Unravelling Wartime Myths

Some readers just don't want to hear it from me -- writing about the myths of World War II.

Maybe they'll feel better if it's coming from Edward W. Wood Jr., a guy who was awarded the Combat Infantryman's Badge, the Purple Heart, and the Bronze Star. A retired city planner and author of "Worshipping the Myths of World War II," Wood is quick to point out: "I was wounded in France, 60 miles east of Verdun ... after only a day and a half in combat. I'm no expert on long-term combat experience." But it's way more combat experience than any of the leading architects of the war in Iraq.

"I got hit in the head, the small of my back, and pelvis with shrapnel from artillery fire," he told me last week. "The wound shattered my life. In those days, you couldn't talk about the emotional impact."

He's 82 now and has spent a lifetime trying to understand war and its impact on those involved. "Worshipping the Myths of World War II" is a product of his very personal, honest and courageous exploration.

Sean Gonsalves: Some people consider talk about the myths of World War II disparaging to veterans. Why do some equate demythologizing with anti-Americanism?

Edward W. Wood Jr.: There's two kinds of soldiers: those who have been in combat and the guys who haven't. I think those two groups have vastly different attitudes about war. Another reason people react that way is because people in the United States have absolutely no idea what war entails. I think a lot of very good people believe that these myths really describe what war is. Therefore, to demythologize means, for them, putting down people who have been involved.

But I don't think we want to look at what our tax dollars are doing. We just don't want to look at the reality that's there. None of this is a disparagement to those who've really seen combat. I am really anti-war now and yet, in terms of my own personal life, I have no regrets about having been in World War II. I believe in nonviolence. But, I'm in favor of a draft because I think we all would think a lot more carefully about war.

Why do you think these myths are so persistent?

These myths are really rooted in our past and go beyond World War II -- going back to the King Phillips War. There were Manifest Destiny wars with Mexico, Phillipines and the rest. Teddy Roosevelt believed you weren't really a man unless you served in war. I don't think we really want to look at that and it's not taught very much in school. It's a very subtle message. I think that's why it persists. The myths exist because we don't look carefully at our history and because it gives people a great glow to wrap themselves in it. But I think it would be healthy to just be open about.

What criteria do you use to judge artistic interpretations of World War II?

There are essentially two really important criteria, I use:

1) Does the author or filmmaker say something about himself that he didn't want to tell the world? Does it really delve into what combat does in the deepest kind of way? Does it wrestle with the moral dilemma of killing -- seeing and watching people get killed -- and how is the act of killing treated?

2) Does it reflect the extraordinary complexity of human reaction to death? And modern war is not just about soldiers in combat but also the impact on civilians. If you don't have that part of the equation, you're missing at least 50 percent of the story.

How do you see these myths impacting the way people view the war in Iraq?

If you look at how we got into the Iraq war, you see the president and his administration using (World War II) as an example for Iraq; comparing Saddam to Hitler and comparing themselves to Churchill and Roosevelt. I don't think that's quite appropriate.

We appeal to the idea of the 'Good War' and a war against evil where the enemy is dehumanized into this monstrous evil ... But, actually, World War I and World War II were really one war. If you look at it that way, what happens in the 1930s was a function of the Versailles Treaty and the terrible reparations imposed on Germany ... So we built up a situation that was going to inevitably lead to another war.

Iraq itself was made out of whole cloth in the early 1920s almost by fiat, putting the Kurds, the Shias and Sunnis in one country. So, even now, we are dealing with the consequences of World War I.

Do combat veterans who've served in the infantry have a different perception of what war means, compared to soldiers in the Navy or Air Force?

The guys who flew in World War II I respect beyond measure -- the 8th Air Force, for example. But I do think it's a different experience for soldiers in the Air Force and Navy, compared to soldiers involved in ground combat. It gives you a very different attitude about what war is.

In the final chapter of your book, you write: "the issue today is not just the simple one -- how can we leave Iraq? -- but, rather one far more difficult: How can we turn from war as the solution to our international problems?" What do you see as the answer to the important question you raise?

I don't have the answer. But we need to get away from the myths and try to understand what war is really like. In this war, the only ones who pay the price are the soldiers and Iraqi civilians. That's so terribly unfair. It infuriates me. If we are in a war, the whole country should pay a price for it.

I've turned against war but if we're at war, we can't have a war and all these people making money off it and living normal lives. It hurts me to see people who go about their lives while terrible death and suffering are occurring in Iraq.

America is not very good at recognizing who its real enemies are. We get it all confused with this problem of evil. We see it in others but never in us.

That's hard for people to even hear, never mind think about.

I'm running against the grain and it gets lonely sometimes.


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