Patriotic gore

In Paul Fussell's newest World War II chronicle, the GIs who defeated the Nazis fought an ugly, dirty, bloody war that brutalized them all and ennobled no one. That doesn't mean it was pointless.

By Charles Taylor

Published September 22, 2003 8:00PM (EDT)

Paul Fussell can't keep himself out of trouble. He doesn't exactly seek it out, in the manner of a provocateur who's looking to start a fight. Fussell finds trouble because he has no tolerance for cant, sentimentality, euphemism or waffling. As a critic, he has lived by two maxims. One is George Orwell's description of the critic's job as "a power of facing unpleasant facts." The other is an advertising slogan he once glimpsed on the side of a New York bus: "In life, experience is the great teacher. In Scotch, Teacher's is the great experience."

Fussell has long insisted that for the critic and the historian the importance of experience, "sheer, vulgar experience," as he calls it, trumps received ideas of propriety, niceness and comfort. Working as both a critic and a historian, Fussell has long relied on the testimony left behind by memoirs, journals and letters, history written by those present at the events they are recording. Valuing ambiguity and contradiction over judgment, he sets out to demonstrate Virginia Woolf's observation that nothing is one thing.

More than anything else, Fussell's view has been shaped by his combat experience during World War II. War has been his recurring theme in "The Great War and Modern Memory" and "Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War" (one of the books I return to most often and a model for the book that, 30 or 40 years from now, needs to be written about this moment in American culture); in a number of essays, the best of them being "Thank God for the Atom Bomb" (the title alone proclaims its willingness to upset accepted notions of civility on a subject about which civility is not possible); in his editing of "The Norton Book of Modern War"; in the introductions he has provided to war memoirs like E.B. Sledge's "With the Old Breed" and Robert Graves' "Goodbye to All That."

He has returned to World War II in a new book from the Modern Library Chronicles series, "The Boys' Crusade: The American Infantry in Northwestern Europe, 1944-1945," his recounting of the experiences of the largely teenage conscript American infantry during the awful land battles of the final year of the war.

A faithful reader of Fussell might wonder what he has left to say about that war. Publisher's Weekly has already proclaimed the book "slight," which shows only that its critic was unable to distinguish between size and scope. At just 169 pages of text (plus a bibliography, index and suggestions for future reading), "The Boys' Crusade" moves in short chapters from topic to topic. But those brief chapters, relying as is customary for Fussell on memoir and eyewitness testimony, add up to a sustained and bitterly contrarian view of the experience of combat for America's teenage soldiers during World War II.

Nothing better justifies Fussell's approach than the irony that this view, while markedly at odds with the official version of the American can-do spirit as exemplified in World War II, is the one shared by the men who experienced the war. Perhaps not the ones who, stationed at a division headquarters, were miles behind the front lines, but the ones who actually engaged in combat. With the generation of World War II veterans approaching 80 and older, Fussell has decided once again to speak for the dwindling numbers of the living, as well as those who never came home at all.

To understand why "The Boys' Crusade" goes off in your mind as a series of explosions, you have to take into account not just what Fussell is saying here but the fact that he's saying it now. We are less than 10 years from the nostalgia that accompanied the 50th anniversary of D-Day, still in the glow of "Saving Private Ryan" and "The Greatest Generation." Of the Spielberg movie, Fussell recommends the "retention of and familiarity with the first few minutes ... depicting the landing horrors" while consigning the rest to "the purgatory where boys' bad adventure films end up." You can assume that what he's objecting to is that a film with the guts to reduce the actual fighting of "the good war" (those ironic quotation marks added to the phrase by Studs Terkel in his book of the same name) to brutality, sadism and unrelenting horror winds up embracing the clichés of duty and honor and sacrifice that Spielberg's opening sequence bloodies.

In addition, we are still in the post-Sept. 11 revival of patriotism, which has entailed much that is moving as well as much that is false and meretricious. It's not hard to imagine that, for Fussell, the most objectionable thing is the reliance on euphemism and distance from experience by which a necessary undertaking is transmuted into a noble cause.

