5 Bullshit 'Facts' Everyone Believes About WWII
We all think we know a thing or two about World War II, probably because it's been immortalized in every medium from blockbuster films to fetish pornography. But as we've mentioned before, any popular historical subject tends to resemble a pit of truth at the center of an overripe bullshit fruit. We're talking basic preconceptions like ...
World War II Was the War of Technology
If the average World War II documentary is to be believed, the Americans single-handedly crushed the Nazis under the mechanized might of our planes, tanks, and automobiles. Then, just to put the icing on the annihilation cake, we loaded up one of said airplanes with our brand spanking new god-bomb and ended the war with the Japanese in one fell swoop (OK, technically two).
After all, this ain't the friggin' War of 1812 we're talking about! Everything "World War II" was mechanized, motorized, and weaponized.
Why It's Bullshit:
Despite the copious stock footage of B-17 and B-29 bombers employed by the History Channel, World War II was still largely about horsepower. Literal horsepower.
And the Howitzer was powered by trained fire mice.
The Soviet Army had at least 3.5 million horses in service and deployed tens of thousands of mounted cavalrymen. They would have relied even more heavily on horse-drawn transport had the U.S. not played the role of shady wartime used car dealer. Now, you might expect as much from an army that famously didn't have enough guns for all its soldiers, but they weren't the only ones who relied heavily on horses.
The German "war machine" was actually less gears and sheet metal, more flesh and bone. When World War II began, horses outnumbered vehicles in the Wehrmacht by a good 3 to 1, and that figure only got worse as the war progressed and vehicles crapped out. When we think of the German army, we think of panzer and tiger tanks, but even the famous panzer armies had 15,000 more horses than motors. And here you thought those fancy jackboots were just for style.
If there was such a thing as a "stately" blitzkrieg, you'd be looking at it.
Ironically, even as Nazi propagandists were inventing stories about Polish cavalrymen hopelessly charging German tanks, the German army was busy forming new cavalry units in an attempt to stop getting trampled by their horse-savvy enemies.
The United States had the only army that was mostly motorized, yet U.S. cavalry was responsible for one of the last mounted charges in history. And even though the U.S. was less reliant on horses, the Allied rolls contained thousands of veterinarians, veterinarians' assistants, and blacksmiths who kept animals and wagons on the road. While we firmly believe that Hawk Phoenix: Blitzkrieg Veterinarian and Flint McSteel: Wartime Blacksmith would have made excellent films, the animal-powered nature of the war got little airplay, thanks largely to Soviet and Axis propaganda efforts.
Armies really, really wanted that Humane Association label in their film credits.
The Nazis Came This Close to Developing an Atomic Bomb
As documented in such historical works as Captain America and The Official Wolfenstein Compendium of World War II, Nazi Germany was a technological juggernaut -- why, they were neck and neck with the U.S. in the race to develop the A-bomb. It was only blind luck (and the fact that Jesus likes apple pie more than bratwurst) that led to the good guys developing it first.
"Fuck it. At least we still have that Ark project going, right?"
Why It's Bullshit:
In what was quite possibly the only good thing anti-Semitism ever did for the world, the Third Reich ostracized the very scientists capable of developing the atomic bomb. In fact, the Reich was so disdainful of that type of work that they considered the whole field of study "Jewish physics." So-called "Jewish physicists" like Erwin "quantum mechanics" Schrodinger and Albert "motherfucking" Einstein booked it out of Germany, and their exit lit the fuse that sent the Nazis' atomic aspirations up in a disappointingly non-mushroom-shaped cloud.
"Albert E=FU squared."
While the remaining German scientists got the general gist of what it would take to make the bomb tick, the Nazi atomic bomb program was doomed from the get-go due to gross miscalculations in just how much uranium was needed to give the very face of Mother Earth a gigantic shiner. Add to that the fact that Germany had been largely expelled from the world's scientific community (nobody wants genocide-tainted fingers all up in their beakers), and they never stood so much as a snowball's chance of painting that shiny new doomsday device with stylized swastikas.
The Nazis Were an Efficient, Bureaucratic Machine
Pop culture has consistently depicted the Third Reich as a cruel, coldly calculating computer. Say what you will about the content of their lists, they were, at the least, impeccably organized. (And probably at least five items long, as all good list makers know is necessary.) It's almost impossible to picture Nazi Germany as anything other than a disturbingly efficient bureaucratic superpower.
So whenever someone insists on competence, feel free to call them a genocidal maniac.
Why It's Bullshit:
It's absolutely true that Germany's government was a well-oiled machine ... before the Nazis came along and threw a big ol' Aryan super-wrench into its gears.
Back when Hitler wasn't much more than a Mussolini fanboy, the German government was ticking along about as well as a post-war, pre-Depression era government could be expected to. They were keeping up with their reparation payments from World War I, their currency was stabilizing -- the I's were dotted, the T's were crossed, and everything was in order. But then the Third Reich came along, slapped all those nerd-papers into the air, and walked away laughing.
