I’ve said it many times: I’m a lucky guy. Beautiful wife. Wonderful family. I get to live in Texas. (No offense to the other states. I’ve lived in a few and they’re not bad at all.)
Another way I’m lucky is that I get invited to speak a lot. I fly around the country on someone else’s dime and per diem and I see incredible sights. I meet great people, all because people think I know something about World War II. Shhhh…. Don’t tell anyone, or they’ll all want in.
In the last few weeks, I’ve been invited to three places that have reinforced the notion that military history, and especially the study of World War II, have never been more popular. We historians sit around a lot and mope about the modern age, which seems determined to forget the history of the past century. You can’t blame them. War is so unpleasant, and the industrial-strength wars of the 20th century have been the most unpleasant of all. Even so, the entire purpose of history is to encourage memory, and it sometimes demoralizes even the most ardent history professor when you utter the words "Battle of the Bulge" in class and a lot of students stare at you blankly.
That is why my past few weeks have been so energizing. At the end of November, I spoke at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. On Veterans Day, the museum opened an incredible new exhibition titled "War/Photography: Images of Armed Conflict and its Aftermath." When I saw it, my jaw dropped. Think about every famous war photograph you’ve ever seen, not just from World War II but from the Crimean War to the present. Then imagine being in a room with every single one of them. I’m pretty hard-headed about this stuff—I’ve been teaching military history for years. Even so, my mind reeled.
I don’t want to belabor the exhibit with too many words. A picture is worth 1000 words, as they say. But let me share a few of the images, and urge you all to get out and see this before it closes on February 3rd.
Just for starters, let’s think about why the United States won World War II. How about this 1942 photo of the Douglas Aircraft Co. Plant, Long Beach, California?
Or, let’s say you aren’t satisfied with U.S. material abundance as the source of wartime victory. You want heroes? How about Lieutenant Brink Bass, a U.S. Navy pilot in the South Pacific? Here he is as an ordinary guy getting his service haircut.
And here he is a bit later, transformed by the camera. Lieutenant Bass: war god.
Or perhaps you’re a hard-headed type, someone who doesn’t go in for heroic poses or photographs. Here is the harsh reality of war, a photograph of the aftermath of the fighting at Buna on New Guinea.
Like I said, it is an amazing exhibit, and I learned more in a couple of hours than I thought possible.
More next week: another group keeping alive the memory of World War II.