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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
Surely, then, it was the cause that made it all worthwhile. At first glance one might think that the nobility of one’s cause had an important and easing effect upon those who fought in its service or even that a soldier who fights for a great and moral cause is a superior soldier, so protected by his nobility. It isn’t true, and it was no closer to being true in the Second World War than in any other. Soldiering is a morally neutral act, so designed by centuries of tradition. Soldiers have fought bravely and well for the most despicable of causes, and the Second World War lasted for six years because millions of soldiers did exactly that. The great wartime cartoonist Bill Mauldin discerned among the GIs a grudging respect for the fighting qualities of enemy troops, even if they were “skunks.” Some critics since the war have said that enemy troops, especially German troops, were far better soldiers than the GIs, but this is a contention far from being proved.
Assuming—only for the moment—that some enemy troops were better at their trade than American troops, should we not then view our relative lack of ability as a mark of honor, all the more indicative of sacrifice in the name of a great crusade? Then the GIs become noble amateurs or even martyrs to the cause of freedom. Surely no American armed force ever took the field for better reasons than the defeat of the Axis Powers. Was this motivation not a powerful force in our favor? Evidently not.
Field research during the war showed that frontline troops were notoriously impatient with “morale lectures” laid on by well-meaning staff. Appeals to patriotism or cause met with little response from men who were constantly on the verge of physical or mental exhaustion because their lives were threatened every day. No doubt the same well-meaning commanders and staff officers who thought troop lectures were a good idea dismissed the lack of frontline enthusiasm as unwholesome cynicism, as evidence of suspiciously low morale. Still, the troops did fight on. Why?
For most of the world’s noncombatant population, the war may have been about one cause or another, but for the Willie Lomans the war was about staying alive. To ordinary men in such circumstances, no amount of morale building could offset this fundamental fact, and to such men all those who were not with them were in no position to lecture. Combat consumed too much energy to allow any left over for higher considerations of national philosophy. All the defenses their society had given them in preparation for their war—the national and popular support they received, their training and their equipment, even the official sanction to kill—were found by the soldiers to be altogether too fragile to withstand the grind of combat. The sustenance of one’s own comrades, today understood by professionals as the essential cement of any combat unit, proved to be unequal to the demands of combat. Leinbaugh and Campbell’s rifle company began its war with two hundred men; by war’s end combat had used up four hundred. Their casualties equaled twice their original strength. This rifle company, Leinbaugh and Campbell insist, was a wholly typical unit of its kind.
A kind of solidarity did exist on the front lines, one that commanders found threatening and attempted to suppress whenever possible; in the Great War and after, this solidarity would have been called “the brotherhood of the trench.” It was a feeling best expressed by Erich Maria Remarque in All Quiet on the Western Front when he has his character Paul Bäumer realize that all the soldiers on the front line, friendly and enemy alike, are not fighting each other so much as they are fighting against the war itself.
My impression, but only that, is that those who fought in World War II came to this realization much sooner than their precedessors in World War I because they expected much less from this war. When the war broke out, they knew it was going to be a bad one and suffered fewer illusions about what it could do for, or to, them. Harold Bond, a young infantry officer who fought with the 36th Division in Italy, wrote years afterward: “My generation, brought up on A Farewell to Arms, All Quiet on the Western Front, and plays such as Journey’s End, was not easily persuaded that modern war made any sense at all. Most certainly none of us thought any longer of glory and military heroics.” For all that, Bond needed no lectures on morale to tell him why he fought: “One has to fight against a clear and palpable evil; the Nazis were both vicious and degrading, appealing as they did to the worst side of human nature.” What moved Bond in the end, however, was his simpler conviction, one that was closer to war’s practicalities, “that young, unmarried men should be the first to go.” The go in Bond’s memory is ambiguous. Bond seems to have meant to go overseas, but going could also mean never coming back, given the possibilities inherent in his particular situation. Infantry officers, especially junior ones, were a highly expendable commodity along Italy’s Gustav Line in those days. A division on the line could easily spend its complement of lieutenants (137 of them) in a month or two.