Over the top over World War II

Is it possible to get too much respect?

The burgeoning veterans industry is going over the top, and I blush in bookstores. There are the Stephen Ambrose World War II epics, then Studs Terkel's "The Good War," and Tom Brokaw's bestseller, "The Greatest Generation."

Now inching up the lists - and I'm not making this us up - Jack Canfield's "Chicken Soup for the Veteran's Soul: 101 Stories to Stir the Pride and Honor the Courage of Our Veterans." Well.

I'll resist the metaphysical debate as to whether I have a soul, but my bona fides as a veteran are indisputable. I completed 30 months in the China Burma India theater, serving with a photo intelligence squadron operating from the Assam-Burma border. My outfit shot photo reconnaissance missions, surveyed the Burma Road, and often flew missions to Kunming, China.

In December 1945, four months after war's end, 4,000 other GIs and I embarked on the SS General Meigs from Karachi (then in India) to New York via the Suez Canal, past Gibraltar, and into a series of North Atlantic gales. This was a winter crossing at its worst, but none of us minded much. We were glad to be returning home.

Midway during the voyage, in a crazy fraternity-house spirit, some GIs began throwing overboard various parts of their uniforms. This spontaneous action quickly became a ritual with hundreds of coats, jackets, and duffle bags being sent astern.

What also went over for me were the collective memories of various tropical ailments and of barracks ennui. The most vivid fear was the rumor that we might be transferred to training for the impending invasion of Japan - with its civilians armed with sharpened bamboos and razors, or so we were warned.

The only actual wartime souvenirs I brought home were an envelope containing my dog tags, some weathered correspondence, and a folder of War Department booklets called "Why We Fight."

In the June 2001 issue of Atlantic Monthly, Benjamin Schwarz puts Messrs. Ambrose and Brokaw in his sights. Ambrose's version of events in "The Good Fight," Mr. Schwarz writes, "retroactively imposes an elevated meaning on the American side of the war" and is "littered with lofty cant."

Brokaw's view is quoted: "Everyone understood that the successful outcome of the war was critical to the continuing evolution of political and personal freedom." Huh? Can you imagine the reaction if some GI voiced that sentiment in the barracks?

So I appreciated Schwarz's observation: "But has any man ever killed and risked being killed for such abstract, imprecise, and gaseous sentiments?" Hollywood and Madison Avenue continue to profitably package this hyperbole. And it's still embarrassing.

Perhaps the clearest expression of GI sentiment was made recently by Friedrich St. Florian, the architect of the planned World War II National Memorial in Washington: "I think it is fair to say that during World War II there was a high sense of purpose," he told The New York Times. That sense of purpose, I agree, should be honored with a monument.

In the history of wars, patriotism is a recent innovation. Roman legions were machines of aggrandizement; the Vandals and Goths more of the same. The Crusades and religious wars were inspired by righteousness - and often supported by mercenaries. Land and economic prizes were the prime inspiration for early wars. Dying for politics or a moral view would be an impossible reach. Under fire there is no need for flag-waving. Survival is sufficient motivation and brings out our best - and worst. "The best" is the kind of unit loyalty and camaraderie that emerge in life-threatening situations.

Proclaiming we're "the greatest" smacks of Muhammad Ali-style braggadocio. World War II history is better served by acknowledging contributions by our Allies: the resolve of the English against the Blitz, the resistance movements in France, Italy, the Balkans, and other places. For a strong antidote to the Brokaw/Ambrose versions, I recommend recent books by John Keegan and Paul Fussell. They furnish clear reminders that war really is hell and that the necessary evil of the military dangerously glorifies man's most primitive blood-lust instincts.

As my "great generation" basks, we should also remember that without Britain's Happy Breed and the Russians' victory at Stalingrad, these words probably wouldn't be written. As former Sen. Bob Dole has said, "There's a good cause, but there's no such thing as a good war."

Charles Preston is the Monitor's crossword puzzle editor.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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