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World War II

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Germans aren't so eager to go to war any longer. Here's the irony: The very same countries that after World War 2 set out to exorcise German militarism are now complaining about the country's unwillingness to fight wars. There are German soldiers ("troops") in various locations, though. German warships are fighting pirates off the coast of Somalia, and there are German soldiers in Afghanistan. (more)

To get crucial votes in the German parliament (the constitution requires parliamentary consent to all military actions on a regular basis - the German chancellor can't just start a war) politicians came up with all kinds of justifications. When German soldiers for the very first time since World War 2 participated in a war again - NATO's campaign against Serbia - the foreign minister invoked Auschwitz and the specter of death camps. To get a majority for Afghanistan the defense secretary said that civilization was being defended at the Hindu Kush (I am not making this up). Politics can be so similar to the art world: When you don't have any real argument, ludicrous hyperbole will do.

Politics aside, there are other repercussions of the post World War 2 exorcism. Germany has become a thoroughly demilitarized country. For example, it would be unthinkable for a German chancellor to use soldiers and/or tanks or other military equipment as a backdrop for a major speech. As a matter of fact, the visual culture around the German military is very different from the visual culture around the US military. Germans know their history very well, so everybody is careful to avoid creating something that looks like it was out of the past. This is part of the reason why Der Tod kommt später, vielleicht ("Death will come later, maybe") by Jörg Gläscher is such an interesting book.

Most of the photographs in the book were taken in Germany, some in actual deployment zones. For the most part, the landscape provides clues where the photographs were taken, but that's a bit besides the point. What I find really interesting here is the way German soldiers are portrayed going about their business. There is none of the heroism that makes so much of what I see usually coming from places like Afghanistan. Gläscher does not seem interested in portraying war (or war games) as something that might be heroic.

There is a portrait of a grubby looking soldier, who is resting against shot-up car, balancing something like a sniper rifle on his boot. It is a very matter-of-factly photograph. Even though the soldier appears to be somewhat in charge of things (he's aiming for a bit of a tough-guy look in his face) it is the rifle that seems to be bearing down on the man. Who really is in charge here? And what does that mean? What does this tell us about war?

Crucially, wouldn't getting a somewhat more critical and less overtly heroic depiction of US soldiers in the media open up all kinds of possibilities? Possibilities that would allow understanding both the nature of war and of what it does to people?

Der Tod kommt später, vielleicht is a book that demonstrates that photography can play a very interesting role investigating war. Editorial photographs of the military do not have to look like they are straight out of the military's PR material. Given we are now constantly at war (with some wars, such as the drone war in Yemen not even being openly declared any longer) we need to be talking about war and what it does to people.

For a while now, Germans were said to be the people who got out of their military obligations by providing money (for example, Germany did not participate in the first Gulf war). But is that so different from what we all are doing? The extent of our involvement in all the various wars is to pay our taxes and to call soldiers "heroes" (unless those very soldiers are brothers or sisters or sons or daughters). For a while, we used to stick ribbons to our cars. We don't seem to be doing that much any longer - what do you know, those ribbons are magnetic, so they come right off. How convenient! We shop, while they fight our wars.

Der Tod kommt später, vielleicht; photographs by Jörg Gläscher; essays by Holger Witzel, Ingo Schulze, Jochen Missfeldt, Kathrin Schmidt, Peter Bialobrzeski, Tanja Dückers, Wolfgang Prosinger; 136 pages; Kehrer; 2011 - unfortunately, there appears to be only a German-language edition of this book

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America’s troops too often come home from war only to remain a step apart from the rest of the nation. The chasm between the military and civilian populations has never been greater. It’s simple math: Less than one percent of Americans now serve in the military, compared with 12 percent during World War II. So after a decade of unrelenting war, with some soldiers and Marines serving four or more combat tours, many Americans still don’t know a single soldier, sailor or airman.

Veterans will tell you that one of the most jarring experiences of their service is the sudden immersion back into a society seemingly unaware that there are any wars going on at all. While they fought, their country went about its business. So they must find their own ways to acknowledge their experiences. A common ritual is the commemorative tattoo. Troops honor fallen buddies, venerate their units, reiterate war mottos, engrave themselves with religious prose, or dream up art that reflects experiences they might not talk about.

Since 1992, Capitol Tattoo has been inking the bodies of returning soldiers in a storefront shop on Georgia Avenue in Silver Spring, Md., just north of Walter Reed Army Medical Center, the massive Army hospital that is in the process of closing. “They are our family,” says owner Al Herman, of the soldiers who come in for artwork, or just to hang out.

