Wednesday, January 28, 2015

"When Books Went to War" by Molly Guptill Manning (2014)

Anyone who has known you for very long knows that you love two things very much. You love books and you love World War II (and also you love your wife and your kids and dogs and Jesus and freedom and steak and America and musicals. Amen). So you were predictably extremely excited when you opened this book as a Christmas gift last month. It's not just a book about World War II, it's a book... about books in World War II! You hadn't even heard of it before. Liz found out about it and knew it would be a perfect Christmas gift for you. Your wife is the best. Always be nice to her.

One of the most insidious emblematic images of the evils of the Nazi faith (besides the horror of concentration camps) is the footage of burning piles of books. Throughout their rise to power in the 1930's the Nazi party and millions of Germans caught in their spell reveled in destroying any literature that did not fit the  ideals of pure Germanic thought. It's is shocking to students of history that these images came from Germany of all places, a nation that had long been synonymous with intellectual excellence and bastion of philosophical thought. The birthplace of the printing press had tragically become a funeral pyre for millions of books. It was censorship writ large. It is estimated that the Nazis destroyed over 100,000,000 books, and they did it with the blessing of universities that had formerly been some of the most impressive in Europe. They did it with cameras rolling and the world watching and they used children as props for their assault on free thought. Lines of students gathered in library courtyards and college squares to toss books into the waiting flames. Librarians and bibliophiles throughout the still free world referred to it as a bibliocaust.

As each succeeding European nation fell under Nazi occupation, Hitler's thugs would move in and burn historical archives, museums, and libraries. It is estimated that the Germans destroyed half of all the books in Poland and Czechoslovakia. No conquered nation would be allowed to retain their individual intellectual character. Hitler and the Nazis made war not just to claim territory or to defeat ancient enemies or to secure resources, they fought to destroy ideas, to crush democracy, and to stifle any spark of free thought. People and governments were no longer the enemy, ideas were, and books have long been the way human beings pass on knowledge and wisdom and ideas to one another. It was rapidly becoming clear that this would be a war of ideas.

After the United States entered the war, her citizens wore as a badge of honor their rights to free speech and a free press. They held high their dedication to free thought as a beacon of hope to the world, a contrast to the tyranny of Germany and Japan. Librarians throughout the US felt duty bound to protect books and to make it their mission to pass on knowledge. They formed a national book drive to gather millions of donated books to send to American soldiers. Soon they sparked a movement that made millions of people almost evangelical in preaching the power of the written word. As noble as the donation drive was, however, it was not enough.

In February of '42 (only three months after Pearl Harbor) influential publishers began meeting together in Manhattan to discuss how to use books to fight this new war of ideas. They formed the Council on Books in Wartime (seriously, that was a thing). Together with representatives from several publishing houses, they eventually numbered more than seventy members. The council began by simply suggesting books to the public, books that were considered imperative for reading to understand the war. These "imperatives" soon flew off the book shelves of American stores and helped a generation understand both the larger foreign policy aspects of the greatest conflict in human history as well as the small scale human sacrifices required of individual soldiers on the battlefields.

Simply suggesting good books, however, would not go far enough to contrast American ideals with Nazi censorship. The council decided that, in a war of ideas, books needed to be placed in the hands of the millions of Americans fighting that war across the globe. The council worked in conjunction with every major publishing company as well as the US War Department to begin printing books to be shipped out as part of a new monthly book ration for American soldiers. These new books were called "Armed Services Editions" (ASEs) and they were designed specifically with soldiers, sailors, and airmen in mind. Exact measurements were taken of the pocket dimensions of American military uniforms from all branches. The ASEs were created to easily fit inside any serviceman's pocket.

Even with severe paper rationing in place, the United States considered books to be as essential to winning the war as rubber or lead and the government provided tons of paper for the production of ASEs. The books were made with soft backs to save on weight and make them more portable. Soon every soldier was able to have at least one book on them at all times. The ASEs were compact enough to even be carried by men on the front lines. The pocket sized paperback book was born. Suddenly, the lonely boring foxholes pock-marking Africa and Europe and dozens of nameless islands throughout the South Pacific were filled with Americans snatching a few moments to escape the horrors and privations of war by cracking open a good book. The design of the ASEs was specifically tweaked to make them easily readable in low light and relatively durable even in harsh conditions. The council chose to bind the ASEs with staples, for example, since the traditional binding glue dissolved in the soupy atmosphere found in the tropical jungles where many American soldiers, sailors, and Marines found themselves stationed.

