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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
No, because I wasn’t writing about myself, really. When I started writing the book, I put in a lot of personal stuff—sort of shocking stuff that I wanted to remind people of and that I wanted to validate by indicating that I myself had experienced it. At one point we were on an exercise at Fort Benning, very near our graduation as infantry officers, the climactic exercise involving paratroops and live artillery and so on, and we were aware of an anomalous explosion up in the air, up in the sky, about five thousand feet. It proved to have been the moment when a shell hit a Piper Cub that was observing artillery fire. Nothing came down but a shoe, with a foot in it, to our horror and astonishment. And I wanted to testify about that.
Historians sometimes get very angry at what I do; although I use historical data, I’m essentially writing an essay.
I originally had that in the book when I was talking about military blunders. I let a friend, a former student of mine, read that text, and he said, “No, that doesn’t belong in there. Either you’ve got to write an objective account or you’ve got to write a personal account. But you can’t bring them together.” So I removed all that stuff.
You wrote in two earlier essays, “My War” and “Thank God for the Atomic Bomb,” as well as in Wartime, that direct experience is crucial to understanding the actualities of war, and you’ve agreed with Walt Whitman that “the real war will never get in the books.”
Eugene Sledge wrote about his experience with the Marines in a book called With the Old Breed at Peleliu and Okinawa, and it is one of the finest memoirs to emerge from any war. One reason I like it so much is that Sledge, having really fought, knows that even the people back at battalion headquarters, and sometimes company headquarters, have no idea what’s going on three hundred yards to the front and that the troops treat them with something of the same contempt that they reserve for the people at home. They don’t know what’s going on, and not knowing, they make you do things that they would never make you do if they knew what those things meant. Like sending out night patrols, for example, which are hopeless, at least with Americans. The Germans might be able to do them, and the Japanese, but not Americans. We’re not prepared psychologically for that kind of military work, especially in small units. As I point out in the book, the terrible thing about that war is that it was fought by amateurs, necessarily; it was the first war any of us had ever been in, and nobody knew what he was doing. Even General Elsenhower had never fought in a war before. We were all sort of making it up as we went along.
You mentioned Sledge and his comrades’ animosity toward the rear echelons. There’s a line in Harold Leinbaugh and John Campbell’s book The Men of Company K that essentially defines the rear as “anybody whose foxhole is behind mine.”
Well, it depends. Anybody who doesn’t favor an M-1 rifle is a sissy, I would say. If you favored carbines, it indicated that you weren’t a serious combat person and that you were some distance behind the line, because nobody on the line would be content to try to defend his life with a carbine. It’s a tiny little thing; it’s like a .22. So we regarded even the 60-millimeter mortar section as rear area, because they were so unlikely to get shot at, you know. Counterbattery fire might fall near them, and they would have to move, but they were terribly safe. I had men that would have cut off their arms to be sent back to the sixties, because they were three hundred yards behind.
There is a kind of continuity among soldiers, in whatever war, of imputing tremendous abilities and virtues to their enemy.
Well, I’m still doing it with the Germans, for whom I have intense military respect, which I developed on the line in that winter. They’re incredibly good officers. Their junior officers were much better than ours, partly because they were desperate, and they didn’t loaf and they didn’t screw around the way we did. We knew we were going to win the war and they weren’t certain they were going to lose it, until quite a way into 1945, so maybe they fought better.
And they were more disciplined than we were. They took the war more seriously than we did, and they made more out of slimmer resources than we did. We had much more ammunition, we could shoot it off all the time. We never did anything without laying this incredible barrage on the Germans, partly to scare them, partly to assert our own superiority, and we had it in abundance. There was only a week or so when ammunition was short, but if you just phoned in and said, “I’d like a concentration here,” it would come. But the Germans had to proceed much more skillfully to make up for deficiencies, both in men and in material.
Another thing that has helped disguise the true nature of the war was the strictures imposed on the wartime correspondents. Anything that didn’t conduce to the war effort was simply not to be written down.