In my mind, the Battle of Britain is the most poignant icon of courage and heroism in history. It’s more epic than Lord of the Rings. It’s almost as if the events of the Battle of Britain came out of somebody’s imagination. I’m baffled that hardly any contemporary movies have been made depicting it.
Since the Norman conquest of 1066, England has never been invaded by a foreign army. This proud nation, which nurtured modern democracy for centuries as the aristocracy chipped away at monarchical power, which controlled the largest empire in human history, found itself, in the summer of 1940, on the verge of destruction at the hands of perhaps the cruelest power in history, Nazi Germany.
The only thing that stood in the path to Britain for the German army was a cadre of British airmen, teenagers and 20-year-olds, about 3,000 strong. Outnumbered and out-gunned, these young Englishmen and their allies beat back the German air force sent to pulverize Britain and prepare it for invasion. Like their ancestors 350 years ago who destroyed the Spanish Armada sent to conquer England, the pilots of the RAF Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain have carved their legacy into the minds of all who are attentive to the drama of history.
“The Few” by Alex Kershaw is an important book because it describes the American contribution to the Battle of Britain. America was officially neutral during the time of the Battle of Britain and trying desperately to stay out of the developing world war. Nevertheless, a few adventurous Americans broke neutrality laws, forfeited their American citizenship, and signed up to fly for the Royal Air Force in defense of Britain during the summer of 1940. There were only eight of them. Americans, who had revolted against King George III in the name of liberty, were now renouncing their American citizenship and swearing loyalty to King George VI, in the name of that same liberty.
The historical importance of the Battle of Britain was not lost on Winston Churchill. He captured the spirit of the glorious moment in his speeches during the summer of 1940. In June, in a speech before the House of Commons, he predicted the legacy the RAF pilots were about to write for themselves:
What General Weygand called the Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin . . . The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. . . Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will say, ‘This was their finest hour.’
I grew up in the video game generation. The public discussion about video games for the past decade, I have noticed, has been about whether violent video games encourage violent behavior in real life – parents worrying about children growing bloodthirsty. More recently, some research has attracted attention that suggests that video games may develop logical thinking and hand-eye coordination. Xbox may not be so different from chess and baseball after all. But to me and perhaps others in my generation, video games mean a bit more than that.
If I were to be brutally honest, I would have to admit that my interest in history has a bit (or a lot) to do with me playing the computer game Civilization II as a young boy. Sure, my grandpa read to me – to my great delight – when I was even younger from a children’s book about how man made fire by rubbing sticks and crafted the first primitive tools. But that did not capture my imagination as much as building an empire while playing as the ancient Egyptians in Civilization II or amassing an armada of ships that terrorized the high seas while commanding the Spanish. I piloted an aircraft in the game Aces Over Europe (like my granpda, who flew in real planes in World War II) and won glory for my country as a skilled warrior. I was a hero, like my forebearers. Or, I practiced to become one.
Games are more than about shooting people and destroying things. They are even more than about cognitive and reflexive development. For a child, especially in America where communities lack other rituals for developing self-identity, such games allow you to imitate the greatness of your ancestors. In Plato’s terms, by imitating great deeds (such as defending one’s country as a fighter pilot in World War II) a child may take part in the Forms of Courage, Duty, and Camaraderie. In such a way, he fosters a sense of belonging and duty to his community.
Playing computer games, seen from this perspective, is not much different than taking part in the Divine Liturgy in church. The Liturgy is a play similar to ancient Greek drama: the congregation, an adaptation of the Greek chorus, re-enacts the story of Christ every Sunday and takes part as participants on the stage. After all, is not theater just a type of game, where the actors and audience suspend their sense of disbelief at their imitation of reality just as gamers do? For the sake of something greater, every person is willing to suspend their sense of disbelief.
These are just some cursory and perhaps simplistic observations. I thought I may post this because I have been thinking that this pull towards imitating greatness – either through games or theater or rituals – remains with people (or at least has with me) even into adulthood. I read about the Battle of Britain and I still want to strap into a virtual cockpit. I watch an episode of The Pacific on HBO and I feel the urge to play Call of Duty: World at War. I feel the lack of adventure in my life, and I play The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes: The Case of the Serrated Scalpel. Or I read literature, for it too is an escape (or transcendence) of reality.