On one day this summer, Herman opened his door to photographer Peter Hapak. The veteran clients rolled up their sleeves, stripped off their shirts, and revealed their scars, hoping that the resulting images would help bridge the chasm of understanding.

Mark Benjamin is an investigative reporter based in Washington, and a contributer to TIME, as well as TIME.com’s military intelligence blog Battleland. You can follow him on Twitter at MarkMBenjamin

MORE: Read Mark Benjamin’s magazine story, “The Art of War,” from this week’s issue of TIME [available to subscribers here]. 

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At the end of World War II, huge swaths of Europe and Asia had been reduced to ruins, borders were being redrawn, homecomings, expulsions, and burials were under way, and the massive efforts to rebuild had just begun. When the war began in the late 1930s, the world's population was approximately 2 billion. In less than a decade, the war between the nations of the Axis Powers and the Allies resulted in some 80 million deaths -- killing off about 4 percent of the whole world. Allied forces became occupiers, taking control of Germany, Japan, and much of the territory they had formerly ruled. Efforts were made to permanently dismantle their war-making abilities, as factories were destroyed and former leadership was removed or prosecuted. War Crimes trials took place in Europe and Asia, leading to many executions and prison sentences. Millions of Germans and Japanese were forcibly expelled from territory they formerly called home. Allied occupation and United Nations decisions led to many long-lasting problems in the future, including tensions that led to the creation of East and West Germany, divergent plans on the Korean Peninsula which led to the creation of North and South Korea -- and the Korean War in 1950, and the United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine which paved the way for Israel to declare its independence in 1948 and begin the continuing Arab-Israeli conflict. The growing tensions between Western powers and the Soviet Eastern Bloc developed into the Cold War, and development and proliferation of nuclear weapons raised the very real specter of an unimaginable World War III if common ground could not be found. World War II was the biggest story of the 20th Century, and its aftermath continues to affect the world profoundly more than 65 years later. (This entry is Part 20 of a weekly 20-part retrospective of World War II) [45 photos]

German Wehrmacht General Anton Dostler is tied to a stake before his execution by a firing squad in a stockade in Aversa, Italy, on December 1, 1945. The General, Commander of the 75th Army Corps, was sentenced to death by an United States Military Commission in Rome for having ordered the shooting of 15 unarmed American prisoners of war, in La Spezia, Italy, on March 26, 1944. (AP Photo)

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After Germany surrendered in May of 1945, Allied attention focused on Japan. The island-hopping strategy adopted by the U.S. Navy successfully brought long range B-29 bombers within range of Japan's Home Islands, and massive bombing attacks took place involving high explosives, incendiary bombs, and finally the two most powerful weapons ever used in war, the newly-invented atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After more than 80 days of fighting, Allied forces had captured the Japanese island of Okinawa by June, but at a horrible cost, with more than 150,000 casualties on both sides, and tens of thousands of civilians dead as well (many by their own hand). Okinawa was seen as a painful preview of a planned full invasion of Japan, and Allied generals predicted massive casualties if it took place. At the same time as the atomic bombings, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan, invading occupied Manchuria with a force of more than one million soldiers, quickly defeating Japan's Kwantung Army. Six days after the bombing of Nagasaki, and after much internal struggle, Japan surrendered on August 15, 1945. World War II was over. Next week, in the final entry in this series, we'll take a look at what came next in a new post-war era. (This entry is Part 19 of a weekly 20-part retrospective of World War II) [45 photos]

On Monday, August 6, 1945, a mushroom cloud billows into the sky about one hour after an atomic bomb was dropped by American B-29 bomber, the Enola Gay, detonating above Hiroshima, Japan. Nearly 80,000 people are believed to have been killed immediately, with possibly another 60,000 survivors dying of injuries and radiation exposure by 1950. (AP Photo/U.S. Army via Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum)

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After the successful Allied invasions of western France, Germany gathered reserve forces and launched a massive counter-offensive in the Ardennes, which collapsed by January. At the same time, Soviet forces were closing in from the east, invading Poland and East Prussia. By March, Western Allied forces were crossing the Rhine River, capturing hundreds of thousands of troops from Germany's Army Group B, and the Red Army had entered Austria, both fronts quickly approaching Berlin. Strategic bombing campaigns by Allied aircraft were pounding German territory, sometimes destroying entire cities in a night. In the first several months of 1945, Germany put up a fierce defense, but was rapidly losing territory, running out of supplies, and running low on options. In April, Allied forces pushed through the German defensive line in Italy, and East met West on the River Elbe on April 25, 1945, when Soviet and American troops met near Torgau, Germany. Then came the end of the Third Reich, as the Soviets took Berlin, Adolf Hitler committed suicide on April 30, and Germany surrendered unconditionally on all fronts by May 8 (May 7 on the Western Front). Hitler's planned "Thousand Year Reich" lasted only 12 incredibly destructive years. (This entry is Part 17 of a weekly 20-part retrospective of World War II) [45 photos]

