Did We Fight World War II Fair?

Roundup: Talking About History

David Pugliese, in the Ottawa Citizen (1-23-05):

For the last 60 years, most history books on the Second World War have concentrated on the battles, tactics and leaders of that global conflict. But now, some historians are turning their attention to the war's social impact and are examining such controversial topics as sex, alcohol, patriotism and crime, on the battlefield and at home.

The result is a worm's eye view of the lives of the Allied troops who defeated the Nazis. And while these new books help drive home the brutality and terrible conditions endured by those soldiers, some veterans question why historians would go down that road.

British author Max Hastings' new book, Armageddon, chronicles the last years of the war, highlighting bravery, cowardice and abuses on both sides. Antony Beevor's The Fall of Berlin, published in 2002, unveiled detailed information about the mass rapes committed by Russian troops against German women.

The newly released To the Victor the Spoils looks at the day-to-day lives of frontline British and Canadian soldiers. Author Sean Longden writes about how troops went months without washing and days without sleep, living in trenches along with rotting corpses and human waste.

But he also chronicles widespread looting by soldiers as well as the execution of prisoners. In addition, the book examines the sexual encounters troops had with women in the countries they liberated. One case Mr. Longden cites involved a French farmer, ecstatic over the defeat of the Nazis, offering a Canadian unit his two daughters for sexual relations. The unit used a lottery to determine which two soldiers would be selected to sleep with the women.

Saints, Sinners, and Soldiers, by University of Ottawa historian Jeffrey Keshen, goes into depth about the social effects of the war on Canadian troops and civilians. The book, released last year, contains details about the high rates of venereal disease among soldiers, black marketeering and the less than patriotic responses by some Canadians at home to the war effort.

Veterans argue that in a war of such magnitude and scope there are bound to be a few questionable or embarrassing incidents unearthed but people shouldn't forget Allied troops sacrificed much and ultimately defeated an evil Nazi regime. In addition, they argue that any lapses in discipline were few and far between and pale in comparison to the crimes of the Nazis.

But Mr. Keshen says books that examine social and military history of the times shouldn't be seen as slight to veterans or what they accomplished.

"It doesn't mean our cause wasn't right," he said. "It didn't mean that we didn't fight the good fight and that most of our troops were decent folk, but we have sort of engaged in this idea of the Canadian soldier as the antithesis of what the enemy was."

Mr. Keshen notes that information available during the war, as well as some memoirs of soldiers released shortly after the conflict, didn't gloss over problems. But over the decades such information has been forgotten. "It was like there was a collective amnesia," he said. "In a lot of records at the time and a lot of the memoirs, they were talking about Canadian troops as hardly being the paragons of virtue."...

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