Fussell is perhaps the truest antiwar writer we have. Not in the pacifist way in which that description is almost always used. Fussell is antiwar because he has seen war, because he knows that no matter how justified it is and no matter how honorable the ends, the means are always brutalizing, traumatizing, always a waste, always a mockery of every decent human impulse. In "Wartime," he quotes an American private who fought at Anzio as saying, "Whatever we were fighting for seemed irrelevant," and another saying, "It took me darn near a whole war to figure what I was fighting for. It was the other guys. Your outfit, the guys in your company, but especially your platoon."

Fussell's critics have been quick to misread that view. Some of the reviews of "Wartime," notably Simon Schama's moronic piece in the New York Times Book Review, picked up on these sentences from the book: "It was a war and nothing else, and thus stupid and sadistic ... It takes some honesty, even if that honesty arises from despair, to perceive that some events, being inhuman, have no human meaning." According to Schama and others, that meant that there was no difference between the Allies and the Axis, that fighting the war was pointless.

But if you are repulsed by Fussell's sentences then you have to believe that young Americans with insufficient training and no experience of combat, put in the position of watching their buddies being blown to pieces or slowly and agonizingly dying from wounds that could not be mended, should properly have been high-minded enough to remember that they were engaged in the cause of destroying fascism instead of just trying to stay alive. For a historian like Schama to hold such a view means abjuring the hard truth of experience in favor of the wishful thinking of propaganda.

The sentence that I believe may get Fussell into trouble in "The Boys' Crusade" comes at the back of the book in the "Suggestions for Further Reading" section. "The troops' memoirs in my listing of sources will be found rewarding, especially to readers interested in exploring the fact that what has been celebrated as the Greatest Generation included among the troops and their officers, plenty of criminals, psychopaths, cowards and dolts." The objectors to that sentence will, I imagine, perceive it as an insult to the troops instead of the inevitable truth. How could it be otherwise in a conscript army needing sheer manpower to win a war that, as Dwight Eisenhower recognized, could not be won by air power alone? Furthermore it is not some antimilitary polemicist who has made those observations about the less than honorable behavior of some of the soldiers and officers -- but a comrade of those men.

If we lived in a world less susceptible to the redemptive narratives of war, it would not be necessary to point out that nowhere in any of his writings does Fussell ever say or imply that World War II did not need to be fought, or that the men who fought it don't deserve our eternal gratitude. To have saved the world from fascism, Fussell knows, is to have fought for the very concept of what it means to be human. But, refusing the reader easy comfort, Fussell reminds us that that goal had to be achieved by inhuman means. No contemporary American writer has done more to explain, understand, and thus to honor the experience of Americans in combat, and by honor I mean paying his comrades the respect of faithfully recording what they saw, did and felt.

Just as it falsifies the victims of Sept. 11, 2001, to turn them into combatants who died in the name of freedom (they were civilians murdered as they went about their lives), it falsifies the experience of the soldiers in World War II to deny the terror, deprivation and filth they lived in. Fussell never denies that heroism is possible in battle. But heroism for him means something more complex than the simple-minded rhetoric of giving your life for your country. It can mean something as simple as holding on to your humanity in an inhumane predicament or providing the sort of leadership that imparts a feeling of confidence in the men under you. Or it can mean something as noble as putting yourself in danger to save the lives of your comrades.

Fussell does not single out for scorn the men who cannot be called heroes simply because they reacted as human beings with fear or paralysis. It's the reckless, the cowardly, the ones who blithely sacrifice the lives of others (as opposed to the officers who are sometimes in the terrible position of having to issue orders they know will result in the deaths of their men) who deserve scorn. One of the war memoirists whom Fussell most admires, Eugene B. Sledge, a Marine who fought at Peleliu and Okinawa, two of the worst battles of the war, writes memorably about the false rhetoric of heroism. On Peleliu, Sledge and a buddy were sent into a gun pit where two Marines had been attacked the night before. The blood of those men still stains the coral rock. Sledge writes, "As I looked at the stains on the coral, I recalled some of the eloquent phrases of politicians and newsmen about how 'gallant' it is for a man to 'shed his blood for his country,' and 'to give his life's blood as a sacrifice,' and so on. The words seemed so ridiculous. Only the flies benefited."

