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The Real War
Walt Whitman said, “The real war will never get in the books.” The critic and writer Paul Fussell feels that the same sanitizing of history that went on after the 1860s has erased the national memory of what World War II was really like.
November 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 7
Your division, as we have noted, went into the line on November 16, near St.-Dié.
The Germans set fire to St.-Dié, angering us very, very much. Just after we attacked, there was an outpouring of priests and nuns from St.-Dié, soliciting help for the people who’d lost everything in this fire the Germans had set.
After the war I found out something very interesting, which has had a lot to do with my sense that more is going on in the Army than you think is going on. Just before the attack I was assigned to a house between the lines, calling down mortar fire on the Germans who’d been silhouetted by the fire they’d laid. I got an order from battalion to send out a patrol with an NCO and three or four men to see how deep the river was between our positions and the Germans. So I sent out my best sergeant and three or four of the six or eight men I had with me, and they went out for a couple of hours and reported that the river was nine inches deep and was very easy to cross without bridging equipment.
I sent the news back to battalion. The attack took place the next morning, and it was not terribly successful. They did achieve their mission, but with many casualties. After the war I was in a German town and I found this sergeant and we drank some beer together and he said, “You know, I want to ask you something. You know that night you sent us out, do you really think we went down to that river?”
And I said, “Yes, I did. I really did.”
He said, “But of course we didn’t. When we went out of the house we were scared to death. We went down from the house about fifty yards, we lay in the grass for about two hours, we all agreed on the story about the river.”
I said, “Okay, thanks for telling me.” That happens much more often, I think, than most people are aware.
November and December 1944 were bad enough, the weather getting worse there in the mountains. Then, in the third week in January, according to the reports, your outfit was hit by what looked like a panzer division.
We saw no tanks, but we saw a lot of troops. I think they were SS. They were very young and angry and National Socialist. That attack actually took place about five hundred yards to my right in a snowstorm. I wasn’t aware of it at all. I had been warned that an attack was very likely, and I was looking out of my slit with my field glasses, and indeed I was seeing troops on the hill far away, German troops in line, moving from left to right, which I reported. The response was, “Well, they’re too far away for us to do anything about it; keep us informed.”
Those German troops were going through our line on my right, but I was utterly unaware of it. I heard a lot of firing to the rear, but you know, you always hear firing in all directions. And you’re not certain where the rear is. It might be your right flank, which might bend back to another adjoining battalion. The line was never given on a map to a platoon leader. The company commander probably doesn’t exactly know where it is.
Still, I would have numerous bright ideas. The Germans would carouse in a house within easy range, right in front of us. And I said to my company commander, “Look, may I get a bazooka and get out there some night and give them a big surprise? We’ll send a shell right through the wall; we’ll kill some of them.” And the guy said, “No, you’ll just stir them up—it will make things worse. If we sit here quietly, we’ll be relieved in three or four days and we won’t have any more casualties, and some new people will come up and deal with the situation.” That’s the sort of thing you get.
So you don’t have much patience with explanations of wartime behavior that depend upon ideology and cause.
If you’ve been in combat more than ten minutes, you know that it is about survival, and it’s about killing in order to survive, and one forgets the presumed ideological motives when one is performing these operations. You’re captured by combat, and the only way to get out of the capture is to reduce the threat to your own personal safety, which is to kill the enemy. That’s what you’re doing in combat.
You did stir up the Germans at some point. When were you wounded?
The first day I was wounded was the first day I was on the line. When I was wandering around innocently and I hadn’t yet heard of the 88-millimeter self-propelled gun, a fragment hit me on the elbow. It wasn’t bad enough to require much treatment, but it happened. The second time was also a self-propelled gun; it looked like a tank. It hit a tree above me. I was lying on top of a bunker with another officer and my platoon sergeant, both of whom were killed by the same shell. And I was hit in the thigh and in the back.
If you’ve been in combat for more than ten minutes, you know that it is about survival, and one forgets the ideology.
That was the day of the attack of the 7th Army, ending ultimately in the crossing of the Rhine, but by that time I was in the hospital, and I stayed there until the war was over.
And since then you’ve been working up to this book.