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May 7, 2011

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.”)