Josef Mengele was also a controversial proponent of titty twisting.
While it's true that the Nazis had a ton of paperwork, no one ever said that they were any good at it. The Nazi government was all about a political agenda and not so much about administration; from its very beginnings, it was a bureaucratic nightmare that completely destabilized itself through extreme politicization, intergovernmental conflicts, and other problems that didn't even exist in Germany until the Nazis came to power. Even the very poster child of unfeeling bureaucracy, the Gestapo, was an absolute mess. They were consistently and embarrassingly understaffed, and if it wasn't for the German public pulling Gestapo horror stories out of their asses, they'd have seen their influence crumble quicker than a certain young artist's career.
The "Greatest Generation" Was Better Than Later Generations
As Tom Brokaw will gladly tell you for the low, low price of $16.95, the Americans who fought in World War II were "the Greatest Generation." The men of that era were, quite simply, special. After all, a man doesn't grow up during the Great Depression and breaststroke across the Atlantic to crotch-punch the Nazi hordes into submission just to wind up some shiftless pot smoking hippie, like their ungrateful kids.
"They birthed the baby boomers because their balls burst with bountiful brawn."
Why It's Bullshit:
The Greatest Generation was just like you, had you been forced to serve in a monstrously destructive war. In other words, they were scared shitless and miserable.
Big emphasis on "forced," because no matter how many times we're told that the Greatest Generation went to war because it was "the right thing to do," it doesn't change the fact that two-thirds of the U.S. servicemen were drafted. But we're told that the Greatest Generation was different from those who've come since, and in a way that's true -- because two-thirds of the men who fought in Vietnam volunteered.
Only partly because 'Nam's such an awesome vacation destination.
World War II's draft dodging numbers dwarf both Vietnam's and World War I's. Desertion rates between World War II and Vietnam were pretty much neck and neck. And when they weren't dodging or deserting, the Greatest Generation was doing the third best thing: getting completely shitfaced. Soldiers in Vietnam took a lot of heat for drug abuse, but the Greatest Generation was dying of alcohol poisoning so fast that the U.S. Army started putting up warning billboards displaying the "Deaths from Poison Liquor to Date" (G.I.s weren't picky about their booze and often drank methanol -- aka antifreeze). Not to be outdone, creative sailors sometimes swilled the alcohol that fueled torpedoes. When the U.S. Navy caught on and started putting additives in the "torpedo juice" to make the soldiers sick if they drank it, the submariners one-upped them and learned the art of distillation via torpedo engine.
The lesson here is: Never underestimate the resourcefulness of a conscripted serviceman looking to drink away his misery. Drunk finds a way. Drunk ... finds a way.
It Was the "Good War"
Unlike today's wars, where we have only a vague idea of what our soldiers are fighting against (terrorism? Or wait, is it still drugs? Or ... Christmas?), World War II was pretty goddamn straightforward: We were fighting for what was right. Freedom versus fascism. Good versus evil. God almighty versus Hitler the were-devil himself (dibs on the graphic novel idea).
It's no wonder, then, that our military folk haven't seen anywhere near the level of support that was rained upon them during World War II.
Why It's Bullshit:
If people back then really thought World War II was such a good war, it would stand to reason that most American vets would've been met by parades and celebrations upon their return. To the contrary, wounded soldiers returned to find that folks on the homefront treated them like lepers. The truth is that Americans weren't sure what the hell to think about the war, and nearly half the country would've given you a blank stare if you'd asked them what it was all about.
Still, that didn't stop 13 percent of Americans from favoring the extermination of every last Japanese person from the planet. After Japan's surrender, nearly twice that number of Americans said they regretted that the war had ended before the Japanese could be more thoroughly nuked. If history was a Batman movie, this is the spot where Robin would intervene to remind Batman that revenge isn't justice.
But at least when the war ended, the sacrifice was worth it. After all, the Allies did roll up one of the most despicable, murderous dictators in history ... and slapped a bow on most of Europe for Joseph Stalin, one of the most despicable, murderous dictators in history.
If your "Righteous Cause" is represented by blood red, it might be time to rethink your map.
So why does this myth about World War II being a "good war" persist? Maybe because no one wants to watch a war movie about an army of terrified amateurs fighting for a homeland motivated more by hatred than nobility, only to eventually wind up chumming up alongside a brutal dictator. But wait! Stay tuned for the obligatory after-credits scene, it's a real doozy: millions of German civilians displaced, Berlin subjected to the largest mass rape in history, and the Allies ending things much as they'd begun -- with book burnings and censors to rid Germany of everything undemocratic.
"Good war" remains, to this day, an oxymoron.
Be sure to check out how the future will misremember us in 13 Misconceptions About Today from Future History Classes.
Related Reading: World War 2 was different from the movies in a number of ways, including the fabulous Dazzle camouflage that draped every battleship. Prefer your war with a dash of "gut-wrenching creepy"? Read about the Hyena of Auschwitz and other creepy, creepy tales. But wait, there's more! We'll tell you the tale of the magician who helped defeat Hitler.