World War Two is making a comeback. Look at the movies. Unbroken, The Imitation Game and Fury, all within this last year. Band of Brothers, Saving Private Ryan, The Pacific, not to mention the upcoming Mighty Eighth. Books, too. The Book Thief, Flags of Our Fathers, Flyboys, In Harm’s Way.
World War Two has long been considered a good war, a just war. Evil was defeated. It was black and white, easy to understand.
We enjoy World War Two because we need a good war with none of the ambiguities of Korea, Vietnam and the more recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. (I’ll leave out Reagan’s glorious little forays into Panama and Granada, since they hardly count. Ditto Kosovo and Somalia. Damn, we fight a lot of wars in this country).
We seem to need solid enemies like Tojo and Hitler, egregious evil acts like the Rape of Nanking and the Holocaust, not to mention the many smaller travesties such as the Malmedy massacre and the horrific treatment of POWs by the Japanese.
World War Two is easy to understand. They attacked us, a good country just minding its own business. Sneak attack on Pearl Harbor and our islands, not to mention our territories in the Philippines.
Wait. Our islands? Our territory in the Philippines? And how did we get a base in Hawaii, anyway?
Here’s the truth. There is no good war. World War Two was every bit as complicated and ambiguous as any other conflict. The Japanese killed around 300,000 civilians in Manchuria, but the US dropped thousands little pipes that shot napalm-filled bean bags on the residential areas of Tokyo, burning a hundred thousand people alive. The Nazis ruined Poland, but the Soviets were even worse to the natives.
Every side thought that they were doing the right thing. Hitler was reclaiming German dignity after the crushing humiliation of Versailles. Japan was just imitating the United States by taking resources it needed to be a modern world power.
History is a tangled mess, and the more you look into it the more tangled it becomes. War compounds this, because the emotional stress of combat distorts memory. The trauma of merely surviving can be more than many people can bear. How can you write about this?
Well, I’ll tell you.
My approach was to research the hell out it. I wanted readers of Hawser to walk away from the book knowing almost as much as any historian, with the added bonus of a veteran’s first-person experience. What was it like to fly combat missions day after day in a four-engine bomber twenty thousand feet above a hostile enemy? How would you feel in that situation? How would you act?
First things first. It needs to be accurate. Totally accurate. I needed to have all the facts at hand. Small stuff like whether the knobs on the Norden bombsight were above or below the viewfinder, what a Fairburn knife looks like, what it was like to run out of oxygen at altitude are all elements of the overall experience. So was eating horsemeat in a fancy London restaurant (albeit horsemeat with a French name), using food to bribe an English girl to have sex with you, watching a Bob Hope USO show, etc.
There are other stories that have factual backbones. All the London art museums were closed during the war, but the Imperial War Museum wasn’t (though it was bombed.) The facts of the war, the tiny stories, are fascinating. You can find them everywhere. You don’t need to use them, but you do need to know them. You need to be immersed. The language, the culture, all of it. I went so far as to see what movies were playing in London in August 1943, and even to watch them!
The tesserae of tiny facts don’t reflect the overall story of the war itself, the big story that historians are always after. You don’t need to write what the generals though about strategic bombing (though it’s important to know it.)
Sure, the 8th Air Force had 60% casualties in 1943, but that fact by itself is meaningless. It only comes to life when you are placed on a bomber flying one of these missions. You have numerous close calls (all accurately described with the correct planes and guns, etc) and when you land you see that six of your ten buddies don’t come home. You do what an average 21-year-old American would do. You go out to the nearby town and get drunk. When you get drunk, here’s an opportunity to show what life was like in Britain during the war.
There are still plenty of opportunities to invent things. I created a hardware store owner who supplies free bikes to the men at the base. I took a factual thing–OSS training–and adapted it into a story element. Intertwined with this were many actual occurrences, many of them more fantastic than anything I could have made up. One of these involved the Royal Air Force Air Transport Auxiliary. My only female character (sorry about that) is a pilot with the ATA, and her experiences supply a new and unexpected element to the novel.
I guess my point is that when writing about war (or any historical fiction), it’s important to keep the history as accurate as possible. Use the history to serve your story rather than the other way around.
If you do it right, the real events will lead you in places you never imagined. It also can help you build an audience. World War two enthusiasts are known for being extremely picky about details, and the more knowledgeable they are the more they are likely to appreciate your hard work.