak of being “sprayed with the contents of a torso.” But all we have to do is read words. Fussell was the one who had to experience it.

In real wars, he pointed out, people die in ways you do not ever want to think about. But they also die in absurd ways, from accidental or bureaucratic mix-ups or mistaken identity or from opening the wrong door or turning right instead of left. Stories about World War II as a struggle between Democracy and Fascism help to give deaths some meaning, but on the ground deaths are often the result of stupid fuck-ups, and it is much more difficult to come to terms with deaths that are nothing but the result of fuck-ups.

For instance, Fussell points out that the number of friendly-fire incidents in World War II is staggering, though they were usually hushed up by the governments involved. Just a week after the war began, the British submarine HMS Trident sank fellow British submarine HMS Oxley, killing 52 sailors. In Normandy, the U.S. Eighth Air Force bombed the Army, killing a highly-decorated lieutenant general, Lesley J. McNair, along with a hundred soldiers. Pioneering female Royal Air Force pilot Amy Johnson had her plane shot down by fellow Brits when she mistakenly gave the wrong identification code. Naval gunners at Pearl Harbor destroyed several U.S. aircraft while aiming for Japanese attackers. (In Studs Terkel’s “The Good War,” a Pearl Harbor shipyard worker recounts finding out that his girlfriend died that day in her home after being killed by a badly-aimed American shell.) In 1942, a squadron of RAF bombers attacked the British Army in Egypt by mistake, killing 359 of them. That same year a German U-boat sank the RMS Laconia transport ship, killing 1,400 Italian prisoners of war. The incident didn’t end there: British planes accidentally attacked Germans who were rescuing Allied survivors of the sinking, and a U.S. B-25 bomber attacked a U-boat carrying survivors. Prisoners of war were often killed by mistake. The 1944 sinking of the Japanese cargo ship Junyō Maru, packed with thousands of slave laborers and POWs, was the worst sea disaster in history until that point. The next year saw an even worse calamity, when the RAF launched synchronized attacks on three German shops in Lübeck Harbor, killing 7,000 Jewish concentration camp survivors and Soviet POWs. Twenty Allied POWs even died in the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

There are dozens more such incidents from the period. They should not be surprising. When one thinks about what war involves—deploying heavy killing machinery in close quarters—it’s obvious that there will be a lot of imprecision to the murder. But these deaths are particularly tragic and meaningless, the kind the National World War II Museum does not draw attention to.

Americans in particular, Fussell says, do not like to face the unpleasant parts of reality. This was true even as the war was going on, when there was a “public innocence about the bizarre damage suffered by the human body in modern war.” Euphemisms were everywhere, language used to make the horrors seem innocuous. The atom bombs were called “Fat Man” and “Little Boy.” Bomber planes were “she.” A German V-1 bomb was a “doodlebug.” The “Flying Fortress” plane suggested a “vaguely chivalric venue and a purpose largely defensive.” Fussell had particular disdain for the way the war was reported and discussed on the home front. U.S. corporations would run ads boasting of the usefulness of their products in killing Germans and “Japs.” The people who did this, Fussell says, were sadists who had no idea what killing and dying was actually like.

Fussell’s book Wartime, in its chapter “The Real War Will Never Get In The Books,” describes the up-close experience of war in all its gruesome detail. Lost in the numbing statistics about “millions killed” are the facts. Partly this is understandable, since “no one wants to foresee or contemplate the horror, the inevitable ruin of civilized usages, which war will entail.” But it’s important to know what we’re not seeing. For instance, Fussell notes that in LIFE  magazine’s compilations of war photographs, actual violence is carefully censored out:

“No American dismemberings are registered, even in the photographs of Tarawa and Iwo Jima. American bodies (decently clothed) are occasionally in evidence, but they are notably intact. … [N]o matter how severely wounded, Allied troops are never shown suffering what was termed, in the Vietnam war, ‘traumatic amputation’: everyone has all his limbs, his hands and feet and digits, not to mention expressions of courage and cheer.”

Fussell draws our attention to the war reporting of legendary embedded correspondent Ernie Pyle, whose newspaper columns told Americans vividly about life faced by front line troops, and whose work is quoted heavily in the National World War II Museum. Before his death in 1945, Pyle was known for providing a ground-level, soldier’s eye view of the war. But Fussell notes that Pyle was almost certainly telling about “20% of the truth.” He was still describing Hollywood-ized deaths. For instance, in a famous column about the death of a Captain Waskow, beloved by his men, Pyle mentions “the wound.” But he does not say what “the wound” was. “Where was it?” Fussell asks. How much was left of the captain’s body? “Where was his wound? … Was it a little hole, or a great red missing place? Were his entrails extruded? … Were the captain’s eyes open?” Pyle delicately ensured that his readers would never need to think about these things.