We all played games when we were children, but we also all persist in other forms of imitation as adults. Why? And to what end? Maybe if we can answer these questions, we could clear up a lot of others about the purpose in contemporary life of religion, art, and – not to forget – even video games.
I’m glad Avatar did not win the Academy Award for Best Picture this Sunday, and not just because it was over-hyped. The Hurt Locker was genuinely a much better film. I’ve seen many, many war films and The Hurt Locker was unlike any other. It portrayed a type of soldier that I did not know even existed, but, after seeing the movie, seems very real now. The Hurt Locker is about about a specialist in a U.S. Army Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) team whose personal reasons for fighting in the Iraq War have nothing to do with patriotism, financial need, or even supporting his fellow soldiers. SFC William James is in Iraq because he is addicted to the adrenaline high of high-intensity combat.
The Hurt Locker opens with a quote by a New York Times war correspondent that summarizes the theme of the movie: “The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug.” For this unique portrayal of war, I think The Hurt Locker deserved all of the Oscars it received.
On another note, I am excited to watch the upcoming HBO miniseries The Pacific. Like the film Saving Private Ryan (1998) and the miniseries Band of Brothers (2001), this is another collaboration by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks portraying American soldiers during World War II, this time in the campaign against Japan. I am most curious about from what angle Spielberg and Hanks will approach this series to make it different from the others. Spielberg is such a great artist and storyteller, in my opinion, that this won’t just be “another war film”.
Saving Private Ryan is a monumental film – it’s an icon of the horrific events of D-Day, June 6, 1944, in the imagination of a younger generation of Americans. Band of Brothers is also unique in that it follows a single unit of American paratroopers throughout their combat experiences during the entire war, but in a style similar to another HBO series, The Sopranos, where each episode focuses on a different character to create a portrait of the entire group. What will The Pacific be like? I’m eager to find out (the first episode premieres on Sunday, March 14 at 8p CST on HBO).
On a final note, Christoph Waltz, who won the Oscar for Best Actor in a Supporting Role this year for portraying a Nazi “Jew Hunter” in Inglorious Basterds, performed one of the best feats of acting I have ever seen. If you haven’t seen this movie, go see it if for nothing other than to watch Christoph Waltz portray Standartenführer Hans Landa, whom director Quentin Tarantino described as “one of the best characters I’ve ever written and ever will write”.
Today marks the first anniversary of HistoryJournal.org. Since I began this blog as a continuation of my former blog, Trojan Walls, I have written 38 posts on topics ranging from history in popular culture to the liturgy during Eastern Orthodox Holy Week. When I first began blogging (alas! what an ugly word) about history, I tended to write long and esoteric posts about academic topics. Well, come to think of it, not much has changed, but I think I have learned some things this past year about how to write better for the web.
Writing a history blog has been challenging for me because the academic approach that I am used to contrasts with the more informal style of blogging. How can one be pretentious and chummy at the same time? (Joke). Another difficulty has been understanding the “genre” of blog posts. If I read a history book and want to review it on this blog, should I write an Amazon.com-style review, an academic review, or something entirely different? Who would want to read any of this stuff anyway? These are some of the questions I have encountered (and am still try to resolve) while trying to blog about history.
I have been coming around to the conclusion that the cure for many of these problems is to just write more often. The more I write, the faster a rhythm and style will evolve for what I want to communicate (as long as I keep important questions in mind, like, “how can I make this interesting for the reader?”).
I have also tried to write in a more colloquial style and about history-related topics that are not necessarily “academically significant”. Lately, I have let my imagination have free reign (such as when I go to a bookstore and browse “on autopilot”) and have found that, if allowed to roam freely, it takes me on a journey. The historical imagination thrives on good stories told well. In fact, it seeks to construct its own story by following the threads of others. This journey is what first made me fall in love with history when I was very young. Why, even now, write about anything else?