It's a measure of how much phrases like those have penetrated into our conception of war that Fussell needs to remind us that American soldiers were not Robert Taylor in "Bataan" or John Wayne in "The Sands of Iwo Jima." The soldiers who fought the land war in Europe were, Fussell writes, "largely ... American boys 17, 18 and 19 years old." Seventeen-year-olds could enlist with their parents' permission, though many of that age used false papers "not rigorously inquired into." (The same is likely true of those who fought in the Pacific.) Though the infantry composed only 14 percent of the total number of Americans the Army sent overseas, Fussell quotes historian Roger Spiller that it suffered "more than 70 percent of all battle casualties among overseas troops."

"The Boys' Crusade" goes on to lay out the intensity and viciousness of the fighting that led to such high casualties among such a comparatively small number. But, sticking to his determination to faithfully record experience, Fussell does not shy away from the facts that a number of those casualties were the result of the screw-ups on our side. Some of those are plain dumb oversight, like the failure of the army to provide the troops in the Hurtgen Forest with dry socks and boots, leading to trench foot and, in many cases, amputation.

Some episodes display such a lack of basic common sense that they exemplify the source of the black comedy from which Joseph Heller's "Catch-22" sprung. Of these none seems more of a fuck-up than the COBRA operation. The aim was to eliminate the hedgerows that made Allied advance through occupied France so slow and so dangerous. Gen. Omar Bradley came up with the idea of using fighter-bombers to fly along a six-kilometer stretch of road close to German positions and bomb two kilometers on either side of it. In the first two days, 136 American troops were killed by "friendly fire" and nearly 500 were wounded. COBRA proved devastating to the German troops in the area. But no one had accounted for the way that the heavy cloud of dust and smoke stirred up by the bombings would drift back to obscure the American troops and thus make them vulnerable to attack from the air by their own forces. The Associated Press published a photo of American soldiers being dug out of ruined foxholes, claiming they were victims of German shelling. Fussell concludes his narrative of COBRA with these typically terse lines embodying his disgust for the official view of war: "Tourists prowling around the COBRA area should not waste time looking for a memorial to the boys killed by the bombing error. There is none."

Along with the myriad slaughters and foul-ups that run through "The Boys' Crusade" are the everyday indignities, like men eating unpalatable food in hot, stinking mess halls catching a glimpse of officers being served ice cream in dining rooms with white linen on the tables. Fussell's main concern here is to impart a knowledge of how war, from petty indignities to heinous atrocities, brutalizes its participants. In "Wartime" he devoted many pages to Cyril Connolly's editorship of Horizon magazine from 1939 to 1950, and the way Connolly acted as if civilized culture were still possible -- were more necessary than ever -- in a society preoccupied with war. To Fussell, Connolly's dedication did not represent the fussy propriety of culture but an intellectual determination to believe that something other than death and destruction still existed.

It is hard, Fussell knows, to keep that belief alive when you have been trained to kill and when casual brutalization is part and parcel of your routine. There is a scene in "With the Old Breed" where Sledge watches a buddy nonchalantly pitching coral pebbles into the open skull of an upright Japanese corpse. Fussell doesn't write of that episode here, perhaps because many others will suffice. He is, in "The Boys' Crusade," concerned with how war brutalizes not just actions but attitudes. In much of his writing on World War II, Dwight Eisenhower is something of a hero for Fussell, a man who was able to be a realist (as noted, he perceived that air power alone would not win the war) and was also able to retain something of his essential decency. In his war memoir, Eisenhower writes of the battlefield at Falaise that "it was literally possible to walk for hundreds of yards, stepping on nothing but dead and decaying flesh." Fussell adds, "And Eisenhower was gentleman enough not to offend readers ... by dwelling on the smell."

That small passage is, in a way, the key to "The Boys' Crusade." What, Fussell is asking, does it do when a man like Eisenhower, whom he describes as "brought up in Abilene's civilized church atmosphere and thoroughly indoctrinated there in the Golden Rule and simple related moral tenets," confronts that kind of reality? And, by extension, what does it do to impressionable youngsters who have no experience of battle? The title "The Boys' Crusade" may seem an ironic nod to Eisenhower's war memoir titled "Crusade in Europe," but by the end of the book any irony is burned off as Fussell discusses what the revelation of the Nazi concentration camps did to American troops.