For Fussell, the insistence on descriptions of war’s real horrors was not just a request for gratuitous detail. It was a request for the truth  of war’s unpleasantness. “So unwilling is the imagination to dwell on genuine—as opposed to fictional or theatrical—horrors,” that “we shall never know half of the history of these times.” Because we can talk all we like of what the soldiers “sacrificed,” but you won’t know just how much they sacrificed until you get a better sense of the sort of thing we are actually talking about when we talk about being “hit with a shell.” When we talk about the boys going to war, we are talking about “an American high school kid [who sees] his own intestines blown out of his body and spread before him in the dirt while he screams and screams.” “In war,” Fussell notes, “as in air accidents, ‘insides’ are much more visible than it is normally well to imagine. To soldiers they are deplorably familiar.” But the general American public did not, and still does not, accept that war is nothing like it is in films (and now video games), that when a shell hits next to a man it is “as likely to blow his whole face off” as to cause him to simply fall over like a plastic green army man.

After introducing us to some of the actual surreal horrors (e.g., suddenly finding the upstairs neighbor’s severed arm in bed next to you during an air raid, soldiers being hit by flying pieces of their friends’ bodies, or sleeping next to decomposing former colleagues), he admits: “you can’t take much of that sort of thing without going mad.” But that is the point: World War II was homicidal madness on an unprecedented scale, and we have to understand  it as homicidal madness, and to know what those words refer to in terms of the first-person realities of the victims. To clean up the war, to make it family-friendly and bearable, is to lie about it.

When Fussell describes what the typical American view of the war leaves out, he identifies precisely what it is that makes the National World War II Museum so strange, and so dishonest. Considering this was a war in which both sides developed new, technologically sophisticated ways of quickly dismantling the human body, the display of corpses and blood is kept to a minimum in the museum’s exhibits. A famous LIFE magazine photo of several Marines lying dead on a beach is seen, but as Fussell notes in an essay on war photography, their faces aren’t seen, and their bodies are intact. It is the kind of photo we can see without being too disturbed.

In fact, I realized just how deeply wrong the National World War II Museum was when a friend told me he didn’t think he wanted to go because he thought it would be too depressing. I found myself replying that he needn’t worry, reassuring him that he likely  wouldn’t find the museum depressing at all. I didn’t. Because it wasn’t.

But how can that be? It should be depressing, because World War II is the bleakest and most horrible thing that has ever happened. To get anywhere near the truth of it should nearly crush one’s soul. Yet it’s entirely possible to spend a day wandering the museum’s pavilions without shedding a tear. To create a World War II that doesn’t ruin one’s vacation is an astonishing feat of curation.

Weirdly, mentions of the Holocaust are kept to a minimum in the World War II Museum. It comes up here and there, but the theory is evidently that if people want to think about the Holocaust, they can go to the National Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. The New Orleans museum is explicitly nationalistic in its focus: it says openly that it is about the “American experience” in World War II.

The museum seems to take for granted that presenting people with the war through American eyes only is legitimate. But visitors will inevitably mistake the National World War II Museum for a general World War II museum, without noticing just how much the “national” aspect shapes what they see and don’t see.  The war is almost treated as if it started on December 7th, 1941, with the attack on Pearl Harbor, and as if the main event of the war was the D-Day landing. (Indeed, the museum was originally called the “D-Day Museum.”) The Soviet experience in the war is virtually undiscussed despite the country’s colossal number of deaths (over 20,000,000, compared with 300,000 for the U.S.). Likewise the British, French, and Chinese perspectives. Notably, while Japanese Americans  now have a small exhibit, the Japanese and Germans themselves are still treated as faceless masses of swarming soldiers, even though many of their civilians were just as much victims of the regimes as Allied soldiers were. The lack of international perspectives is a terrible missed opportunity to provide Americans with a better understanding of the lives of people very different from themselves.

Paul Fussell detested propaganda about the war that erased the grisly details, the irony, the absurdity, and the real depth of the misery. He also felt the war was more morally ambiguous than most Americans wanted to admit. There is, he said, a national myth about World War II, namely that “it constituted a notably moral common cause, one moment in our history when the well-known American greed, centrifugalism, and jealous individualism briefly subdued themselves in the interests of virtue.” It is a “parable of good and evil,” in which Americans (freedom-loving, democratic, good) united to defeat fascism (tyrannical, murderous, evil).

