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The American Infantry in Northwestern Europe 1944-45
A Non-review by J. Stefan-Cole

"The actual fact is that not one man in twenty in the government…realizes what a grisly, tough dirty business we are in." That could be a field commander or nervous GI in downtown Baghdad, but it was General Dwight Eisenhower in 1942 sending "official" Washington a wake up call as to just what sort of hell the war in Europe really was. His words are mild compared to the horror brought out in Paul Fussell's tight, on the ground account of what it was like for an army of mostly kids barely out of high school to be suddenly thrust into war; THE BOYS CRUSADE; The Modern Library, 2003.

This slender volume starts with the journey over to England by sea where lousy food and seasick vomiting gave GI Joe a hint of things to come. Nearly two years in England offered more training, the taste of warm British beer and willing British women as thousands of soldiers waited to cross the channel into Normandy.

War is about killing, "skillful, justified murder," as Fussell writes. World War II has been called the last good war and by the time it was over, and the full extent of the Nazi madness clear, no one doubted it had been unavoidable. Few had a problem either with the word evil as applied to the Third Reich; the word was neither an exaggeration nor used as a political ploy. The boys-turned- soldiers saw for themselves at Dachau, Auschwitz-Birkenau and the other slave and death camps how cruelly low humanity could sink. And this was dangerously true of Ike who was so sickened by what he saw that he actually used words like extermination and liquidation in reference to SS officers found alive. Fuessll tells us the Nuremburg trials, fortunately, set things right, or tried, because Eisenhower was not kidding and he seemed unaware of the irony of his choice words when applied to the people who dreamed up the final solution.

Other Book Reviews:

The Boy's Crusade
- Paul Fussell

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
- Mark Haddon

A Company of Three
- Varley O'Connor
Come Closer
- Sara Gran

Morningside Heights
- Cheryl Mendelson

- Michel Houellebecq
The Usual Rules
- Joyce Maynard

Bangkok 8
- John Burdett

A Whistling Woman
- A. S. Byatt

Being America
- Jebediah Purdy

Fresh Milk
- Fiona Gile

The Man with the Dancing Eyes
- Sophie Dahl

The Stone Virgins
- Yvonne Vera

The Murdering
of My Years

- Mickey Z

Vanishing Splendor
- Alain Vircondelet

Skirt and Fiddle
- Tristan Egolf

- Arthur Bradford

Nowhere Man
- Aleksandar Hemon

The Book of Illusions
- Paul Auster

Lightning Field
- Dana Spiotta

It's a Free Country
- Danny Goldberg

Some of the Parts
- T Cooper

- Jonathon Dee

The White
- Deborah Larsen
Into the Buzzsaw
- Kristina Borjesson

- Ian McEwan

The Black Veil
- Rick Moody

Tempting Faith DiNapoli
- Lisa Gabriele

- Lynn Breedlove

Africa Speaks
- Mark Goldblatt

The Shape of a Pocket
- John Berger

Media Unlimited
- Todd Gitlin

Carter Beats the Devil
- Glen David Gold

Eisenhower was not a combat general when he assumed Supreme Command over allied forces in Europe. That changed fast, yet he did not become a bellicose, "catch 'em and smoke 'em" recklessly cocky leader. His dark sentiments on Nazi's came only at the end, and those war criminals were tried in the open with transparency and world inclusion. At that moment in history there was little stomach left for intemperate leadership while the lessons of WW II were still so fresh. The shocker is that the Korean War began less than ten years later. It takes an aggressor to start a war, and there never seems to be a shortage of those for very long.