Ultimately, "The Boys' Crusade" is about how, without giving in to the false sense of purpose that is conferred on battles after the fact, the American infantry did gain a sense of what they were fighting for. Fussell quotes Gen. James M. Gavin as saying that this sense came only at the end of the war. And he quotes a major who saw the corpses at a concentration camp and said, "Now I know why I am here." This did not mean that war suddenly became a noble act. Fussell recounts how American troops at Dachau were given the job of guarding 122 SS men who continued to make threats toward the now liberated former inmates. The troops turned their guns on the SS, killing all of them. One then gave his bayonet to a former inmate who proceeded to behead a guard. Fussell records the words of one lieutenant who, after liberating Dachau, said, "I will never take another German prisoner armed or unarmed."

It may appall some that Fussell refers to killings like this as "informal acts of justice." He is not concerned with assuring delicate sensibilities but with faithfully recording experience. Even before encountering the camps, Eisenhower, in 1944, proposed dealing with conquered German troops as follows: Exterminate the general staff, liquidate "all members of the Nazi party from mayors on up and all members of the Gestapo." The irony that someone fighting an enemy who liquidated and exterminated those it despised can come to propose something similar is not lost on Fussell. But it is not the basis for easy moral equivalency.

Sometimes, Fussell is saying, evil demands retribution if we are to retain our sense of what it means to be human. It may be useful here to recall the words of Hannah Arendt in justifying Adolph Eichmann's execution. "Just as you supported and carried out a policy of not wanting to share the earth with the Jewish people and the people of a number of other nations," Arendt wrote, "we find that no one, no member of the human race, can be expected to want to share the earth with you."

Fussell's understanding of how inhuman means are sometimes the only way to affirm your humanity is hard to stomach for doves or those prepared to declare all war evil (which is distinct from declaring it sadistic though sometimes necessary). And it's equally hard for hawks who want to buy into the crap of boys' book adventures like "The Four Feathers," which tell us that war is a proving ground for young men to realize their nobility and bravery. It's difficult to imagine either of those groups not recoiling from the quote Fussell includes from the British captain John Tonkin who said, "I have always felt that the Geneva Convention is a dangerous piece of stupidity because it leads people to believe that war can be civilized. It can't." Tonkin wasn't arguing for abusing prisoners of war. He was arguing against the cushy notion that cruelty can be finessed.

Most of all, "The Boys' Crusade" will not comfort anyone who wants to bask in the patriotic good feeling of what Fussell calls the contemporary "chatter" about "the Good War and the suggestions of special virtue among the boyish citizen soldiers." But holding that view is not, as I have argued, an attempt to dishonor the troops, but rather an attempt to accord them the respect of honoring the complexity of their experience. For civilians those experiences are unthinkable. For many who fought, they remain unspeakable.

"The Boys' Crusade" is Fussell's distillation of what he has found in memoirs like Sledge's "With the Old Breed," Robert Kotlowitz's "Before Their Time" and William Manchester's "Goodbye, Darkness" (an uncomfortably honest memoir). What unites all of these books, and what colors all of Fussell's writing about World War II, is barely disguised bitterness. Sledge and Kotlowitz, Manchester and Fussell, and presumably all the men they speak for, know the necessity of what they did. But they still resent having had to do it. They know in their guts that war always represents some basic failure -- of diplomacy, of vigilance. And these writers write as men who were forced to learn things that they would rather not have known, that no decent person could ever want to know. To drape that knowledge in glory is, for them, an insult. It's the act of people like the ones Sledge refers to, those who talk about the honor of shedding blood for your country without ever having had to see the blood themselves.

In an act of true intellectual bravery, Fussell has chosen to write "The Boys' Crusade" at a time when we are once again susceptible to the notion of the experience of combat (as distinct from the purpose it serves) as one of selfless sacrifice to a noble cause. In many quarters, we are told that to doubt that premise is to be unpatriotic. But if we can still conceive of patriotism as encompassing skepticism, ambiguity, honesty and criticism, then by any reasonable measure Paul Fussell is a patriot.

Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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