The myth has power, Fussell says, in part because it has truth, and the atrocities committed by Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan were extreme and revolting. But it is a mistake to assume that because they  were far worse, we were decent. In fact, World War II should be understood not as a battle of the forces of light against the forces of dark, but as an abyss in which we were dragged into the very depths of moral depravity. It might have been unavoidable — Fussell believed the war had to be fought, and even defended the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But it was deeply morally complicated, and any humane person who looked out at a forest full of the pieces of German teenagers would find it hard to think there was a difference between “just” and “unjust” wars. It’s all just a hideous tragedy, full of pointless suffering, in which nobody comes away with anything to be “proud” of. The only way to maintain belief in the national myth about World War II as a fight between Good and Evil is to overlook significant parts of the reality.

For one thing, we have to set aside all of the war crimes committed by the Allies, or to pretend that those crimes were only committed for reasons of narrow strategic necessity. There are, of course, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in which 200,000 Japanese people, mostly civilians, were either incinerated immediately or died agonizing drawn-out deaths. Less discussed is the firebombing of Tokyo, the single most destructive bombing raid in human history, which destroyed 16 square miles of the city, killed 100,000 people, and left a million people homeless. Accounts from the ground of what the fire was like as it burned children and old people are so graphic and disturbing as to be almost impossible to read. And Tokyo was only the largest of the 64 Japanese cities that were firebombed. Huge swaths were left in ruins, and civilians perished by the thousands. The intelligence officer of the U.S. Fifth Air Force said openly that “the entire population of Japan is a proper military target” and “there are no civilians in Japan.” But Harry Truman must have known that this view was indefensible; when the “Little Boy” was dropped, Truman told the public in a radio address that “the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, a military base. That was because we wished in this first attack to avoid, insofar as possible, the killing of civilians.” Curtis LeMay, who orchestrated the mass firebombings of Japanese cities, admitted later that “if we’d lost the war, we’d all have been prosecuted as war criminals.”

The usual defense of the bombings is that they prevented the U.S. from having to conduct a land invasion of Japan (“Operation Downfall”), and in doing so saved American lives by forcing the Japanese to surrender. Plenty of high-ranking American officials from the time have disputed this framing. Dwight Eisenhower, no peacenik, claimed that he told the Secretary of State that dropping the bomb was “completely unnecessary,” and “our country should avoid shocking world opinion by the use of a weapon whose employment was, I thought, no longer mandatory as a measure to save American lives.” He later told Newsweek that “the Japanese were ready to surrender and it wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing.” Harry Truman’s Chief of Staff, Admiral William Leahy, said that “the use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan.” General MacArthur said he saw “no military justification for the dropping of the bomb. The Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet, Chester Nimitz, said in 1945 that “the atomic bomb played no decisive part, from a purely military standpoint, in the defeat of Japan.” Admiral William Halsey, Commander of the Third Fleet, said in 1946 that “The first atomic bomb was an unnecessary experiment … It was a mistake to ever drop it.” Henry “Hap” Arnold, commanding general of the Air Force, said in 1949 that “it always appeared to us that, atomic bomb or no atomic bomb, the Japanese were already on the verge of collapse.”

There is plenty of evidence in the historical record that an emotional desire for vengeance against the hated Japanese, and a total indifference to their suffering, also factored into the decision to drop the bomb. Getting Japan to surrender was only part of the story. We even kept bombing them after the surrender offer. On August 11th, 1945, two days after the Nagasaki bombing, the New York Times front page headline was “JAPAN OFFERS TO SURRENDER.” One would have thought there would be no need to inflict more pain. But political scientist Nina Tannenwald notes that “conventional bombing intensified after the nuclear attacks, and the heaviest conventional bombing of the war followed Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” On Aug. 14 and 15, “a 1014 plane mission, the largest of the war, staged a 14-hour bombing attack on six Japanese cities, dropping 6,000 tons of conventional explosives.” According to the official Air Force history of the war, this was because Air Force Chief of Staff Hap Arnold “wanted as big a finale as possible.” This was not strategy. It was sadism.