"Raising a flag over the Reichstag" the famous photograph by Yevgeny Khaldei, taken on May 2, 1945. The photo shows Soviet soldiers raising the flag of the Soviet Union on top of the German Reichstag building following the Battle of Berlin. The moment was actually a re-enactment of an earlier flag-raising, and the photo was embroiled in controversy over the identities of the soldiers, the photographer, and some significant photo editing. More about this image from Wikipedia. (Yevgeny Khaldei/LOC)

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Starting with the Invasion of Sicily in July of 1943, and culminating in the June 6, 1944 D-Day Invasion of Normandy, Allied forces took the fight to the Axis powers in many locations across Western Europe. The push into Italy began in Sicily, but soon made it to the Italian mainland, with landings in the south. The Italian government (having recently ousted Prime Minister Benito Mussolini) quickly signed an armistice with the Allies -- but German forces dug in and set up massive defensive lines across Italy, prepared to halt any armed push to the north. After several major offensives, the Allies broke through and captured Rome on June 4, 1944. Two days later, the largest amphibious invasion in history took place, with nearly 200,000 Allied troops taking 7,000 ships and more than 3,000 aircraft toward the coast of Normandy, France on D-Day, June 6, 1944. Some 156,000 troops landed, 24,000 by air and the rest by sea, meeting stiff resistance from well-defended German positions across 50 miles of French coastline. After several days of intense warfare, Allied troops gained tenuous holds on several beaches, which they were able to grow with reinforcement and bombardment. By the end of June, Allies were in firm control of Normandy, and by August 25, Paris was liberated by the French Resistance, with help from the French Forces of the Interior and the U.S. 4th Infantry Division. In September, the Allies launched another major invasion, Operation Market Garden, the largest airborne operation of its time, where tens of thousands of troops descended on the Netherlands by parachute and glider. Though the landings were successful, troops on the ground were unable to take and hold their targets, including bridges across the Rhine River. Despite that setback, by late 1944, the Allies had successfully established a Western Front, and were preparing to advance on Germany. (This entry is Part 16 of a weekly 20-part retrospective of World War II) [45 photos]

While under attack of heavy machine gun fire from the German coastal defense forces, American soldiers wade ashore off the ramp of a U.S. Coast Guard landing craft, during the Allied landing operations at Normandy, France on D-Day, June 6, 1944. (AP Photo)

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From late 1942 until early 1945, Allied forces in the Pacific Theater took the war to the Japanese across vast ocean battlefields and on tiny island beaches. By the end of 1942, the Japanese Empire had expanded to its farthest extent, with soldiers occupying or attacking positions from India to Alaska and on islands across the South Pacific. The U.S. Navy, under Admiral Chester Nimitz, adopted a strategy of "island-hopping", rather than attacking Japan's Imperial Navy in force. The goal was to capture and control strategic islands along a path toward the Japanese home islands, bringing U.S. bombers within range, and preparing for a possible invasion. Japanese soldiers fought the island landings fiercely, killing many allied soldiers, sometimes attacking suicidally in desperate last-ditch attacks. At sea, Japanese submarine, bomber and kamikaze attacks took a heavy toll on the U.S. fleet, but they were unable to halt the island-by-island advance. By early 1945, leapfrogging U.S. forces had advanced as far as Iwo Jima and Okinawa, within 340 miles of mainland Japan, at a great cost to both sides. On Okinawa alone, during 82 days of fighting, approximately 100,000 Japanese troops and 12,510 Americans were killed, and somewhere between 42,000 and 150,000 Okinawan civilians died as well. At this point, U.S. forces were nearing their position for the next stage of their offensive against the Empire of Japan. (This entry is Part 15 of a weekly 20-part retrospective of World War II) [45 photos]

Four Japanese transports, hit by both U.S. surface vessels and aircraft, beached and burning at Tassafaronga, west of positions on Guadalcanal, on November 16, 1942. They were part of the huge force of auxiliary and combat vessels the enemy attempted to bring down from the north on November 13th and 14th. Only these four reached Guadalcanal. They were completely destroyed by aircraft, artillery and surface vessel guns. (AP Photo)

