Wednesday, August 9, 2017
August 9, 2017: AmericanStudying the Pacific: Model-making
[August 7th marks the 75th anniversary of the start of the World War II Battle of Guadalcanal, the first major Allied offensive against Japan. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy five aspects of the war’s Pacific Theater, starting with that 1942 battle.]
On a childhood building models, and what they can help us understand.
I’m not sure exactly when it started, but by the time I was in middle school I was seriously into model-building. I know that I constructed some trucks, a few planes, maybe the occasional car, but the vast majority of the models I built were of naval ships. I distinctly remember a box in our upstairs bathroom full of those completed steel-gray models—battleships, cruisers, destroyers, aircraft carriers, PT boats, troop carriers and amphibious landers, you name it and I had at least a few in my assembled fleet. The hobby hasn’t continued into my adult years (although I look forward to making some models with my boys, and especially my very careful and mechanically minded older son), but I’m sure that the skills it helped me hone—reading and following directions, precision, patience—have come with me into lots of other aspects of my life and identity.
Yet as I think back on those model ships, I have to admit that I don’t know that they communicated much at all about the complex realities of their uses, their histories, the battles and conflicts in which they participated. Obviously they weren’t necessarily designed to do so—or at least I’ve never encountered a plastic model that comes with any way to represent the effects of explosions, of aeriel bombardment or ship-to-ship combat, or the like—and there’s no reason why they would have to; there are plenty of other ways for interested young people to learn about war, after all. But you could make the case, and I think I might be inclined to agree, that in the absence of any such contexts and complications, military models can help convey ideals of war as a purely exciting and noble pursuit, something that every young person can imagine participating in heroically. For one of the most clear and compelling accounts of such youthful ideals and what they can produce, I can’t recommend strongly enough Ron Kovic’s memoir Born on the Fourth of July (1976).
I remember one model that was very different, though. That was a model of the beachhead at Tarawa (that’s not the one I had, but it’s not dissimilar), the Pacific Island which became the site of one of World War II’s most horrific and destructive battles. The model of course couldn’t convey every detail of the battle, but it did a couple of things that were distinct from the ships: it forced me to consider the experiences and lives (and deaths) of the individual soldiers I was putting down on the beachhead; and it inspired me to investigate the battle I was assembling, and so to learn about the U.S. casualties, the Japanese defenders who literally fought to the last man to hold the island, and so on. Doing so didn’t stop me from working on those other kinds of models, but it did make it much harder for me to entirely ignore or elide the contexts—or, more exactly, the defining realities—of the Pacific Theater, of World War II, and of war in general. That’s a perspective worth modeling, I’d say.
Next PacificStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other aspects of the Pacific Theater you’d highlight?