Those who portray the bombings as the product of cool strategic reasoning and careful concern for the minimization of human suffering forget the atmosphere of the time, which was suffused with hatred of the enemy. After Pearl Harbor, the United States erupted into violent loathing for the Japanese, and thirst for vengeance became feverish. In War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War, historian John Dower says the Japanese were seen as “a uniquely contemptible and formidable foe who deserved no mercy and virtually demanded extermination.” Prejudice, he says, “fed atrocities, and atrocities in turn fanned the fires of race hate. The dehumanization of the Other contributed immeasurably to the psychological distancing that facilitates killing, not only on the battlefield but also in the plans adopted by strategists far removed from the actual scene of combat [and] facilitated the decisions to make civilian populations the targets of concentrated attack.” Charles Lindbergh, who flew missions as a civilian consultant in the Pacific theater, wrote in his diary of his disgust at the way the Japanese were treated:

It was freely admitted that some of our soldiers tortured Jap prisoners and were as cruel and barbaric at times as the Japs themselves. Our men think nothing of shooting a Japanese prisoner or a soldier attempting to surrender. They treat the Japs with less respect than they would give to an animal, and these acts are condoned by almost everyone.

E.B. Sledge, author of an acclaimed memoir about his time as a Marine in the Pacific theater, said that the Japanese reluctance to surrender led U.S. soldiers to be unwilling to take prisoners, preferring to kill every last man: “You developed an attitude of no mercy because they had no mercy on us.” In practice, that could mean the mutilation of Japanese corpses or the summary execution of Japanese prisoners. Sledge writes of being horrified as he saw fellow soldiers ripping the gold teeth from the mouths of living wounded Japanese soldiers. For their part, Japanese troops had a record of beheading POWs, working them to death, or even conducting human experiments on them. (Imperial Japan had an appalling record of crimes against civilians, too, including abducting women into sexual slavery.) The war, Sledge says, turned American and Japanese alike into complete “savages,” who, filled with pure animalistic hatred, killed each other through disturbing and grisly methods. Marines would torch the Japanese with flamethrowers, or pour gasoline on them and set it alight. A veteran of the Battle of Peleliu recounts the dying scream of a Japanese soldier when an American tore his eyes out and threw him over a cliff, amidst kill-or-be-killed, hand-to-hand combat. Historian Antony Beevor in The Second World War comments that “some Marines decapitated Japanese corpses in order to boil the head and sell the skull when they got home.” (Indeed, LIFE magazine carried a photograph of a woman next to the Japanese skull her Army sweetheart had sent her as a souvenir.) Sledge says that the attitude toward the Japanese was “different than the one we had toward the Germans.” Germans were seen as recognizably human. Not so the Japanese. Fussell writes of the situation:

Marines and soldiers could augment their view of their own invincibility by possessing a well-washed Japanese skull, and very soon after Guadalcanal it was common to treat surrendering Japanese as handy rifle targets. Plenty of Japanese gold teeth were extracted—some from still living mouths—with Marine Corps Ka-Bar Knives. … In the Pacific the situation grew so public and scandalous that in September 1942, the Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet issued this order: “No part of the enemy’s body may be used as a souvenir. Unit Commanders will take stern disciplinary action. … ” Among Americans it was widely held that the Japanese were really subhuman, little yellow beasts, and popular imagery depicted them as lice, rats, bats, vipers, dogs, and monkeys. What was required, said the Marine Corps journal The Leatherneck in May 1945, was “a gigantic task of extermination.” The Japanese constituted a “pestilence,” and the only appropriate treatment was “annihilation.” Some of the marines landing on Iwo Jima had “Rodent Exterminator” written on their helmet covers, and on one American flagship the naval commander had erected a large sign enjoining all to “KILL JAPS! KILL JAPS! KILL MORE JAPS!”

Dower and Fussell both say that the feeling was mutual, that neither side saw the other as human, and so both felt justified in committing unspeakable atrocities, crimes that escalated and escalated until finally the U.S. finished off 200,000 people with atomic bombs. (Followed by the “big finale” of another giant bombing raid after the Japanese offer of surrender.)

Photos: Soldiers posing with trophy skulls from dead Japanese soldiers. These are not even the most disturbing pictures—the most disturbing shows soldiers boiling a head to remove the flesh and create the trophy skull. Final photo was published in the May 22, 1944 issue of LIFE magazine, captioned: “When he said goodby two years ago to Natalie Nickerson, 20, a war worker of Phoenix, Arizona, a big, handsome Navy lieutenant promised her a Jap. Last week, Natalie received a human skull, autographed by her lieutenant and 13 friends and inscribed: ‘This is a good Jap-a dead one picked up on the New Guinea beach.’ Natalie, surprised at the gift, named it Tojo.” In fairness to Natalie, she seems a bit disquieted, but it didn’t prevent her from naming the skull.

