Lonely, Despised, and Untrained
As America prepares to enter a fresh round of bombing in the Middle East, and as Barack Obama becomes the fourth president in a row to order attacks against a country that has not once conducted any aggressive action against our own, the world seems more and more like an Orwellian place. The existential terror ginned up against a largely harmless, if not completely imaginary, enemy recalls that of the residents of Air Strip One against the slavering hordes of Eurasia; perpetual warfare is now more or less a reality, even as our actual experience of warfare becomes an abstraction so remote as to seem completely unreal; and as our military loses the ability to think strategically and confines itself to tactics dictated by political demands, economic necessities, and technology that has outstripped our ability to make sense of it, the purpose of war, now as in his fictional 1984, seems not to attain any foreign policy goal, but simply to maintain a mostly illusory opposition to an ideological menace, and to chew up and make unusable billions of dollars in currency and resources, so as not to leave any surplus that might be foolishly squandered on improving the lives of ordinary citizens.
Still, it is not Orwell that illuminates my understanding of America’s endless Middle Eastern wars today, but Paul Fussell, whose final book, The Boys’ Crusade – American G.I.s in Europe: Chaos and Fear in World War Two, I have just finished reading. It is not a book of great scope and majesty, like The Great War and Modern Memory or Doing Battle: The Making of a Skeptic. Fussell was an old man when he finished it in 2003, tired and sick and less than a decade from death, and while he still had observations, elegant and brutal alike, to make about the war that had made him the man he became, he perhaps lacked the energy to give a fuller accounting. It also lacks, for the most part, the biting comedy of Class and BAD, his wonderful collections of social observation; the subject of the war, even 60 years on, was obviously still too raw, too tender, too bitter for him to employ anything but the blackest of humor. It is, instead, a series of brief vignettes describing the experience of American infantrymen in Europe in the closing days of the war, the beloved grunts drawn in as replacements for forces that had been chewed to pieces in North Africa and the Mediterranean, the mere boys — many of them illiterate teens with no experience of adult life whatsoever, virginal and innocent, thrown into the furnace of D-Day and its aftermath “lonely, despised, and untrained” — who set about to liberate a continent from the gravest evil anyone had ever seen.
As Fussell illustrates in these vignettes some of the worst moments of the war, from the insufficient training of these “boy crusaders” to their first experiences of travel and combat, to the horrors of the Bulge and the nightmare of the Hurtgen Forest, to the final nightmare of the liberation of the German death camps, Fussell is unsparing of perceived failures in the American military leadership. As he sets the scene of a bunch of raw recruits, ill-equipped and poorly prepared, pushed into battle by commanders who give them little sense of the purpose of their efforts and seem to be fighting a wholly different war than that reflected by the realities on the ground, we get a terrifyingly familiar reminder of the situations in Iraq and Afghanistan. He reminds us the lesson we still have not learned — that a war can never be won solely by air power alone, but must be settled with troops in the field if the conflict is ever to truly end; he foretells the future by showing us soldiers who are not sure who the enemy truly is, who have no strategic sense of the purpose of the war, and who are given little information about what to expect, from the weather to what to do if they are captured. He gives us an entirely unromanticized view of the realities of battle, of exhaustion, of tedium, of shit and piss and blood, of the sense of helplessness and the growing brutality of desperation. Just as the political echoes of the Second World War still can be heard everywhere, from Russia and the Ukraine to China and Japan, so too are we daily reminded of the lessons we failed to apply after such a hard learning curve in Korea, Vietnam, and all our subsequent military adventures.
Everywhere, Fussell — with an intentional unwillingness to draw comparisons that nonetheless scream at us from every page — shows us our present in the ruins of our past. He speaks of America’s “reluctant draftee army”; the way we insisted on using the language of Christian crusades against the enemy; the way we exported our prejudices to unknowingly fertile climates by allowing the bigotry of the South to apply to the Army as a who, missing a key opportunity to advance racial equality (“I don’t mind the Yanks,” quipped one British soldier, “but I can’t say I care for those white chaps they’ve brought with them”); the suffering of civilians caught in the superior esteem giving to bombing campaigns by commanders who didn’t want to risk the lives of their troops on the ground; and the endlessly frustrating intelligence failures engendered either by irrational fear, in buying one’s own propaganda and thinking the enemy capable of feats far beyond its capacity or imagination, or by arrogance, in believing the enemy too stupid and savage to know how to conduct an effective campaign. It is easy to see why he provides examples of each side seeing the other as inhuman, nearly demonic, and capable of all sorts of mindless acts of fanaticism. And always there is the sense of betrayal by the men at their own leaders, whether it is from being led into battle by incompetents who have no clue how to fight the enemy, or being released back into society with no way to cope after having witnessed the wanton annihilation of life that comes from warfare.
