« Stalinist Propaganda PostersThe Rural Life »
01.03.2003

I Like Ike

A new look for the New Year. One of my resolutions was to be standards-compliant.

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I've been poring through old books since Christmas. The house my mother recently bought is full of them. The former owners were a physics professor and his wife, who were avid members of the Book of the Month club, and had a pretty keen interest in current events. That was back before their current events became our history. The professor also had a passionate interest in model trains, but he took the room-sized layout with him.

Many of the titles date from the cold war, and have a campy feel to them that is hard to resist. Lots of lurid dust jackets, and splashy red maps with barbed wire on the borders. So I was filled with ironic intent when I started leafing through Crusade in Europe, Eisenhower's memoir of the European war.

All my perceptions of Eisenhower have been shaped by received wisdom and the occasional PBS documentary on the nuclear age. I knew that he was President for most of the supposedly stultifying fifties, I had read the "Gettysburg address in Eisenhowerese", and I knew that the man had picked Nixon as his veep. Not too promising. I suppose I also I assumed his WWII career had consisted of attending long meetings far behind the lines, making sure the troops were fed, and looking for room on his chest to pin another medal.

Reading his memoir has been chastening. Not only does Eisenhower turn out to be a most eloquent man (with a wonderful, formal style), but it is clear from reading the account of the European and African campaigns that he was a very great man, as well as a skilled commander. What impressed me most in his book, which could so easily have been a stroll down Ego Lane, was Eisenhower's relentless insistence on deflecting credit from himself onto his fellow commanders, subordinates, and the soldiers who ultimately won the war. There are several wonderful occasions for self-promotion (Eisenhower showed great physical courage during several key battles), but these he passes over completely. His modesty is pretty terrifying for a self-promoter like me. Even when faced with incompetence or callous misbehavior by officers in his command, he finds a way to draw lessons and see through wrong behavior to the individual within.

The only time Eisenhower's empathy fails him is in discussing Hitler. For him the author exudes a profound hatred, both for prolonging the war after defeat was certain, and for conceiving the "horror camps", which Eisenhower visited for many hours but is unable to describe.

Reading this book made it all the more jarring to come across this photo for sale on the New York Times website - it's a D-Day shot of an attacking American soldier crawling onto the beach at Normandy, and somehow seeing it being marketed as an art object at $2500 a pop seems both disrespectful and wrong.

Luckily we have the Washington Post to save the day, with an article on World War II reenactors fighting an annual, abbreviated Battle of the Bulge in Pennsylvania. "The Germans have won the toss, and they will be attacking".

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