While it’s true that the dehumanization of the Japanese was extreme, and played a part in the casual willingness to nuke them, the Allied bombings of Germany were no more humane. We have long since forgotten about this, even though it was in many ways equally vicious and destructive. The German writer W.G. Sebald, in On The Natural History of Destruction, writes that “today it is hard to form an even partly adequate idea of the extent of the devastation suffered by the cities of Germany in the last years of the Second World War, still harder to think about the horrors involved in that devastation,” even though 131 towns and cities were attacked, a million tons of bombs dropped, half a million Germans killed, and 3.5 million homes destroyed. Sebald notes the curious fact that these events have disappeared almost completely from the collective memory of the war, and “we do not grasp what it all meant.” There was a sense that the Germans deserved whatever they got at the end of the war—which is also part of why there was little pity when soldiers from the Soviet Union’s Red Army “raped every German woman from eight to eighty” after “liberating” the country, as one journalist observing the occupation noted. Nobody in the world had time for “Nazi” tears in 1945, any distinction between people and their governments having disappeared.

There has been some debate over the firebombing of Dresden, which was particularly controversial because of the city’s status as a cultural center and architectural jewel. But it’s notable that Dresden was selected as a target by the British, according to Beevor, “simply because it remained one of the few major [German] cities which had not yet been flattened.” For 1943’s Operation Gomorrah (named, of course, after the city God Himself obliterated), the British and Americans did extensive research on how to cause maximum damage to an urban center using incendiary bombs. They aimed to produce a conflagration large enough to overwhelm attempts at firefighting and destroy the entire city of Hamburg.

The bodies of civilian victims of the Allied bombing of Dresden, awaiting cremation

Attitudes toward deliberate attacks on civilians had shifted during the war. The European powers on both sides had originally agreed to limit bombing to strictly military objectives. Hitler immediately violated the agreement, destroying the small Polish city of Frampol as an experiment. After the London Blitz, and Germany’s bombing of other European cities like Warsaw and Rotterdam, the Allies too switched from attempting to minimize civilian casualties to attempting to maximize them. The bombing of Hamburg, says National Geographic, “marked the beginning of a new phase of World War II, one in which the Allies would begin targeting civilians in a concerted effort to crush German morale and put an end to the war.” The goal “was to harness fire’s tendency to perpetuate itself, building on dry weather conditions and other factors in the hopes of overwhelming emergency responders and burning as much territory as possible.”

Thanks to 9,000 tons of bombs, the plan was successful. “HAMBURG HAS BEEN HAMBURGERED,” said one newspaper headline, showing how cheerfully the terror-bombing of civilians was accepted. Approximately 37,000 people were killed and hundreds of thousands more were wounded (many suffering horrific burns that would disfigure them for life). The city was virtually destroyed, with most of its residents rendered homeless. As National Geographic describes the scene:

Civilians scattered, disoriented and terrified, dodging falling buildings and dead bodies as their own clothing burned into their skin. As Hamburg resident Heinrich Johannsen huddled under a wet blanket with his son in a pile of gravel at a construction site, he “saw many people turn into living torches.” In basements and air raid shelters, bodies simply disintegrated into ash. The shrieking storm sent billows of smoke 20,000 feet high; from above, British pilots reported the smell of burning flesh.

This terror was the intended result of the operation, not a byproduct of it. Arthur Harris, the head of RAF Bomber Command, said openly that:

The aim of the Combined Bomber Offensive … should be unambiguously stated [as] the destruction of German cities, the killing of German workers, and the disruption of civilized life throughout Germany. … [T]he destruction of houses, public utilities, transport and lives, the creation of a refugee problem on an unprecedented scale, and the breakdown of morale both at home and at the battle fronts by fear of extended and intensified bombing, are accepted and intended aims of our bombing policy. They are not by-products of attempts to hit factories.

The idea that by striking civilian populations one could destroy their “morale” may have been a strategic error. In fact, insofar as the goal was to demoralize the population and erode its will to fight, bombings were counterproductive in the same way the Blitz was: nothing does more to foster a sense of unity and determination in a population than to force it to endure a collective tragedy.

But Harris was a madman, with zero regard for civilian lives, convinced he could bomb his way to victory and unconcerned about the cost. “I do not personally regard the whole of the remaining cities of Germany as worth the bones of one British Grenadier,” he said, meaning he simply didn’t think a moral question arose when it came to wiping out hundreds of thousands of old people, women, children, and disabled noncombatants. Most officials in the British and American governments evidently agreed. It was only when the charming Baroque city of Dresden was obliterated that the strategy of terror bombing came up for internal debate.

