Mike Davis on commemorating the real war

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We were engulfed this last week by vast waves of media-driven nostalgia — for a past American war and a past president. The urge to feel good — a post-Vietnam desire that Ronald Reagan rode to the White House — is certainly powerful. At least, Reagan promised a new “morning in America” (whatever he actually delivered). It’s striking that the Bush administration in its speeches promises only a drumbeat of fear, terror, and war to eternity. Perhaps that’s why George looked so generic in Normandy yesterday, his pallid speech buried in stirring clips of Ronnie speaking there twenty years ago. In fact, it may be a barometer of the times that, to experience a few good moments, Americans have had to reach into the relatively distant past — the landings at Normandy and the Reagan Presidency — and then to narrow the focus and blur the lens so dramatically. The heroic, bloody, near- disastrous landings at Normandy now exist in “history” without so much as a nod toward the larger panorama of the global war against fascism; and the figure of Ronald Reagan, the genial host, stands alone on stage with most of his administration out of sight. (For a wider lens on the Reagan presidency, don’t miss Juan Cole’s Reagan’s Passing) You might say that blotting out both allies and history is a distinctly unilateral way of feeling good.

Christopher Endy at the History News Network website suggests that we might have celebrated the 60th anniversary of D-Day more in the — gasp — French manner (“French memories of the war are more inclusive and accurate than our own. Americans have lost sight of the fact that even World War II’s ‘greatest generation’ could prevail only with substantial help from its allies, including the Soviets, British, Canadians, Chinese and many others. When Americans ignore this lesson, as they have in Iraq, the result is a world that resents, rather than admires, the United States”); and he reminds us that, to this day, you can descend into the Paris Metro and travel underground from Franklin D. Roosevelt station to Stalingrad station and back again. Mike Davis offers a similarly timely reminder below. Tom

Remembering Bill and Ivan
By Mike Davis

The decisive battle for the liberation of Europe began sixty years ago this month when a Soviet guerrilla army emerged from the forests and swamps of Belorussia to launch a bold surprise attack on the mighty Wehrmacht’s rear. The partisan brigades, including thousands of Jewish fighters and concentration-camp escapees, devastated the rail lines linking the German Army Group Center to its bases in Poland and Eastern Prussia.

Three days later, on 22 June — the third anniversary of Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union — Marshal Zhukov gave the order for the main assault on German front lines. Twenty-six thousand heavy guns and rocket launchers pulverized German fortifications in a matter of minutes. The banshee-like screams of the Katyusha rockets were punctually followed by the roar of 4000 tanks and the battle cries (in more than 40 languages!) of 1.6 million Soviet soldiers. Thus began Operation Bagration, an assault launched over a 500 hundred mile long front.

But what American has ever heard of Operation Bagration? June 1944 signifies Omaha Beach not the crossing of the Dvina River. Yet the Soviet summer offensive was almost an entire order of magnitude larger than Operation Overlord (the invasion of Normandy) in both the scale of forces engaged and the direct cost to the Germans.

By the end of summer, the Red Army (which included full divisions of Poles and Czechs) had reached the gates of Warsaw as well as the high passes of the Carpathians which command the entrance to Slovakia as well as Hungary. Soviet tanks, in a stunning reverse blitzkrieg, had caught Army Group Center in steel pincers and destroyed it. The Germans would lose more than 300,000 men in Belorussia alone. Another huge German army had been encircled and would soon be annihilated along the Baltic coast. The road to Berlin had been opened.

Thank Ivan.

It is no disparagement of the brave men who died in the sinister hedgerows of Normandy or in the cold forests around Bastogne, to recall that 70% of the Wehrmacht is buried on the Russian steppes not in French fields. In the struggle against Nazism, approximately forty “Ivans” died for every “Private Ryan.”

Yet the ordinary Soviet soldier — the tractor mechanic from Samara, the actor from Orel, the miner from the Donetz, or even the high-school girl from Leningrad — is invisible in the current celebration and mythologization of the “Greatest Generation.” It is as if the “new American century” cannot be fully born without exorcising the central Soviet role in the epochal victory of the last century.

Indeed, most Americans are shockingly clueless about the relative burdens of combat and death in the Second World War. And even the minority who understand something of the enormity of the Soviet sacrifice tend to visualize it in terms of crude stereotypes of the Red Army: a barbarian horde driven by feral revenge and primitive Russian nationalism. Only G.I. Joe and Tommy are envisioned as truly fighting for civilized ideals of freedom and democracy.

It is thus all the more important to recall that — despite Stalin, the NKVD, and the massacre of an entire generation of Bolshevik leaders — the Red Army still retained powerful elements of revolutionary fraternity. In its own eyes, and that of the slaves it freed from Hitler, it was the greatest army of liberation in history.

Moreover, the Red Army of 1944 was still a Soviet Army. The generals who led the brilliant breakthrough on the Dvina included a Jew (Chernyakovskii), an Armenian (Bagramyan), and a Pole (Rokossovskii). In contrast to the class-divided and racially segregated American forces, command in the Red Army was an open, if ruthless, ladder of opportunity.

Anyone who doubts the revolutionary élan and rank-and-file humanity of the Red Army should consult the extraordinary memoirs by Primo Levi (The Reawakening) and K.S. Karol (Between Two Worlds). Both hated Stalinism but loved the ordinary Soviet soldier and saw in her/him the seeds of socialist renewal.

So, as George W. Bush demeans the memory of D-Day to solicit support for his war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, I’ve decided to hold my own private commemoration.

I will recall, first, my kindhearted Uncle Bill, the salesman from Columbus, although it is hard to imagine such a gentle soul as a hell-for-leather teenage GI in Normandy. Second — as I’m sure my Uncle Bill would’ve wished — I will remember his comrade Ivan. The Ivan who drove his tank through the gates of Auschwitz and battled his way into Hitler’s bunker.

Two ordinary heroes: Bill and Ivan. Obscene to celebrate the first without also commemorating the second.

Mike Davis is the author of Dead Cities: And Other Tales, Ecology of Fear, and co-author of Under the Perfect Sun: the San Diego Tourists Never See, among other books.

Copyright C2004 Mike Davis