Monday, July 19, 2010

Accuracy in the Trivialization of Human Experience

I will inaugurate this new web log with the same caveat I gave with my previous "blog" at this link

I've never been a fan of blogs; the concept initially seemed to me to indicate a frustrated writer who couldn't get published by conventional means because of a lack of something significant to say. That may still apply in some cases, though my view is softening. Given the ability of people with nothing significant to say to actually get published in book form in today's desktop world, the distinctions between online and virtual publishing mean much less. But I think now that blogs are losing their 'newness', and the truly insignificant are moving to Facebook, the blogs are starting to gain in importance once again. It still bothers me that I will probably need to edit this to add an insipid smiley face to indicate that the previous sentence was intended as a joke. Sort of. What isn't a joke are some of the high quality writings of other blog writers (I have encountered...)

...and continue to encounter. But it also doesn't hide the fact there are still some dreadful ones. The reader is left to judge how useful this will be, and if I am one of them. I still don't read all that many blogs. Actually, for the joke I made about Facebook in my original comments, I think perhaps I could easily have been far more serious about "podcasts" which are now running on average of about two hours for some of them. At least you can scan an average blog posting in about five minutes.

Revisiting Old Heroes

I know nothing of war beyond what I've read and gleaned from those I've talked to. But I can extrapolate enough to realize that those who knew the most are as often as not likely those who died in it. From what I've read, it wears you out and ultimately, if you're left to toil at it for too long, it consumes you. One way or another.

Manfred von Richtofen died as a result not so much of a bullet through the head but as a result of earlier brain damage. He was target fixated the day he died, exhibited classic symptoms of brain injury and simply pushed his luck beyond the breaking point. There is reason to believe now that Tiger ace Michael Wittman may have done the same thing. The arguments about which Allied soldiers can get the credit for exterminating them are a little beside the point; their suicidal final charges simply put them in position for others to pull the trigger. Not to take away from the bravery or dedication of the Allied troops who were in position at the moment of truth; Roy Brown was equally tired on that fateful day when he was in the air at the moment that Australian machine gunners, firing from the ground, fired the fatal shots that killed the legendary German pilot.

Richtofen's fame had not been gained in glorious man-to-man combat of the type later glorified by Joe Kubert and Russ Heath and Bob Kanigher in the thinly veiled tribute pages of DC Comics' Enemy Ace series. Where von Hammer kept tin cups on a pristine mantelpiece and spoke of honour and chivalry, von Richtofen in real life fought desperate battles in the sky, picking off stragglers on occasion, and was at best a medium rated marksman. It is also intimated in some sources that he never flew a complete loop in his aircraft, and that his flying was similarly not above average. And yet the legend persists of the crack shot, the expert flier, and the impeccable gentleman aviator.

In June of this year, I crouched in the loft of a barn in Cintheaux by a round piece of metal, purportedly one of the few pieces remaining from Wittman's tank. Humbling, if true, that the once mighty Tiger 007 was now reduced to a hayloft curiosity. It is human nature to be drawn to to the morbid and the absurd, and to seek to be entertained by it.

The intent isn't to open the "debate" on the legitimacy of conflict simulation; that ship sailed a long time ago. I think we can take it for granted that we will always look to conflict as a means of entertainment.

What is more interesting is the degree of accuracy and the types of messages we hope to learn from our modelling of these events. The familiar game-vs.-simulation question has been around for a long time. After our battlefield tour left Cintheaux, leaving behind the battlefield debris in the hayloft, meatier questions arose.

We visited the site at Poperinghe where British military executions took place; the cells are preserved as is the post where the firing squad did their work. It is believed now that some of the condemned men may have suffered from what we now know is post-traumatic stress disorder - a malady little understood at the time. The human condition has changed dramatically since British soldiers killed other British soldiers in this courtyard, as has the lens through which we interpret their world.

My Question To You

If we are going to trivialize the accomplishments of the veterans of these wars anyway, is it better to trivialize them in ways that are clearly meant as entertainment - Medal of Honor games where the depictions are so clearly not meant to be taken seriously, or do we continue to march into the Uncanny Valley and try to stamp our understanding of "what it was like" so imperfectly on the history of military history, and continue to distort the true picture (whatever that is) of important events? The further we get from those events, the less able we are to understand them in context. Geography shifts (I noted with interest that the sea-wall on Juno Beach has been all but consumed by sediment), mores and morals change, technology baffles past practice. It may be that the point of no return for accurate portrayals of many conflicts - recent or not - may have been reached. And the only ones who can tell us for sure aren't in a position to tell us.