Fussell takes a close-up look via documentation, memoir and statistics of what went on in the foxholes and bunkers. An infantryman, more than any other combatant, takes war in the face, his gut in near perpetual harm's way. Assistance, when possible, comes by air power and long range artillery, but once the infantry is on the ground some form of hand held weapon is the only cover a fighter has against maiming or violent death, a bayonet being the weapon of last resort. Infantrymen usually walk to battle, tired, maybe cold and probably hungry. "…Much of the fighting took place without heavy equipment at all, the infantry performing its role with rifles, hand grenades, machine guns, and mortars and using tactics unchanged since the First World War and even the Civil War. "Marching fire," General Patton's favorite mode of infantry attack (firing at the enemy from the hip while walking towards him), combined simultaneous fire and movement in a way useful since the Indian pacifications..." (Indian pacifications!) So, for example, after the aerial "shock and awe" over Baghdad, the GI's were left on the ground to be picked off guerrilla style if their luck ran out.

It was clear after the Normandy landing that replacements were badly needed. The slaughter had been huge, the number of soldiers needed underestimated. 19,000 died in the battle of the Bulge alone. From the June 1944 landing to Germany's surrender in Munich, May, 1945, 135,000 American soldiers were dead, 586,628 wounded. Eleven months, one theater. What does that add up to in deaths per day? They tried to change the name to reinforcements but a green draftee knew he was replacing a soldier no longer in the field because he was either wounded or dead. Often the replacement hadn't had sufficient training before being sent out, and it is a sad fact that the inexperienced would be sent forward first, ahead of the more seasoned soldiers of a squad or platoon. Those in command finally caught on that patriotism means very little to guys fighting for thier lives on foreign soil. Camaraderie, standing among one's fellows, the guys a soldier trained with, shipped over and fought alongside meant more than pep talks and flag waving. They stuck together, aided each other and availed themselves of courage in the face of ceaseless fear. A replacement was often killed before the others learned his name, they just called him soldier. The situation was worse with replacement officers. Officers are natural objects of scorn, like a parent a GI has to trust when ordered how to take a hill or beach. The guys could tell right away if a replacement officer lacked experience; they went by the book, used formations and drills practiced at home. Training on paper was a quick victim of actual combat where creative improvisation often better served staying alive. Plenty of soldiers died under incompetent orders from green leadership. And plenty (more than is commonly advertised) cut and ran, including officers who found excuses to drift back, out of the line of fire.

A question that seeped in as I read was how to make people care enough to fight? Lying about the reasons is one method, a make believe or exaggerated threat another. Having a draft works too if a country is attacked. But I was also thinking, how to make people care enough to live life without a periodic need for the heightened experience of war? Paul Fussell intimates my question, "Now, almost sixty years after the horror, there has been a return, especially in popular culture, to military romanticism, which, if not implying that war is really good for you, does suggest that it contains desirable elements--pride, companionship, and the consciousness of virtue enforced by deadly weapons. In this book I have occasionally tried to confront this view with realistic details…attention to the universal ironic gap between battle plans and battle actualities will suggest the ubiquity of much of my joyless material. There is nothing in infantry warfare to raise the spirits at all, and anyone who imagines a military "victory" gratifying is mistaken."

I have heard veterans of that war speak in tones they use nowhere else. The boy crusaders were mostly regular guys who hardly thought of leaving their home counties let alone of drinking Cognac on a French battlefield whose name they could barely pronounce. If they came through, if they managed to stay sane and conduct themselves well their lives would still never be the same again, they grew old fast on war. Are we so trivial, vain, greedy, and small in our daily doings that we secretly long for wars to prove we are capable of more than nine to five? Traffic jams, putting out the garbage, buying a car before we raise our kids then die of disease or old age? (Just a thought, but why do we keep returning to that ultimate human failure? By we--sorry--I mean men. Women do not start wars.) As I read, THE BOYS CRUSADE, it became astonishingly clear that something is monstrously wrong with any person who would start a war. And what about the poor soldiers that agree to fight? What stupidity puts their own safety after the dreams of a Hitler or a Napoleon? Or, not to compare, a George Bush? Maybe learning to never grow angry enough to pick up a weapon, torture or abuse is the real act of courage. What? Do I not have enough oxygen? Just listen to Dick Cheney to see how crazy I sound. And, I'd be remiss to leave out Osama's idea of a world fix.

©December, 2003 J. Stefan-Cole


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