The tagline for my blog this past year has been, “A blog about history, religion, politics and philosophy by a very amateur historian”. Today, a year later, I have changed it to, “A blog about the journey taken by the historical imagination of a very amateur historian”. I don’t know if I’m becoming any better of an historian, but at least – I hope – I’m following the right path.
Earlier today, I was in a Barnes & Noble store looking for an interesting book. On trips like these, I usually open dozens of books to read or skim the first paragraph, only to shelve them because the way the writer introduces the story doesn’t seize my long-term attention (visitors to my blog may experience a similar feeling reading these posts). I was surprised today when I found an intriguing book less than a minute after entering the store (in the bargain crates before the main entrance, in fact). It was Alex Kershaw’s The Few: The American “Knights of the Air” Who Risked Everything to Fight in the Battle of Britain.
I have browsed this book on previous visits to B&N, only to put it back on the shelf like many others. This (and other similar experiences) suggests to me that why a book catches a viewer’s attention has a lot to do with when it catches his attention: we see the world through different eyes depending on what state of mind we are in. Today, I was drawn to Kershaw’s story by the beautiful poem, written by a young American fighter pilot, Kershaw had reproduced as an introduction to his book (which reminded me of a famous poem by W.B. Yeats). Here is a copy it:
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds—and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of—wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air.
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or even eagle flew—
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand and touched the face of God.
—John Gillespie Magee, Jr.
Nineteen-year-old American pilot, killed December 11, 1941
You feel a bit silly when you find yourself – an adult man – sitting alone in an otherwise-empty Dairy Queen store, licking a soft-serve ice cream cone. This was the situation in which I found myself yesterday after I deposited a check at my bank and, pulling out of the parking lot, decided to park again and buy some ice cream. I usually don’t have cravings for ice cream during late winter, but this time I couldn’t resist.
I’ve been visiting this shopping plaza biweekly for the past four months, and yesterday (Friday) was the first time I’ve noticed that there was a Dairy Queen store next door to my bank. I usually ignore Dairy Queens for the same reason I ignore Baskin-Robbins and Dunkin’ Donuts: I hate their pink signs and bubbly graphic art trying to convince me everybody’s having a good time inside the store when it’s actually usually empty. It’s inauthentic and corporate and depressing.
Those were my thoughts about Dairy Queen until this Thursday, when I had come home from work and, in lieu of going to the gym, had decided to watch an episode of Modern Marvels about ice cream on the History Channel. I used to think Modern Marvels – a documentary series about modern technology – was an impostor on the History Channel, taking up valuable air time that could be better utilized by a show about the history of the samurai, the story of the Romanov dynasty, or even yet another special about World War II. But I’ve recently come to respect Modern Marvels for doing what good history does as well: make the present artificial world (what humans create apart from the natural world) more understandable.
In his classic book of popular philosophy, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig claims that the reason many people in the modern world feel alienated by the sight of technology (imagine the feeling you get driving past an electric power station) is because they don’t understand the “mind” behind the metallic beast. That is, if they only understood how technology worked, people would feel a lot less threatened by it. In fact, they would perhaps even begin to think of the electric power station as almost beautiful.
The Modern Marvels episode I watched on Thursday described the technology of making ice cream, as well as the history of the famous franchise Dairy Queen, the originators of soft-serve ice cream. I was surprised to see a photo of the grand opening of the first Dairy Queen in 1940 in Joliet, Illinois: throngs of families crowding the store on a hot summer day. The franchise spread, and Dairy Queens became almost emblematic of small-town American life in the 1950s and 1960s.
After watching about the technology and history of ice cream in America on Thursday, I felt it fitting and proper on Friday, when I noticed for the first time the Dairy Queen (now known as “DQ”) next to my bank , that I would stop by and take part in an American ritual. The store was empty, as I expected. A women’s college basketball game was playing on a flat-screen TV in the back of the store. The graphic design in the store looked like it was imported from a design agency in New York or California which no doubt held many meetings to come up with a way to convey the message, through bright signs printed on cheap and durable materials, of “zany”.