If there is one great point of divergence in the narratives, it is in their respective ends, and not just because WWII actually had one and our War Against Terror does not, by design. Fussell has always preached the irony of war, because the grotesque suffering it inflicts is always worse than the suffering brought on by its initial cause, but here, at least, we found in the nearly Satanic qualities of Nazi Germany something like a real reason to fight. While no one doubts that the various bands of second-rate lunatics and fanatics that make up the likes of al-Qaeda and ISIS are capable of shocking violence against the innocent, their evil has not even remotely risen to the level of violence that we have inflicted on them after 20 years off near-continuous bombing and assault. It is is fatuous mistake to equate the realities of war with any fiction, but it is a fatuity we all seem prone to, and one of the unique qualities of the Second World War is its resemblance to a particularly cheap but effective sort of shock-horror storytelling. For so it was that just when it all seemed to be over — when Japan was beaten back to its homeland and in no way capable of pursuing its war plans, when Germany was shattered and friendless and on the run — just then, when a world bone-tired of war could finally realistically make out its end and soldiers who had witnessed untold brutalities could finally imagine getting to go home — both fronts saw the darkest, most horrific twists of all. In Japan, it was the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, spurred on by American fears of the mass casualties that might be inflicted by a conventional military attack on the island nation; this decision spared many of our own boys, no doubt, but it cost a mind-boggling quarter of a million lives in Japan, the eradication of hundreds of thousands of innocent human beings whose only crime had been to be born in the wrong place at the wrong time. In Germany it was the discovery of the camps.
Of course, rumors of the Nazi genocide machine had been circulating for years. Before the war, it was all too easy to minimize or ignore the suffering of Hitler’s enemies as none of our business; towards its end, it was largely kept under wraps for political reasons. The Russians had got there first, and through Poland, where the worst of the death camps had been built; but the rest of the Allies kept a tight lid on the story, partly to maintain a certain image to present to the public and partly because some commanders were unsure if the Soviets were making it all up to paint the Germans as monsters. But finally, it was too late to control and to cover up, and the true horror of the Nazi mechanisms of death were far worse than anyone could have imagined. Just as the end of the race was in sight, the winner’s ribbon was obscured by an unthinkably huge mound of corpses. The book unveils this final lunatic twist with a diary entry by Patton’s second man, Omar Bradley, a man professionally trained in the efficient and cold delivery of mass death. Even he was repulsed by what he found in the first of many human slaughterhouses the Allies would soon discover:
More than 3,200 naked emaciated bodies had been flung into shallow graves (at Ohrdruf). Others lay in the streets where they had fallen. Lice crawled over the yellow skin of their sharp, bony frames. The blood had congealed in coarse black scabs where the starving prisoners had torn out the entrails of the dead for food. I was too revolted to speak. For here death had been so fouled by degradation that it both stunned and numbed us.
“General Eisenhower was soon informed of the discovery,” Fussell writes. “After seeing the spectacle for himself, Eisenhower ordered American legislators as well as nearby Germans to visit, and demanded that the decent burial of all this horror was to be undertaken by the local civilians, who denied knowledge of anything that had taken place at their nearby institution. The mayor of neighboring Gotha and his wife went home and hanged themselves; whether in attempted expiation of the crime or fear of Allied punishment is not known. Hearing of this apparent evidence of guilt and shame, Eisenhower said ‘Maybe there is hope after all.'” The result of these insane unearthing of the full measure of the Nazi madness was a ramping up of the savagery of the war, just when it should have been winding down; a relative of mine said he made sure never to leave an SS man alive after he learned what they had done in the camps. Fussell echoes this story:
Said a company commander in a tank battalion, “We had just mopped them up before, but we stomped the shit out of them after the camps.” A lieutenant who helped liberate Dachau declared “I will never take another German prisoner, armed or unarmed. How can they expect to do what they have done and simply say ‘I quit’, and go scot free? They are not fit to live.” A soldier from New Zealand ratified the troops’ conclusion when he said of Germans “They’re not human at all” — ironically, the same words the Nazis used as they put to death countless ‘sub-human’ Poles and Russians.
Eisenhower, too, at least partially succumbed to this final and probably inescapable irony, recommending that thousands of people in the civilian and military leadership simply be liquidated — executed without trial — if Germany was to have any future. Still, it is only this redeeming quality, lit with so many moral dimensions utterly lacking in our modern endless warfare of bombing, generating terroristic pushback against the bombing, and bombing again — that Fussell believes saved the entire enterprise from being nothing but a mass spoilage of humanity more akin to the senseless waste of millions that was the First World War. Never able to banish from his mind the horrible slaughter and sense of random, pitiless destruction the war forced on him and everyone he knew, Fussell came to believe that the genocidal evil of the modern fascist state at least salvaged some sense of meaning from its all-encompassing madness; he ultimately felt that, like the historian Sir John Keegan, the war’s incalculable levels of destruction and social upheaval could only be answered by the fact that “Hitler’s institution of genocide demands a moral commitment”. He writes the epitaph of perhaps the last war that made any sense: “Hardly any boy infantryman started his career as a moralist, but after the camps, a moral attitude was rampant and there was no disagreement about the main point. In the last few weeks of the war, close to five thousand labor camps and prisons were discovered, most filled with unspeakable evidence of wanton cruelty. Major Richard Winters said after seeing the corpses at the camp at Landsberg: ‘Now I know why I am here.'”