Today, we wonder how to tell of history. The University
of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series
about the machines that make our civilization run, and
the people whose ingenuity created them.
The other day I saw the movie
Enemy at the Gates -- about the Battle of
Stalingrad. Stalingrad had been a real presence in my
childhood. I was eleven when the seemingly unstoppable
German Wehrmacht rolled over western Russia and then
struck off to the southeast and the oil fields north of
the Caucasus Mountains. It seemed only a matter of time
before we too fell to the Axis powers.
When Germany reached the city of Stalingrad, the world
watched for five months while the Soviet Union did the
impossible and stopped the juggernaut. The Battle of
Stalingrad was the worst single battle in human history.
The better part of two million people died there. Many of
those deaths occurred in doorway-to-doorway combat among
the ruined buildings of the city. The movie spins a yarn
about five characters -- three snipers, a boy who spied
on the Germans, and a Russian information officer.
After the movie, I read the book that'd given the movie
its title -- historian William Craig's masterful account
of the battle. The movie characters are all there, but
separately and briefly. The movie is fiction, solidly
founded on reality. It all occurred, but in different
conjunctions. And I'm left wondering how to tell history
-- how to tell of the most brutal event in human history.
The book follows many threads of personal narrative, both
Russian and German. The horrors of the event form into a
kaleidoscopic view -- one we should have in mind whenever
we speak of surgical strikes and quick victories. For
this was to have been Germany's surgical strike -- her
quick march to victory.
Perhaps the movie fails in that aspect of story-telling.
We begin in realism -- surrounded by senseless death,
brutality, and confusion. But as we focus on five people
and individual heroism, we're distracted from the utter
mindlessness of war on this scale.
After the book, after the movie, I found my own
indicator of the immensity of it all. A colleague of mine
was a toddler when the Germans came through his town of
Kletskaya, seventy miles northwest of Stalingrad. His
father joined the army and died of wounds afterward. His
mother took him into hiding. As a boy, he played with
friends on the now-quiet battlefield all around him.
"Everywhere in my childhood I saw abandoned iron," he
said. "We kids would reassemble field artillery. We dug up still-live ammunition. When we played soldier, we shot live rounds. We dismantled cartridges to sell the lead, brass and powder. Every year, two or three of my classmates were killed by old land mines."
It troubles me that destruction can occur on such a
scale. I keep hearing Mathew Arnold's lines from Dover
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
And I wonder, more than ever, what language might ever
serve to make us know what a terrible thing war becomes.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where
we're interested in the way inventive minds work.