Joho the Blog » World War II as a camping trip.

World War II as a camping trip.

I’ve been re-reading a 1944 collection of amusing anecdotes assembled by Bennett Cerf, called Try and Stop Me. I’d read it as a child (I was born in 1950), and the celebrities in it belonged to my parents’ world — people like Herbert Bayard Swope, Alexander Woollcott, and Monty Woolley. Most of those names, huge in the 1930s, are completely unknown to the current generation, of course. Indeed, many are on the fringes of my own consciousness, or are beyond my recall entirely.

I’m finding it fascinating. Cerf was a television celebrity in the 1950s and 1960s, always with an amusing story. We are even on the verge of losing the word so often used to describe him: a raconteur. The anecdotes in Try and Stop Me concern authors, playwrights, poets, intellectuals, and actors. You do come away thinking that celebrity has taken a long walk downhill since then.

The attitudes and values the anecdotes betray are sometimes quite surprising. But here’s one that really floored me (which I’m presenting unedited):

Astute diagnosing by John Gunther [an important, popular historian] in his latest book, D Day: “The worst thing about war is that so many men like it … It relieves them of personal responsibilities…There is no worry about frictions at home or the dull necessity of earning a living. Military life is like a perpetual camping trip. I heard one officer say, ‘How nice all this would be if only you could eliminate the bloodshed and the killing.’” “Perhaps,” adds Orville Prescott [NY Times book critic], “peace planners who debate problems of frontiers and economics had better give a little more attention to eliminating the pleasures of soldierly comradeship and vast cooperative endeavor, the drama and excitement and the fun of war also.”

Can you imagine an historian saying the same thing about, say, the Afghanistan War, or Vietnam, for that matter? Did the American people really know so little about the horrors of WWII that they could believe that it was “like a perpetual camping trip” and oh so much fun? This seems to me to be beyond propaganda, but maybe I’m just underestimating how much propaganda can get away with.


(Tennozan: The Battle of Okinawa and the Atomic Bomb by George Feifer is a horrifying oral history of that particular “camping trip.”)

7 Responses to “World War II as a camping trip.”

  1. It doesn’t strike me as an entirely ludicrous problem to worry about. AIUI one of the big problems for military veterans is having to deal with the loss of the close cameraderie of service, combined with the safe practicality of civilian life. You don’t have to be a gung-ho Rambo to suffer that kind of difficulty integrating back into civilian society.

    [disclaimer: not an area I know the slightest bit about]

  2. It doesn’t strike me as an entirely ludicrous problem to worry about. AIUI one of the big problems for military veterans is having to deal with the loss of the close cameraderie of service, combined with the safe practicality of civilian life. You don’t have to be a gung-ho Rambo to suffer that kind of difficulty integrating back into civilian society.

  3. > Can you imagine an historian saying the same thing about, say, the Afghanistan War, or Vietnam, for that matter?

    Yes. Here’s an example:

    http://www.virtualjerusalem.com/blogs.php?Itemid=1226

    “Which leads me to Sebastian Junger’s book War. Junger spent fourteen months in 2007-2008 embedded with one platoon–30 soldiers–of the 173rd Airborne brigade in eastern Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, a blood-soaked landscape that sounds like the far side of Mars or a portion of hell on earth.”

    “Junger’s honesty is refreshing as he dares puncture universal pieties about combat:

    War is a lot of things and its useless to pretend that exciting isn’t one of them. It’s insanely exciting. The machinery of war and the sounds it makes and the urgency of its use and the consequences of almost everything about it are the most exciting things anyone engaged in war will ever know. …”

  4. Not entirely off queue IMHO, even with Afghanistan. As Seth suggests, read “War” by Sebastian Junger or watch “Restrepo” the documentary by Junger and recently deceased Tim Hetherington: they follow a platoon on their deployment at Afghanistan, on the most combat-active section of the grid.

    There’s quite a bit of focus on the “high” they get when facing combat, the boredom when things get quiet, dealing with the return home.

    With all the atrocities: war definetely has an appeal (at least for some people) and the psychology of getting guys to join the army and fight is quite well established.

  5. Chris Hedges covers this topic quite well. And I’m reminded of the old “draft dodger rag” tune, “wish you well, sarge, give ‘em hell, kill me a thousand or so, and if there’s ever a war without blood and gore, I’ll be the first to go.”

    But I’m a little puzzled at those other anachronistic terms, not raconteur so much, but ‘author’? ‘playwright’? ‘intellectual’? Poet, that’s like a spoken word artist, but those other categories don’t seem to show up on my internet. And I’m not sure if their collective anonymities are a good or a bad thing.

  6. This is one of the points made in “War,” the classic Canadian 1980′s TV documentary miniseries by Gwynne Dyer, the journalist and military historian. Apart from the few who want to fight, and the others hoping to learn a trade, he depicts military life itself as highly attractive to many, something they consider worth the risk of combat. And more recently, More recently, in interviews Sebastian Junger has mentioned the boring and directionless life that seems to await poor and middle class young men currently as something that moves some of them to join the military, even in wartime.

    Forget WWII: war’s attractions today seem to be the same as those that prevailed in the Napoleonic era.

  7. Modern warfare is hardly exciting. It’s continual efforts to fight off boredom punctuated by short moments of sheer terror.

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