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Six months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japan prepared to deal one more decisive blow to the U.S. Naval forces in the Pacific. The aim was to destroy U.S. aircraft carriers and occupy the strategically important Midway Atoll, a tiny island nearly halfway between Asia and North America that was home to a U.S. Naval air station. American codebreakers deciphered the Japanese plans, allowing the U.S. Navy to plan an ambush. On June 3, 1942, the Battle of Midway commenced. Aircraft from carriers of both navies and from Midway Atoll flew hundreds of miles, dropping torpedoes and bombs and fighting each other in the skies. The battle ended with a decisive victory for the U.S. Navy, and was later regarded as the most important battle of the Pacific Campaign. After several days of fighting, the Japanese Navy had lost four aircraft carriers and nearly 250 aircraft, and suffered more than 3,000 deaths. In contrast, U.S. losses amounted to a single carrier and 307 deaths. At the same time as this battle was taking place, a Japanese aircraft carrier strike force thousands of miles to the north was attacking the Aleutian Islands of Alaska, bombing Dutch Harbor and invading the tiny islands of Attu and Kiska. It was the first time American soil had been occupied by an enemy since the War of 1812. The Japanese dug in and held the islands until mid-1943 when a massive American and Canadian force recaptured the islands in brutal invasions. (This entry is Part 11 of a weekly 20-part retrospective of World War II) [45 photos]

An SBD-3 dive bomber of Bombing Squadron Six, on the deck of USS Yorktown. The aircraft was flown by Ensign G.H. Goldsmith and ARM3c J. W. Patterson, Jr., during the June 4, 1942 strike against the Japanese carrier Akagi. Note the battle damage on the tail. (U.S. Navy)

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In early 1942, as the Axis powers pursued their war aims, Allied forces were still reeling but working on a wider strategy. Japan swept through the southern Pacific, conquering Burma, Malaya, the Dutch East Indies, Singapore, and the Philippines. Germany regrouped on the Eastern Front, holding off several Soviet attacks and preparing for a summer offensive. But during this time, American bombers successfully struck Japanese targets in a daring, morale-boosting raid led by Lt. Col. James Doolittle, and British forces destroyed an important dock facility in German-occupied St. Nazaire, France. Most of Doolittle's raiders landed in China, receiving assistance from villagers. Those locals paid dearly when Japanese reprisals killed an estimated 250,000 Chinese. The fall of the Philippines left the invading Japanese with tens of thousands more U.S. and Filipino prisoners than they'd anticipated. This led to a brutal forced relocation now known as the Bataan Death March, where thousands of weak, starving men were beaten and killed en route to a Japanese prison camp. (This entry is Part 9 of a weekly 20-part retrospective of World War II) [45 photos]

A U.S. Army Air Force B-25B Mitchell medium bomber, one of sixteen involved in the mission, takes off from the flight deck of the USS Hornet for an air raid on the Japanese Home Islands, on April 18, 1942. The attack, later known as the Doolittle Raid, inflicted limited damage, but gave a huge boost to American morale after the attacks on Pearl Harbor months earlier. (AP Photo)

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On June 22, 1941, Nazi Germany and its Axis allies began a massive invasion of the Soviet Union named Operation Barbarossa -- some 4.5 million troops launched a surprise attack deployed from German-controlled Poland, Finland, and Romania. Hitler had his eyes on Soviet resources even after Germany and the USSR signed a non-aggression pact in 1939. Both sides had long been suspicious of one another and the agreement merely gave them more time to prepare for a probable war. The Soviets were unprepared for the sudden blitzkreig attacks across a border that spanned nearly 2,900 km (1,800 mi), and suffered horrible losses. Within a single week, German forces advanced 200 miles into Soviet territory, destroyed nearly 4,000 aircraft, and killed, captured, or wounded some 600,000 Red Army troops. By December of 1941, Germany had advanced to within sight of Moscow, and laid siege to the city, but the notorious Russian winter set in (nicknamed "General Winter"), and German advances came to a halt. At the end of this, one of the largest, deadliest military operations in history, Germany had suffered some 775,000 casualties, more than 800,000 Soviets had been killed, and an additional 6 million Soviet soldiers were wounded or captured. The operation was also a failure for Germany -- despite massive advances, Hitler's plan to conquer the Soviet Union before winter had failed, at great cost, which would prove to be a turning point in the war. (This entry is Part 6 of a weekly 20-part retrospective of World War II) [45 photos]

A German infantryman walks toward the body of a killed Soviet soldier and a burning BT-7 light tank in the southern Soviet Union in in 1941, during the early days of Operation Barbarossa. (Deutsches Bundesarchiv/German Federal Archive)

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