When I was a kid, World War II was not history. It was the cool war, the most popular basis for games that involved shooting people or blowing them up. We Americans were just finishing up our adventure Vietnam when I was 9, but nobody wanted to play at getting our asses kicked by the VC. And World War I really was history, people in goofy outfits flying planes that looked more like furniture than fighters and which only a cartoon dog would want to fly.
WW2 by contrast had snappy planes like the P-51D Mustang and the Spitfire–even the enemy planes like the Zero and the weird experimental things the Germans were coming up with at the end were awesome in their way. And as enemies go, you can’t do better than the Nazis. Of course, most of us, when we stop being ten-year-olds, realize that blowing people up isn’t as cool as it sounds–I was among the lucky ones who didn’t learn it first-hand–but at the time hating the Axis was like hating the Yankees, at once present and not quite for-real. (As a grownup I recognize that the Yankees are not truly evil. Except for Derek Jeter.)
Reading Their Finest Hour, the second volume of Winston Churchill’s war memoir (covering the fall of France and the Battle of Britain), I am struck by his sense of exhilaration at the simplicity and intensity of the struggle for survival, which had something in common with the child’s view, but also by his antique remoteness and his own feeling that his experiences were part of history. The remoteness is partly stylistic; nobody writes like that any more, and really, anyone who wrote like that in 1949 risked sounding pretentious and silly, but Mr. C wears his archaic style well. Instead of saying that infighting is counterproductive, he says that it “darkens counsel” (try slipping that into a memo at the office). He uses words in a perfectly understandable way that is slightly off-kilter in modern English, for example, saying that a certain strategy was sound but the four-day delay in implementing it was “evil” (I think we generally reserve that word for cases of conscious maleficence, like Jeter). He says that he wanted to rename the Local Defence Force to Home Guards because the new name was more “compulsive” (meaning compelling), and that the island of Britain turned out to be “intangible” (meaning untouchable, not susceptible to invasion).
Just to be clear, the above is a description, not a complaint. I found the book fascinating (compulsive?) even when Churchill was talking about cabinet shuffles or minor hobbyhorses (such as his pet sticky-bomb antitank weapon), largely because of the linguistic adventure.
Churchill also feels a continuity with the past that I don’t think most of us share. His favorite touchstones are, of course, the Armada and Napoleon, but he will also say, a propos of the failed attempt to install De Gaulle at Dakar, that the reader may be reminded of the expedition Cromwell sent to the Caribbean in 1656…those of you who were so reminded may give yourselves a gold star.
And indeed, in some ways Churchill belonged to 1880 more than 1940. He talks about fighting to preserve the Empire, and it is not clear, even as he writes, after Indian and Israeli independence, that he realizes the Empire is long gone. His memos of 1940 often complain that the Indians aren’t doing more to help the war effort, and he is baffled by the surliness of the Irish–the ingratitude, after all England has done for them! He mentions that he considered invading Ireland in order to obtain ports along the south coast.
But why did this surprise me? Churchill was a conservative politician who grew up in an upper-class family in Victoria’s England. I think, though, that I still retained some vestige of my childhood image of the war, in which Britain, to the extent that it was defined at all beyond being “the good guys”, was the quaint, harmless nation of the Beatles and Benny Hill, not the white-man’s-burden evil Empire (is there another kind?) that brought the glories of free trade and starvation to heathens in Ireland, India, and elsewhere. The very fact that the war was so much a part of my childhood meant that I had failed to adjust completely my perspective on it.
One other aspect of the book I’d like to mention is the surprisingly gripping portrait of the fall of France. I’ve tended to take the collapse of the French for granted (as they themselves apparently did almost from the start), but this was a nightmare for Churchill, not only in a strategic sense but also because he felt guilty that the Brits had not done more to help, and because many of the French leaders were his friends. This conflict and confusion in some ways presents Churchill at his most humanly attractive.
And finally, here’s a link to some of Winnie’s great speeches. The dude would never have gotten a job as an anchorman, but he sure as hell knew how to talk.