I do not wish here to make the argument that the Allied bombing campaign was unnecessary to destroy the Third Reich. I am not asking the United States and Britain to wallow in guilt over what happened. Nor is it the case that the murders we committed mean there is little moral difference between democracy and fascism. But I do not think we can ever regard what we did as “just” regardless of whether it was “necessary.” It was an unspeakable atrocity that no sane person wants to spend a second contemplating. World War II was not “good versus evil.” Hitler and Hirohito were evil, yes, but they pulled people (their own, and ours) down into an escalating cycle of mass murder and hatred from which it was almost impossible to escape. We do not come out of something like that as the “good guys” just because we did not start it. If you are viciously attacked on the street by a stranger, and you survive by cutting off the other person’s head, and feel it was necessary, you may claim to have acted in justified self-defense. But there is no pride to be taken in what you have done. You would—or should—regard it to the end of your days as the worst thing you have ever done.

I hesitate to offer a continuing parade of anecdotes of wartime suffering. In researching what isn’t in the National World War II Museum, I have encountered enough stomach-churning detail to fuck me up for some considerable time—stories of bodies stacked like cordwood, blast victims wandering the streets carrying their own eyeballs, bombed hospitals full of skeletons in beds, legless teenage girls begging to be put out of their misery, and the air raid warden at a bomb site who thought she saw a mop that turned out to be a severed head. Plus all of the tales from the Nazi extermination camps. Even then, I have only seen, softened through words and black-and-white images, the tiniest sliver of the suffering that took place. But since the National World War II Museum will not tell us the full truth about what a war is, I believe I ought to end with two accounts that remind us of things we might not care to know. Here, then, are two passages about those who found themselves on the other side of our “arsenal of democracy.” First is Kurt Vonnegut, who was a prisoner of war in Dresden when it was bombed, and was put to work cleaning out corpses afterward:

Every day we walked into the city and dug into basements and shelters to get the corpses out, as a sanitary measure. When we went into them, a typical shelter, an ordinary basement usually, looked like a streetcar full of people who’d simultaneously had heart failure. Just people sitting there in their chairs, all dead. A firestorm is an amazing thing. It doesn’t occur in nature. It’s fed by the tornadoes that occur in the midst of it and there isn’t a damned thing to breathe. We brought the dead out. They were loaded on wagons and taken to parks, large open areas in the city which weren’t filled with rubble. The Germans got funeral pyres going, burning the bodies to keep them from stinking and from spreading disease. 130,000 corpses were hidden underground.4 It was a terribly elaborate Easter egg hunt. We went to work through cordons of German soldiers. Civilians didn’t get to see what we were up to. After a few days the city began to smell, and a new technique was invented. Necessity is the mother of invention. We would bust into the shelter, gather up valuables from people’s laps without attempting identification, and turn the valuables over to guards. Then soldiers would come with a flame thrower and stand in the door and cremate the people inside. Get the gold and jewelry out and then burn everybody inside.

Then we have William Craig, from his book The Fall of Japan, describing the detonation of the bomb over Nagasaki:

The Fat Man was detonated … just northeast of the stadium in the Urakami Valley. At the moment of ignition, there was an intense bluish-white flash as though a large amount of magnesium had exploded. The entire area grew hazy with smoke. Simultaneously there was a tremendous roar, a crushing blast wave and searing heat. Twenty-four hundred feet to the northeast, the roof and masonry of the Catholic cathedral fell on the kneeling worshipers. All of them died. At the Nagasaki Branch Prison, just north of the explosion, 118 guards and convicts saw the brilliant light but nothing more. There were no survivors. The baggage master at the railroad station never rose to meet the incoming train. The roof of the building dropped onto his head. His assistant, torn by flying glass, ran into the street where people were beginning to jump headlong into the river to find relief from burns. The approaching train had stopped for a moment to discharge passengers near the entrance to the Urakami Valley. Most of the people never left their seats as the white light flooded over them. The windows blew in and ripped flesh into flayed meat. Severed heads rolled down the aisles as uninjured Japanese stumbled over the dead and ran from the train, too stunned to offer any help to the others. Out in the harbor, two and a half miles from the center of the blast, a seaman watched the explosion from his boat. As he stood transfixed, a small craft near him burst into flames and burned to the waterline. Beside him on his own deck, crew members screamed from burns on exposed portions of flesh. Four and a half miles to the south of the blast, a wooden barracks at Kamigo simply fell down. […] The fireball of the bomb had broadened in seconds to fill the valley. It lapped at the ridges on either side. The blast wave leaped the crests and raced through the seaport. People by the hundreds lay on the streets, in the fields, in wreckage, and screamed for water. Creatures that barely resembled human beings walked dazedly, skin hanging down in huge flaps, torsos blackened.

