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A MEMOIR OF THE SECOND WORLD WAR Seeking the answer to a simple and terrible question: What was it like?
December 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 8
The fiftieth anniversaries of the war are upon us. As in the real war, Americans are the latecomers. Europeans have been taking notice for a good two years, but the rush of events behind the old Iron Curtain has left precious few energies for commemorating the past. If our commemorations repeat the pattern of the war itself, our consciousness of the war will build to a kind of crescendo by about 1994. How, then, at a half-century’s remove, can we make a new approach on that time and its people, especially when its evidence and effect are still so much a part of us and still so meaningful to the events we see unfold on the nightly news? How do we pay proper attention to the old war and what it means without further contributing to what Paul Fussell has called the “disneyfication” of the war?
The answer for me cannot be wholly historical; such an answer implies an emotional distance from the war that I do not enjoy. My connection to this war is one of long and personal standing, and my connection to its people is so close that I dread reading obituaries for fear that one of my old war people has died. Those who made history so fresh for me are disappearing, one by one.
Exactly when I became sentient about war in general, or particularly about this war, I cannot say. It never seems to have been far away. I recall, imprecisely, photographs of relatives in uniform, well scrubbed, creased, and confident, very much younger than I thought they ever could have been. Growing up in the fifties, my friends and I always had at hand an old helmet, a shirt, or a bayonet to complement the imagination of the playground. Bloodstained items were a great premium to us. No one thought for a moment about the cost of these things. The father of one of my playmates was missing several fingers, lost in combat somewhere, torn away by a stream of machine-gun fire—or so it was rumored among us. He was otherwise a calm, respectable adult presence on the fringes of childhood life, but his debility added immeasurably to his mana, a piece of secret knowledge to be conveyed in whispers on the playground. Sometimes we played him in action, traumatic amputation and all.
Since then I have studied war more seriously, or so I think. I would like to think as well that I grew out of that childish infatuation with the play of war, but I often wonder if that is true. Once I began to study war in earnest I wondered whether I had made any intellectual progress at all. The questions that still interested me were a child’s questions, really, chief among them: What is it really like? Not the war of the statesmen or the generals. Not the war of the scientists or the staff officers. Not, even, the war of the field commanders. To verge on being unkind as well as ungrateful, all these people were really office workers. I wanted to know about war at the darkest corner of its heart, that one quality that so differentiates war from all other human activity: combat itself.
For years now I have moved through the world of soldiers and soldiering as a privileged spectator, and it is from them that I have inherited a certain interest in the practicalities—what Fussell would call the actualities—of war, not to mention a certain impatience with the more domesticated versions of war that one finds so much in modern American life. Too, my privilege is complicated by a certain responsibility. I teach soldiers the history of war and so contribute to their vision of what war is. Soldiers, and especially professional soldiers, carry with them into their first combat an expectation of what their war will be like. My responsibility is to see that the distance between what they expect and what they get is as small as possible.
A decade and a half ago, the British military historian John Keegan wrote The Face of Battle, the kind of book for which historians reserve the word seminal, really meaning that the author created a new way of thinking about an old problem. Keegan’s view differed markedly from conventional military histories that interpreted wars from the top down. Regardless of the ways in which war had changed over the centuries, he wrote, what all wars have in common is that they are human enterprises, conducted, it is true, at extremes of human behavior and tolerance, but human all the same. Even if understanding war does require some measure of technical knowledge, it is also true that any understanding of war that does not recognize its essential humanness is flawed. The “face of battle” has always been, finally, the human face itself.
When we reduce war to an affair of numbers or great men or grand strategies, when war’s humanness finds it difficult to make its way past the trivializing negotiations of memory, we have lost sight of what war is and have begun to interest ourselves in what it is not. Paradoxically, war is most human and reveals its essential character at the very place where humanness is in the greatest danger of extinction: in the killing grounds, the zones of combat where men devote every impulse of their mental and physical energy to destroying one another. Making sense of this world is a singularly demanding undertaking. And for any exploration of this world, expert guides are essential.