Last week I told you about the incredible photo exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts of Houston. “War/Photography: Images of Armed Conflict and its Aftermath” was a jaw-dropper, featuring images that went well beyond the battlefield. Photographs of young soldiers in training, civilians on the homefront, war photographers, the sadness of separation, sweetness of homecoming: this show had it all. It also had something that I can’t say I “enjoyed,” exactly, but I still supported: the cost of war. The dead. The suffering. The mangled. No one in his or her right mind should ever celebrate war. Even the victors should pause and reflect on whether it was all worth it. Indeed, maybe the victors need to do it more than anyone.
One week later, I was a lucky man again when I was invited to speak at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, LA. The Museum was hosting its annual International Conference on World War II. This one was devoted to “Stemming the Nazi Tide: The End of the Beginning, 1942-1943,” part of the Museum’s 70th Anniversary Conference Series. Once again, it was an out-of-body experience. My colleagues on the podium were a who’s who of authors and scholars, including Gerhard Weinberg, Christopher Browning, Rick Atkinson, and the guru of Eastern Front studies, David Glantz. Heck, I don’t have to tell any of you how great these guys are. It was an honor even to be among them.
When I think back on it, however, it was the crowd who blew my mind. There were veterans galore, of course, men who had been there, who were proud of it, and who still liked getting together to talk about it. I knew they would be in attendance, and I loved them all. What I didn’t expect, however, were the hundreds and hundreds of people from all walks of life who still think that World War II matters. The students asking one earnest and perceptive question after another. That enthusiastic high school teacher from Arizona who is fighting the good fight in the educational trenches, reminding her students that world history didn’t suddenly begin in 1995. She told me about her World War II class, and suddenly I would have given anything to be back in high school. Individuals of all ages who could throw down on various details of the war, on tanks, aircraft, equipment, and doctrine. T-34s and KV-1s. Shermans and Tigers. Stumorviks and Stukas. It just didn’t stop.
After a few hours in that reception hall, in the midst of a loud, happy throng all talking at once, I actually got giddy. World War II is an intoxicating topic that has kept me interested for decades, and it is wonderful to have a moment that reminds me of something I tend to forget: I am not alone.
Oh, and have I mentioned the star of the show: the Museum itself? If you haven’t seen it yet, my advice is to stop what you’re doing, book a plane to NOLA immediately, and plan to stay for 3-4 days. The Museum was undergoing a renovation while I was there, and now it’s done. So be sure to look up when you enter the U.S. Freedom Pavilion. Your eyes aren’t deceiving you. That’s a B-17 hanging from the ceiling.
That’s what I’m talking about. A B-17, right there over your head. What an airplane.
What a museum!
More next week: yet another group keeping the flame alive.
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