Can there be a “just war,” one where we can feel pride in what we have done? If there is such a thing, we’re told World War II is it. But to believe that wars can be just, you have to spend $400 million burying the counter-evidence. Were there really “good guys” in World War II, when the good guys killed so many kids? Can one really contemplate this destruction without shame?

“It’s too damned serious over here to be talking about hot dogs and baked beans and things we’re missing. Tell them there are men getting killed and wounded every minute and they’re miserable and they’re suffering. Tell them it’s a matter more serious than they’ll ever be able to understand.”

— U.S. soldier to a reporter, France, 1944

The National World War II Museum distorts the war in a few core ways, which affect every exhibit. It hides most of the actual violence. It treats Americans as more important than non-Americans. It imbues events of the war with meaning, so that they seem less absurd and tragic. And it treats the war as morally unambiguous, which discourages visitors from grappling with the atrocities committed by the winning side. The end result of this, alarmingly enough, is that the National World War II Museum manages to construct a World War II that doesn’t seem nearly as bad as it really was.

The danger of this cannot be overstated: if Americans still do not grasp the reality of war, they will not be sufficiently committed to making sure wars do not happen.

Fussell could be describing the museum when he condemns reporting in which “a large slice of actuality … was declared off-limits, and the sanitized and euphemized remainder was presented as the whole.” If we don’t admit that we became savage killing machines, that we dehumanized the Japanese just as much as the Germans dehumanized Jews, that our finest young men are capable of unspeakable acts, we will carry a dangerous arrogance. Indeed, in the decades after World War II, in Korea, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, the United States unleashed the same kinds of indiscriminate terror bombing campaigns that it had in Japan and Germany, yet again massacring civilians without a second thought, yet again treating a population of foreigners as if they were ants rather than human beings. We are a danger to the world so long as we are convinced that our actions always result from motives that are pure and untainted by bigotry or bloodlust.

I enjoyed my day at the World War II Museum, and I wish I hadn’t. I had to find out the truth about the war elsewhere, in novels and in the kind of history books they don’t sell in the museum store. That’s where I learned about soldiers driven insane by their exposure to dead bodies, about the pure terror of being next to a shell when it hits the ground like a freight train. I learned that the most visceral experience of war is not the sights or sounds, but the smells, which the museum makes no attempt to replicate. I learned about the carnage left out of the photo of the Marines raising the flag at Iwo Jima, people cut in half or atomized into “tiny red bits,” a memory that was still producing PTSD in its witnesses when they were in their 90s.

I still don’t have any idea about war, though, because the real war cannot be conveyed in words or pictures. The only people that know about it are those who saw it, and for many of them, it was so disturbing that they never wanted to talk about what they witnessed. My grandfather, Dennis Matthews, who served with the British Army in Burma, never spoke about his war years. When I was a child, I thought his medals were cool, though he kept them put away. My only reference point for the war was the ’60s sitcom Dad’s Army, about the misadventures of a ragtag platoon in the domestic Home Guard. I thought that was pretty much what my granddad’s war must have been like. 

Now I know better. I know why he didn’t talk about it. He didn’t talk about it because it wasn’t like that at all, and because he almost certainly saw things no human being should ever have to see, and which it takes a lifetime to forget.

I don’t think my granddad would have liked the National World War II Museum. For one thing, he always resented Americans—he said they acted as if they’d won the war themselves, an impression the museum would have done little to disabuse him of. But he also wasn’t the kind who would have bought a brandy snifter with a grenade on it. He knew what grenades did, and if you’ve seen what they do, you don’t want to be reminded.

I am not saying that the only World War II museum worth building is the one that traumatizes you. But I do think that, especially if children are going to be admitted, it needs to try to convey the fact that war is the worst thing that can happen , and that tanks aren’t just cool pieces of machinery. They blow up humans, and you don’t want to see them do it. World War II was a meat grinder in which the great powers of the world turned their whole economies toward the task of finding new ways to murder and destroy at an industrial scale. We think of the Holocaust as horrifying in part because it involved trying to efficiently maximize murder. But the nuking and firebombing of cities and the development of flamethrowing tanks and Mk2 fragmentation grenades also involved putting maximal scientific and engineering know-how toward the goal of destroying people in horrible ways. The fact that our purposes were nobler does not make the idea of a murder-based economy any less disturbing.

