Aug 31, 2010

The Real War 1939-1945

That is the title of this amazing 1989 article from the Atlantic on the horrors of WWII:
What annoyed the troops and augmented their sardonic, contemptuous attitude toward those who viewed them from afar was in large part this public innocence about the bizarre damage suffered by the human body in modern war. The troops could not contemplate without anger the lack of public knowledge of the Graves Registration form used by the U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps, with its space for indicating "Members Missing." You would expect frontline soldiers to be struck and hurt by bullets and shell fragments, but such is the popular insulation from the facts that you would not expect them to be hurt, sometimes killed, by being struck by parts of their friends' bodies violently detached. If you asked a wounded soldier or Marine what hit him, you'd hardly be ready for the answer "My buddy's head," or his sergeant's heel or his hand, or a Japanese leg, complete with shoe and puttees, or the West Point ring on his captain's severed hand. What drove the troops to fury was the complacent, unimaginative innocence of their home fronts and rear echelons about such an experience as the following, repeated in essence tens of thousands of times. Captain Peter Royle, a British artillery forward observer, was moving up a hill in a night attack in North Africa. "I was following about twenty paces behind," he wrote in a memoir,
when there was a blinding flash a few yards in front of me. I had no idea what it was and fell flat on my face. I found out soon enough: a number of the infantry were carrying mines strapped to the small of their backs, and either a rifle or machine gun bullet had struck one, which had exploded, blowing the man into three pieces -- two legs and head and chest. His inside was strewn on the hillside and I crawled into it in the darkness.
The finale puts the point on something I have long believed, but better than I ever could have:
One wartime moment not at all vile occurred on June 5, 1944, when Dwight Eisenhower, entirely alone and for the moment disjunct from his publicity apparatus, changed the passive voice to active in the penciled statement he wrote out to have ready when the invasion was repulsed, his troops torn apart for nothing, his planes ripped and smashed to no end, his warships sunk, his reputation blasted: "Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops." Originally he wrote, "the troops have been withdrawn," as if by some distant, anonymous agency instead of by an identifiable man making all-but-impossible decisions. Having ventured this bold revision, and secure in his painful acceptance of full personal accountability, he was able to proceed unevasively with "My decision to attack at this time and place was based on the best information available." Then, after the conventional "credit," distributed equally to "the troops, the air, and the navy," came Eisenhower's noble acceptance of total personal responsibility: "If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt, it is mine alone." As Mailer says, you use the word shit so that you can use the word noble, and you refuse to ignore the stupidity and barbarism and ignobility and poltroonery and filth of the real war so that it is mine alone can flash out, a bright signal in a dark time.
It's long, but riveting. Read the whole thing.

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