I have yet to hear or read about any country which does not try to paint it’s own military as courageous self-sacrificing heroes, and any group or country which they oppose, as a bunch of horrible lousy evil bastards – it’s a standard game, and one can even argue there is no way to be truthful with people, and also get them to reliably kill other human beings on orders. (A major clue, perhaps?)
But I can never forget two of the best history lessons I ever got about the second world war.
Many years ago, Catherine’s parents drove us out to Hamilton to see the Canadian warplane heritage museum – which has one of the most extraordinary collections of historically significant airplanes in the world – and more amazingly, maintains almost all of them in flyable condition (yes, members can get rides). They knew I was an aviation nut – and this really was a special treat for me.
But when we walked to the remote spot where their incredibly rare (one of only two in the world) flyable Lancaster bomber was stored (pre CWHM fire) Catherine’s mother Helen, didn’t even want to enter the hangar.
Me? I was blown-away – the scale of the thing is outright amazing, and cannot be conveyed by any photographs. But I was also surprised by her unease.
She’d lived through the war as a kid here – and had shared many special memories about that with me – like the nice shopkeeper who saved her favourite candy-bar for her, even when everything was rationed – and the wonderful experience of all the conservation-doused downtown lights coming-on at once, at war’s end. She even had a much older brother who was in the RCAF (along with one in the navy and one in the army) – and still – the ‘Our guys are always heroes no matter what’ propaganda message, had never really taken with her.
Her feeling was not uncommon, even at the time – I recently read an account of pilot training where one Scotsman tried to screw-up his multi-engine test deliberately (a common ploy), because he desperately wanted to be assigned to fly fighters instead. His explanation? “I’ll nae be murdering innocent women and bairns.” He was of course assigned to bombers (by the course-instructor, who overheard him) and died a few months later, doing that much-hated job.
Helen’s brilliantly clear insight? “These machines were built just for death.” And the horror she still felt in their presence, all those years after their very real and terrible threat, was unforgettably sobering.
Ask yourself this – could this thing really look any scarier with a swastika?
Some people ask me why I think I have any right to speak about subjects like history – especially when there are still witnesses to talk to. I’m not interested in pretending to any authority I haven’t got. My approach to history is the same as my approach as a technician. I am not the greatest theorist, the most advanced researcher, encyclopedic in knowledge, the most observant, or the one who cares the absolute most. But I care more than most great theorists I know, and observe more carefully and closely than many who are encyclopedic… etc etc – my aim is always to establish range, proportion, context, scale and balance – not to make some competition (emotion)-driven point designed to prove one faction justified.
I now know five different non Vietnamese veterans of the Vietnam war – and I am interested in every single thing they have to say about it – and yet, I expect my view of that piece of history will continue to be shaped primarily by all the stories I’ve been told by my Vietnamese friends who experienced the calamity not as an interval of madness – but as the incomprehensible and inescapable destruction of their home and everything they had known.
Likewise, I could tell you plenty of interesting things about the designer of the Lancaster, it’s test pilots, it’s engines, it’s famous crews and missions – but the last word about it really must go to my friend (and extraordinary teacher) Fred.
As of 1943. Fred was a very proud 13 year old member of the master race – and he had no reason to feel any differently, having been taken away from his family and raised in the Hitler youth program – his particular group was sent to a closed private school in the alps for safety – excellent teachers, hours of skiing every day – a rare bit of fun, while the world burned. As of 1944 however, 14 year old Fred was trained-up as an anti-aircraft gunner, and sent to serve in the highly industrial Ruhr valley (one of the most heavily bombed areas of the entire war).
CWHM 2011 show was fantastic, but poorly controlled. We got way closer to active runways than was safe!
When I came back from the warplane museum and told my electronics department chums about the thrill – especially of the big beast. Fred snorted and said, “I’ve seen enough goddamned Lancasters for one lifetime.” And then out came his story (first time any of his colleagues had heard it, also).
Which means now, every single time I see the beast circling our town, cheerily celebrating it’s lethal legacy, I think of all my amazing German-Canadian friends, their old nightmares, and all of their extraordinary contributions to our post-war success.
For anyone who thinks there is any such thing as a young immigrant who is so thoroughly indoctrinated and fiercely opposed to our way of life, that they can’t be won-over by freedom and opportunity. Wrong, I mean it – just plain wrong. Seriously, look it up!