I want World War II to be discussed and presented in ways that help us move toward a world without war. I don’t necessarily think my local museum has to be dismantled, but I do want it to depress people, even if that causes it to lose its status as the #1-rated local tourist attraction on TripAdvisor. It needs more on the Holocaust, more on the realities of violence and trauma, and less of the cheerful nostalgia and kitsch. It certainly can’t sell war toys to kids. I have nothing against the “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy from Company B,” but visitors need to realize that in the real war, the bugle boy ended up cut in two by a landmine, or pulverized under the treads of a Panzer tank. The real war, as Fussell says, was darkly, hideously ironic: all those Americans who went off so cheerful and wholesome, fond of candy and comic books, found themselves turned into mass  murderers, doing things that would have been the crime of the century if they’d occurred back in Iowa. Then those that survived had to come home and somehow try to live normal lives, to forget that they had been sadistic serial killers for a time, as if it had been something as innocent as a gap year abroad.

Portraying more of the war does not solely mean more exposure to violence. America’s solipsistic view also leads it to overlook remarkable stories of resilience and solidarity, which have the capacity to inspire. One of my personal favorites is the story of the debut of Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony in 1942. At the time, the city of Leningrad (today St. Petersburg) was encircled by the Nazis and cut off from the rest of Russia. Under blockade, the city’s residents were starving to death and dying in the streets in huge numbers. But when the great composer Shostakovich wrote a symphony for the city, an incredible effort was made to gather together an orchestra to perform it in the besieged city. Musicians were dying of starvation at the rehearsals, but they practiced and performed it, and it was blasted at the attacking Nazi forces via loudspeakers. Soviet forces had even launched an attack specifically to keep the Germans from disrupting the symphony; one German soldier commented after the war that when he heard the sounds of the Leningrad orchestra, he knew that the city’s will was too strong to break.

This is an incredible story, but—probably because it is about Russians—it has never been made into a Hollywood film. There are plenty of other true tales from the war about defiance under impossible odds, and about love keeping itself alive in hopeless conditions. When I contemplate World War II, I don’t just think of the mountain of human bodies, but about the people who sang “We’ll Meet Again,” some of whom did meet again and some of whom didn’t. I think about how happy the reunions were, and how strong the friendships were between those who saved each other’s lives. And of course I think that while my grandfather was in the jungles of Burma, what he didn’t know was that he was to meet my grandmother and would have a long, peaceful life ahead of him. I certainly do not see the war as a full indictment of humanity, only as proof of our capacity to destroy ourselves needlessly.

The real war will never get in the history books. Or in the museums. It can’t, because the real war only exists in the memories of a diminishing few. But while the rest of us will never know what it was like, we at least need to be aware that words like “dark” and “terrible” and “horror” and “fighting” do not even begin to capture the phenomena that are actually under discussion. Once you have started to realize what was done—to really realize it—and once you start to appreciate that the people involved were living creatures and not statistics or arrows on a battle map, I think it is very hard not to feel sick in the museum gift shop. But much as we might resist confronting the unpleasant or the gory or the meaningless and unnecessary, we need to understand how a disaster of this magnitude could happen, if we’re to stop one from happening again. The Second World War was the greatest outburst of insanity, the most devastating human-made calamity, in our species’ history. It is fairly recent, having occurred within the lifetimes of people still alive today. It is being slowly forgotten, and one service that the Museum performs is reminding new generations that there was a Second World War. But that effort will be in vain if the war becomes a hazy, far-off story about something vaguely bad that happened to people we never met. We have to see the participants in that epic tragedy—all of them, not only Americans—as having been just as human as we are.

Thank you to Lily Sánchez for her extremely diligent editing work on this piece.

  1. Other donors to the museum include Walmart, Northrop Grumman, Shell Oil, AT&T, and the Jelly Belly Candy Company. Individual donors include Steven Spielberg, Donald Rumsfeld, Meg Whitman, and Home Depot billionaire—and author of I Love Capitalism!—Ken Langone. 

  2. Each visitor is assigned a real historic crewmember from the USS Tang “and many will be ‘enlisted’ to perform specific tasks to navigate through the battle. At the end of the experience, they will discover if they were among those lost or one of the few who, after a harrowing ordeal at sea, suffered on in Japanese captivity.” 

  3. Most of the time the museum says “Allied” victory but sometimes they slip. 

  4. Note: the accepted number is now closer to 25,000. 

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