Almost any book was considered printable, and the members of the council would refuse to edit questionable passages from certain books. Rather than censoring content, the council would simply choose to not publish a title if it was found to be offensive. They took care not to offend any of the men who were risking their lives for their fellow citizens. If a Zane Grey novel painted Mormons in a bad light, the council simply picked another of Grey's books to publish. After all, there were plenty of Mormon soldiers fighting in America's Armed Forces. But the council's sensitivity ended with avoiding alienating certain demographics. The council even went so far as to publish some titles that had been banned in some of America's states and cities. Being a people who did not fear free thought, they had no interest in limiting the options for American soldiers. Their choices ran a wide range of genres and reflected the values of a society that was not afraid to allow its citizens to decide for themselves what to think, a society unafraid of information. A society that revered books.

The men devoured the ASEs when they were delivered. They were as good as a letter from home. The expectation was that as soon as a man finished his selection, he would pass it on. Books were swapped out and re-read over and over, especially the ones with good sex scenes. There is an old combat adage that war is characterized by long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror. In those long spans of tedious boredom, Americans could count on ASEs to kill time and occupy their minds. One reporter told a member of the Council on Books in Wartime that every member of the council deserved the Distinguished Service Cross for their success in boosting morale and alleviating that constant boredom of the modern battlefield.

The council printed dozens of titles every month, some 1,200 titles by the end of the program. Some months, as many as 150,000 copies of each title were printed. Novels were favorites of the men in the field, but non-fiction titles were often just as coveted. The selections ran a wide swath of genres. The council published textbooks, dictionaries, poetry collections, biographies, and memoirs. Authors from Mark Twain and Ernie Pyle and Ernest Hemingway to Walt Whitman and Shakespeare and Plato were printed and shipped out into the hands of soldiers... soldiers who were children of the Great Depression, many of whom had never given much credit to the benefits of "book learnin." Eschewing any stereotypical egg-headed snobbery, the council showed great respect for the American soldier and expected him to possess a healthy intellectual curiosity. They were not disappointed. Soldiers would pass around their books as soon as they were done reading. Certain titles became highly sought after. "A Tree Grows In Brooklyn" was a particular favorite. "The Great Gatsby" was rescued from obscurity by being included in the list of ASEs published during the war. Before that, it was considered a flop.

From Alaska to Australia, from Egypt to France, from England to India and every tiny nameless island dotting the Pacific ocean, Americans could be found hunched over reading ASE's. The ubiquitous ASEs were given priority on the supply chain, even within a few days of amphibious invasions on some of the most remote islands on Earth. Within four days of the invasion of Saipan (a particularly brutal battle) the American invaders had built a library on the beachhead. Hospitals stocked ASEs right alongside bandages and antiseptics. Soldiers wrote to their favorite authors and often struck up friendly correspondences. Many wounded or psychologically traumatized men credited ASEs with helping them to recover more completely, to become again the men they had been before the war had broken them. It was charming for you to learn that "reading rations" were considered as essential to the American war effort as vodka was to the Russian Red Army. How is this a detail of the war that you hadn't known until now?

History has taught us that when societies begin burning books, even worse things are soon to follow. In their rise to power, the Nazis had destroyed an estimated 100,000,000 books. When the Americans came to the shores of Europe to free the continent from German occupation they brought with them, packed in crates, bundled in ration packages, and stuffed into pockets, over 120,000,000 books. Some of those books were written by the very authors the Nazis had banned. There can't be a much clearer contrast between the two sides' ideologies. The distinction between good and evil is rarely so stark.

After the war, millions of American veterans took advantage of the G.I. Bill to go to college. The ASE program had perfectly prepared many of them to enter the world of academia. After all, they had already read the likes of Plato, Walter Lippmann, and Wordsworth while under fire on battlefields. For men with experiences like that, the Ivy League would be a cakewalk. In fact, students who were not veterans often complained that all of the veterans in their classes kept blowing the curves. Those veterans went on to graduate and create the most vibrant and influential economy the world has ever known.

One historian has speculated that the American armies of World War II were the most well read in history. The generation of Americans that fought the Second World War is often referred to as the Greatest Generation. It is entirely possible that they deserve that title because they were armed, not just with rifles and grenades and fighter planes, but because they were armed with books.

On to the next book!

P.S. At the end of "When Books Went to War" Manning lists all of the books that were printed as ASEs. It's been a long time since anything besides your own family has made you smile and swell with pride like reading that list did.

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