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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
An additional danger threatened if one’s fighting happened to involve a complicated machine. Military versions of industrial accidents were all the greater because these machines were operated in the excited atmosphere of real or potential danger. Sailors came to understand that a single enemy shell could set off a round of secondary explosions on their ships, killing and maiming far more of them than the original attack; but even when they were not under attack, the dangers of manning a modern warship were significant and ever present. In the same way, aerial combat was only one of several ways to die. “There are a variety of possible deaths which face a member of a bomber crew and each man is free to choose his own pet fear,” wrote John Bennett, a squadron commander in the 8th Air Force. “A tire could blow out or an engine could fail on take-off. The oxygen system or electric heating system might fail at high altitude. There is the fear of explosion or midair collision while flying formation.” Or, as sometimes happened, a gunner could accidentally hit another plane in formation while testing his guns before the run to target.
Back on the ground, the killing of friends could be far more intimate. Eugene B. Sledge’s memoir of the Pacific war, With the Old Breed on Peleliu and Okinawa, one of the best of its kind, records how one night, when a soldier became hysterical and threatened to reveal their positions, his comrades killed him with an entrenching tool because they couldn’t keep him quiet any other way. “Christ a’mighty. What a pity,” said one of Sledge’s comrades after hearing the shovel find its mark.
Looking at the war from the vantage point of the combatants, one can easily envision one’s own commander and staff as enemies. They are the ones, after all, who assist the enemy in creating the deadly environment, and if they do not look after their men, much as a doctor his patients in intensive care, the natural alienation between line and rear can sour into sullen, refractory behavior. Harold Leinbaugh saw his regimental commander on the line only once in more than a hundred days of combat, and as Leinbaugh’s own confidence as a company commander increased, he was less than reluctant to see to the welfare of his company according to his own lights rather than follow the dictates of a remote command. In Wartime, Paul Fussell’s acerbic rendition of the war that has infuriated so many spectators and no doubt has pleased just as many combat veterans, a view of the staff as being completely ignorant of war’s actualities can be found throughout. “There is a ‘staff solution’ to the fear problem,” Fussell writes, “when under shelling and mortar fire and scared stiff, the infantry should alleviate the problem by moving—never back but forward. This will enable trained personnel to take care of the wounded and will bring you close enough to the enemy to make him stop the shelling.” So far so good. Then Fussell adds: “That it will also bring you close enough to put you within rifle and machine-gun and hand-grenade range is what the theorists know but don’t mention. The troops know it, which is why they like to move back.”
All these testimonies and more leave little doubt that the real engines of combat are not mechanical but human. Fear and fatigue give combat its true character. Whether it is in the actual or the historical rear, neither is present, and so the distortions begin. Human beings are adaptable, we think, and can get used to anything; haven’t they done so? Soldiers on the line did not think so. As the war went on, combatants and almost no one else knew that everyone would break under the strain of combat at some time or another, provided always he is not otherwise harmed. Break they did. At one point in the war, more “neuropsychiatrie casualties” were shipped home from overseas than those who were physically injured. Significantly, these soldiers received more understanding care close to the fighting line than they did as they went to the rear, where facile moral judgments about courage were still unsullied by the realities of war.
Inevitably some of these misunderstandings of what war is really like have infected the history of the war. Misunderstanding the humanness of war, historians and other commentators have superimposed upon it judgments whose weight is too great a burden for the war to bear. Sometimes, in the soldiers’ memoirs, we hear the old war strain under its modern burdens when notes of embarrassment sound about actions that in combat no one would have blinked at. For most of the veterans, however, the domestication of the war seems not to matter so much; they are mostly indifferent to the meanings we impose upon it.