THE BOYS' CRUSADE
The American Infantry in Northwestern Europe 1944-45
A Non-review by J. Stefan-Cole
actual fact is that not one man in twenty in the government
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.
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
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
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