Why does World War II hold a fascination for us? For me, personally, it’s in part because my parents told tales of that time which hover like fairy tales. My dad taught radar in the navy, but then was spared from going to the Pacific on his destroyer due to the atomic bomb. The way my folks told it when I was growing up, the WWII as they experienced it was one hi-jink after another between kisses. The stories they told, laden in nostalgia, enticed me to see how what was studied “historically” had a personal side to it.
I hope my book, Home Front Girl: A Diary of Love, Literature, And Growing Up in Wartime America, by Joan Wehlen Morrison, edited by Susan Signe Morrison (me) (Chicago Review Press, 2013) can show readers how the war shaped the writer—my mom-- in creating her own ethical views to war. These journals contain Joan’s immediate reaction to bombings and political events. What she expresses there is radically different than the often-told stories of my parents’ early married life coinciding with my dad’s entry into the navy. Joan’s story in her diaries is much more morally complicated and nuanced than the romantic comedy told around the dinner table when I was a child. Here I can see how she really felt about political events when she was a girl of 14 to a young woman of 20.
Stories, like books, shape blueprints for how we can live. We can see how stories provide a moral guide for Joan. One Saturday in May 1941 at age 18, Joan goes to volunteer at Billings Hospital where they send her to read to a 19-year-old freshman from Purdue who had has his leg amputated. “And all the sudden leaning there on the bed—he was telling me how he felt at first and I thought my god, he’s got one leg cut off—oh poor boy—how terrible! -- but I couldn’t let him see I was thinking it. . . . Somehow then the scene from All Quiet on the Western Front came back to my mind—where the two soldiers visit their friend whose legs have just been cut off and they realize how helpless they are—and I had that same feeling. So I smiled foolishly and we went on talking about college and baseball. . . . And I think perhaps he was fooling me, too, talking about such trivial things—when there was a consciousness of something else there . . . A nice-looking boy I might play bridge with in the Coffee-Shop or meet on a double date. People, all round the world. But he said, ‘I’m not going to let this thing get me down.’ I felt so moved in front of so much reality. …As I rode home I thought of that phrase of Francis Bacon’s in his utopia—used of the Governor, ‘He had a look as if he pitied men,’ and I think that is the most beautiful trait of all—“a look as if he pitied men.’”
Joan uses literature as a means to explain her feelings in this situation. An iconic novel about World War I looms in her imagination as large as World War II for us. Literature allows her to understand herself and, in turn, to be more compassionate to Joe.
We, in turn, are fascinated by stories about WWII. We love the swing music from the time, the fashion, the films, but, most of all, the sense that this was a war worth fighting for, unlike the wars since that time. As my husband says about WWII, “It provided clarity” -- in contrast to World War I. Just as we are fascinated by WWII, Joan was fascinated with WWI. She describes visiting the statue to the Unknown Soldier on Memorial Day, 1937, when she is 14. “Daddy and I went out for a walk and when it rained went under a tree near the statue of the Unknown Soldier. He looked so lonely there in the rain (the Soldier, I mean), and there wasn’t even a wreath to mark the day. It seemed so pitiful. So I picked a little flower from the tree and ran in the rain to lay it at his feet. And I’m sure he knew I did it and was glad that someone remembered him on this day. It was only a little flower, but I’m sure it meant as much as a wreath. I’m glad I did it, as I’m sure the Soldier is . . . “
Then -- ironically on the day the German cross over the border of Poland on September 1, 1939, though she doesn’t yet realize it -- Joan writes, “I have been reading about the World War I dead and am thinking how awful it must be for a mother—or a father—to know their grown son dead. After bearing and bringing through childhood to the prime of his life a son—to find that all this is futile, that all this is ended—all vain. That he died before he began to be himself. To lose a child must be in a deep sense far worse than to lose a husband. It must make one lose the sense of continuity. . . . A husband dead means that you are, in a way, dead—but to lose a child means you lose immortality—that you shall not go on. . . .”
A month later in October 1939 when she is 16 she writes about how “Those first years—most of us were born after the First World War—they were the years when our grownups had found that illusions were a lie and that revenge was the only answer to offense.” She goes on to describe about how her generation, born in the few years after WWI, will forever be shaped by that war and that the coming war, WWII, will be her generation’s war.
In a sense, it is also our war, even today. It’s a war we all want to lay claim to since we seem to have worked for something together in an atmosphere of political bipartisanship. We like to imagine us all in a team in WWII, fighting against a common enemy—fascism. Perhaps we are fascinated because we can imagine ourselves working for the greater good rather than being selfish. I like to imagine I would have been a loyal Red Cross worker, a WAVE or a spy (I know German!).
But there are more personal reasons for our abiding fascination for World War II. Home Front Girl has only just been published. But I’ve been told by dozens of people in their 40s, 50s and 60s, how they have their mother’s, father’s or grandparents’ letters from that period. They’ve told me they’ve always wanted to “do something” with them. I encourage them to transcribe these letters for future generations. Even as a self-published document that remains in a family, these personal memories are key to future generations understanding how history is made -- not just by politicians, or even by soldiers, but also by housewives or children collecting paper for recycling for the war effort.
Late in 1938 Joan expresses optimism about the human race. “I would rather think men are good and err, than think them evil and be right.” She believes that everyone has a story, one that may not yet be apparent. As she presciently writes October 19, 1941, “to understand one’s story is to weep with pity.” That is why WWII attracts us: we weep with pity to think that our parents and grandparents went through that period of destruction and yet we survive.