I recently watched several episodes of the National Geographic documentary series Last War Heroes. The programmes covered the decisive period of World War II from the D-Day invasion of Normandy to the arrival of Allied forces in Berlin, the black heart of the Third Reich.The title might give the impression that the series glorified war, but no. It was unflinchingly honest in its depiction of what war was really like.
In addition to the terror and tension of combat, soldiers had to endure bitter cold, hunger and even boredom. We tend to think of the Allied advance into Germany in 1944 as a triumphant, unstoppable roll, almost a jaunt, but it was nothing of the sort.German resistance was fierce and GIs, soldiers in the best-equipped and technologically most advanced army in history, sometimes lacked adequate food, ammunition and clothing.
Then there were the unspeakable sights that nothing could have prepared these men for, such as the heaps of pitifully emaciated bodies in the concentration camps they liberated. One piece of stomach-churning footage showed a bulldozer pushing a jumble of naked corpses into a mass grave – proof that, at its worst, war is about the shredding of the last vestige of human dignity.The series followed a familiar format: interviews with former soldiers and airmen, interspersed with film footage from the war. But it was the interviews that made far the greater impression.
There was a quiet dignity about these men – Americans, Canadians and British – as they recalled their wartime experiences. There were no big egos, no wallowing in glory. If anything, the tone of the interviews was one of sorrow and melancholy.These were ordinary men who had experienced unimaginably awful things and been left deeply affected. The contrast with the crass heroics of Hollywood war movies couldn’t have been more marked.
I have noticed the same quality in documentaries featuring New Zealand veterans, including those of the Maori Battalion; softly-spoken men whose quiet humility gave no clue to their formidable reputation as soldiers. To see these noble old men shedding unashamed tears over the graves of former comrades in faraway countries is profoundly moving.With every year, fewer of these veterans survive. It can’t be long before the last one goes. But throughout New Zealand, thousands will turn out on Anzac Day to solemnly honour them.
This is an extraordinary turnaround after the 1960s and 70s, when people of my generation – the Vietnam War protest generation – were inclined to view the Returned Services’ Association and all its members as crusty, reactionary old warmongers.Anti-war sentiment was so strong then that soldiers who served in Vietnam almost had to skulk back into the country in secret for fear of ostracism and abuse.
Shamefully, they got very little support from the government that had sent them to fight. It wasn’t until decades later that those Vietnam veterans felt confident enough to march in the streets and reclaim their history.Now, even people who were active in the anti-Vietnam protest movement are likely to turn up at Anzac Day commemorations with their grandkids. We’ve mellowed with age and become a bit less judgmental in our understanding of the past.
What we can probably never fully understand is what impelled men to enlist for military service in the two world wars, knowing their lives might be placed at risk. It’s harder still to grasp what inspired ordinary New Zealanders – bank tellers, farmers, labourers, clerks – to behave with extraordinary bravery on the battlefield, as many thousands did; to face enemy fire knowing their next breath could be their last.I have never entirely bought the idea that they went to war to preserve freedom and democracy. That seems a convenient modern spin to put on it.
I suspect that to many soldiers, especially in World War I, freedom and democracy were probably abstract concepts. More likely they were fighting for king and country out of a simple sense of patriotic duty.Very few in World War I were likely to have understood the complex dynamics and power plays that precipitated the war. But what soldiers in both world wars would have comprehended was that the British Empire, of which they were part, was under threat.
No doubt a desire for adventure and travel, opportunities not widely available in the first half of the 20th century, would have been an additional incentive to enlist. But their sense of duty and loyalty, values which sound quaintly anachronistic now, would have been the crucial motivator.That leaves the other question that probably only men who served can answer. What gave them the courage, resilience and determination not only to endure the trauma of the battlefield, but to face death with apparent equanimity when every instinct must have screamed at them to cower in a foxhole or turn and run?
An American veteran in Last War Heroes may have supplied the answer. “The greatest fear for me,” he said, “was to let my friends down.”In other words, they drew strength and courage from each other. It’s something known as esprit de corps, and probably the only men who really know what it means are those who depended on each other for their lives.