I ordered a cone with a stack of puffy soft-serve ice-cream layers that I remembered seeing on Modern Marvels. I sat at a booth and enjoyed my dessert while looking at the framed photographs hung on the wall: black-and-white, showing Dairy Queen shops of the past, the only monochrome design elements in the store. I thought to myself that I looked out of place here because a grown man should not be eating ice cream alone, especially in the evening during winter.
Before I finished my cone, a man had walked into the store, the only other customer aside from me. He had graying hair and was dressed in neat business-casual attire. He too ordered soft serve and sat at a booth by the main door. Another grown man buying an ice-cream cone by himself – perhaps I wasn’t so crazy after all. On my way out of the DQ, I passed by the man: he was eating his ice cream and typing on a Blackberry.
Walking by his Lexus SUV in the parking lot, I imagined that the man in the DQ had grown up in the 1960s in one of those small towns I had heard about on the History Channel. He would go to the Dairy Queen with his parents and siblings, and there would be neighbors and friends that he expected to see there. I imagined that now, in his 50s, that man sometimes drives by a DQ and childhood memories prompt him to stop, come inside, and partake of a dead ritual. I thought about this while I drove home.
My recent work as a web designer has made me more sensitive to art and design in my environment. I can walk into a zany Baskin-Robbins/Dunkin’ Donuts combo store without feeling sick with myself as I used to feel, because now I understand the design process that went into creating the persuasive graphical monstrosity that permeates such corporate places. But understanding something foreign and powerful doesn’t necessarily mean you want to be on board. Sometimes the bright-and-colorful relics of the present are more dead than the black-and-white memories of the past.
In the past, I’ve done several reviews on this blog of books that I had just finished reading. But it often happens that I start a book without finishing it or shelve it for a while only to come back to it later (when I read The Brothers Karamazov, I repeated this process several times over the course of a year until I finally finished it). Well, I thought such “shelved books” deserve a review sometimes as well.
I have developed a habit recently where I go to the library or a bookstore and rove around the aisles browsing books at random for hours on end. This is more disturbing for me to do at a bookstore than at a library, because I am afraid that the managers will suspect me of being a shoplifter or loafer. Despite this, it amuses me to observe what books I naturally gravitate towards while giving my imagination free reign. I was at my local library in such a mood a couple of weeks ago when I picked up Crowded with Genius: The Scottish Enlightenment – Edinburgh’s Moment of the Mind by James Buchan.
This book interested me because I had heard about it while doing research for my senior thesis. Like Athens in the 400-300s B.C., Edinburgh became an unlikely center of culture and learning during the 18th century, hosting such great thinkers as David Hume and Adam Smith. Buchan writes:
The town, which had sat little changed on its rock until then, inconvenient, dirty, old-fashioned, alcoholic, quarrelsome and poor, began to alter, first slowly, then in a convulsion. Lochs were drained, ravines spanned by bridges, streets and squares thrown out into the stony fields. Ale gave way to tea and port and whisky. People dined at one o’clock, then two, then three, and then four.
Men discovered there were ways of charming women this side of abduction. They ceased to bring their pistols to table, or to share the same cup. They read newspapers, became Freemasons, danced, burst into tears. [. . .] A new theory of progress, based on good laws, international commerce and the companionship of men and women, displaced the antique world of valour, loyalty, religion, and the dagger. ‘Edinburgh, the Sink of Abomination’ became ‘Edinburgh, the Athens of Great Britain’. (1-2)
The narrative begins strongly but later gets bogged down in the details of old Scottish politics (this book was first released in Scotland). If I were more patient, I would do the page-flipping and wikipedia-searching necessary to untangle the web of ideologies and political alliances that the book describes. But, I was drawn to this book at the library out of all of the others because of the adventurous storytelling, and when that waned, the book was shelved (it was also overdue). To a more patient mind, it holds a lot of promise (even past page 98, where I stopped). At the very least, it’s worth coming back to.