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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
And in those days, late in 1944 and early in 1945, the Allied victory was by no means a sure thing. One reads in the histories of the war pronouncements that after a given battle—say, Stalingrad, or D-day, or the Schweinfurt raid, or the Battle of the Coral Sea—the Allied victory was “only a matter of time.” For those who fought, the matter of time was more than incidental; it was everything. One of Harry Brown’s characters in his novel A Walk in the Sun sees the war continuing forever, one day of combat after the other, until decades later he will fight in the “Battle of Tibet.”
In late 1943 and early 1944, the war was very much in control, the human beings fighting against it not having arrested its murderous progress. So the war assumed a certain monotony for those who fought in it at sea, in the air, on the ground, and we should not be startled to discover a sense of futile wonderment and perhaps even fatalistic bitterness among them. Not surprisingly, after the war ended, such feelings were suppressed. While the war was on, they were very much alive. One infantry scout in Italy remembered that “we felt simply that we had been left to die. Men in our division gave up all hope of being relieved. They thought the Army intended to keep them in action until everybody was killed.…All the men have hope of getting back, but most of the hope is that you’ll get hit someplace that won’t kill you. That’s all they talk about.”
All wars contain their own particular human secrets. One such secret in this war was the hostility those in “the line” felt for those who were in “the rear.” The rear was both a place and an identity, it was “any sonofabitch whose foxhole is behind mine,” remembers J. A. Croft, who served as a rifleman in Leinbaugh and Campbell’s Company K. The gulf of misunderstanding that existed between those who fought and the thousands of uniformed spectators who milled around any combat zone most often manifested itself in brutal insensitivity. Elliot Johnson was an artillery officer with the 4th Infantry Division five days into the Normandy invasion, when a close friend was accidentally killed by one of his own men. Overcome by grief, Johnson sought medical aid for his dead friend at battalion headquarters, where a drunken colonel ordered Johnson to “get that goddamn hunk of rotten meat out of here!” But there were other, less dramatic evidences of animosity between the line and the rear, and indeed no particular incident was required to keep the animosity alive. The distinguished classicist Bernard Knox, a combat veteran of both the Spanish Civil War and World War II, has written only lately but still with much feeling that “while it is true of every war that much as he may fear and perhaps even hate the enemy opposing him, the combat infantryman broods with deep and bitter resentment over the enormous number of people in his rear who sleep safely at night.”
Misunderstanding the humanness of war, historians and others have superimposed upon it judgments whose weight is too great a burden for the war to bear.
And so they soldiered on until they were killed or wounded or captured or disappeared, having little choice in the matter—or at least no choice most cared to make. The Army recorded only forty thousand deserters during the war, and of these about twenty-nine hundred were actually court-martialed. Forty-nine received the death penalty, but only one such sentence was actually carried out. The numbers of AWOLs—”absent without leave,” a bureaucratic rendition of the “straggling” of older wars—was much higher, and when the American army bypassed Paris, James Jones reports, the city acted as a giant magnet for ten thousand or so troops. How many of those were actually in contact with the enemy, Jones did not know, but that kind of behavior was much less likely among the combat soldiers than among those in the rear echelons.
Sometimes when talking with my students, I ask them to calculate the number of a combat soldier’s enemies, and at first they do not understand what I mean. But the sources of mayhem in any modern war reach dizzying numbers, and the enemy’s work is only one. The anxious trigger finger that killed Elliot Johnson’s friend in Normandy was all too common. When one arms thousands of men and confines them in a concentrated battle area, such incidents are inevitable. Our own artillery fire, mistakenly calculated, killed its share of friendly soldiers and probably was the source of the old artilleryman’s fatalistic comment: “Looked good when it left here.” Of course, the artillery could be dead on its designated target when, in a friendly version of mechanical ambush, a ground unit could walk right under it.