Last week I posted Paul Fussell’s essay about his experience as a Second World War platoon leader in the brutal final days of the European campaign. Today I’m posting excerpts from his stunning book, Wartime. The essay focused on his personal experience in the war, but this one focuses on the broader impact the war had on soldiers at the front.
He shows vividly what it was like being in the infantry on the front lines, an experience that only a small fraction of service members had, since so many were involved in support roles. “If by the end there were 11 million men in the American army, only 2 million were in the 90 combat divisions, and of those, fewer than 700,000 were in the infantry.”
He wrote the book in an effort to undercut the romanticized version of the war that had developed over the years, portraying it as the Good War fought by the Greatest Generation. He’s not arguing that the war didn’t need to be fought or that the U.S. was on the wrong side. His point is that none of this makes it any better for the those in combat, who underwent a hellish experience that no one should have to endure and that left no one unscarred.
Now, fifty years later, there has been so much talk about “The Good War,” the Justified War, the Necessary War, and the like, that the young and the innocent could get the impression that it was really not such a bad thing after all. It’s thus necessary to observe that it was a war and nothing else, and thus stupid and sadistic, a war, as Cyril Connolly said, “of which we are all ashamed .. a war . . which lowers the standard of thinking and feeling . . which is as obsolete as drawing and quartering . .”; further, a war opposed to “every reasonable conception of what life is for, every ambition of the mind or delight of the senses.” Both civilians and soldiers were right to perceive in the war, as Dwight Macdonald has said, “the maximum of physical devastation accompanied by the minimum of human meaning.”
The core experience on the front lines was chronic and fully justified fear. It was the lucky ones who were badly wounded enough to be taken to the rear.
Over one-quarter of the soldiers in one division admitted that they’d been so scared they vomited, and almost a quarter said that at terrifying moments they’d lost control of their bowels. Ten percent had urinated in their pants. As John Ellis observes of these data,
In six weeks of fighting in Normandy, the 90th Infantry Division had to replace 150 per cent of its officers and over 100 per cent of its men. If a division was engaged for more than three months, the probability was that every one of its second lieutenants, all 132 of them, would be killed or wounded.
The image of the grizzled veteran standing strong while the new recruits quake is fake, he says. War eventually gets to everyone.
In war it is not just the weak soldiers, or the sensitive ones, or the highly imaginative or cowardly ones, who will break down. Inevitably, all will break down if in combat long enough. “Long enough” is now defined by physicians and psychiatrists as between 200 and 240 days. As medical observers have reported, “There is no such thing as ‘getting used to combat’. … Each moment of combat imposes a strain so great that men will break down in direct relation to the intensity and duration of their experience.” Thus—and this is unequivocal: “Psychiatric casualties are as inevitable as gunshot and shrapnel wounds in warfare.”32 Given this ultimate collapse into blubbery tears of the strongest and most experienced soldiers surviving in every outfit, the whole front line would dissolve except for two things: at any given moment, not all men have yet reached the stage of collapse; and there is a constant flow of replacements for those who have.
It was common . . throughout the [Okinawa] campaign,” says the U. S. marine Eugene Sledge,
for replacements to get hit before we even knew their names. They came up confused, frightened, and hopeful, got wounded or killed, and went right back to the rear on the route by which they had come, shocked, bleeding, or stiff. They were forlorn figures coming up to the meat grinder and going right back out of it like homeless waifs, unknown and faceless to us, like unread books on a shelf.
A key characteristic of the men who fought the war is that they were mostly boys.
War must rely on the young, for only they have the two things fighting requires: physical stamina and innocence about their own mortality.
The young are proud of their athleticism, and because their sense of honor has not yet suffered compromise, they make the most useful material for manning the sharp end of war. Knowledge will come after a few months, and then they’ll be used up and as soldiers virtually useless—scared, cynical, debilitated, unwilling.
A notable feature of the Second World War is the youth of most who fought it. The soldiers played not just at being killers but at being grownups. Enacting a child’s parody of a murderous adult society, boys who had never shaved machine-gunned other boys creeping up with Panzerfausts in their adolescent hands. Among the horribly wounded the most common cry was “Mother!”
Fussell devotes an entire chapter of the book to what he calls “chickenshit.” As if it wasn’t bad enough to be a constant risk of being killed, soldiers also had to put up with the petty indignities of a military system that treated them like dirt.
Chickenshit refers rather to behavior that makes military life worse than it need be: petty harassment of the weak by the strong; open scrimmage for power and authority and prestige; sadism thinly disguised as necessary discipline; a constant “paying off of old scores”; and insistence on the letter rather than the spirit of ordinances. Chickenshit is so called—instead of horse-or bull- or elephant shit—because it is small-minded and ignoble and takes the trivial seriously. Chickenshit can be recognized instantly because it never has anything to do with winning the war.
Some of the Second World War masters of chickenshit became famous for it, like General Patton. He insisted that members of his Third Army dress genteelly in the combat zone, and many men died with their neckties tucked in between the second and third shirt buttons.
One classic response to chickenshit was GI humor.
It suggests the way ordinary soldiers, who are far from being authors, also defend themselves against the grosser kinds of chickenshit by devising compensatory brief narratives—rumor-jokes, they might be called. If good enough, these will fly on their own wings all over the army. For example: General Patton, inspecting a hospital in France, profanely chews out one man for not coming to attention in his presence. The man replies: “Run along, asshole. I’m in the Merchant Marine.”
Holding on to an idealistic vision of the war’s mission was hard to sustain on the front lines.
The war was simply “a bad job that had to be got through”—Melvyn Bragg’s designation is one that those close to the war would agree with. The war seemed so devoid of ideological content that little could be said about its positive purposes that made political or intellectual sense, especially after the Soviet Union joined the great crusade against what until then had been stigmatized as totalitarianism. After that embarrassment, less said the better indeed.
One part of the story Fussell tells here struck me in particular. The great American war machine wasn’t all that great. On the front line, soldiers knew that the German army was better equipped.
What was it about the war that moved the troops to constant verbal subversion and contempt? It was not just the danger and fear, the boredom and uncertainty and loneliness and deprivation. It was rather the conviction that optimistic publicity and euphemism had rendered their experience so falsely that it would never be readily communicable. They knew that in its representation to the laity what was happening to them was systematically sanitized and Norman Rockwellized, not to mention Disneyfied. They knew that despite the advertising and publicity, where it counted their arms and equipment were worse then the Germans’. They knew that their automatic rifles (World War One vintage) were slower and clumsier, and they knew that the Germans had a much better light machine gun. They knew that despite official assertions to the contrary, the Germans had real smokeless powder for their small arms and that they did not. They knew that their own tanks, both American and British, were ridiculously under-armed and under-armored, so that they were inevitably destroyed in an open encounter with an equal number of German Panzers. They knew that the anti-tank mines supplied them became unstable in sub-freezing weather, and that truckloads of them blew up in the winter of 1944–45. And they knew that the greatest single weapon of the war, the atomic bomb excepted, was the German 88-mm flat-trajectory gun, which brought down thousands of bombers and tens of thousands of soldiers. The Allies had nothing as good, despite one of them designating itself The World’s Greatest Industrial Power. The troops’ disillusion and their ironic response, in song and satire and sullen contempt, came from knowing that the home front then (and very likely historiography later) could be aware of none of these things.
But in the end, his story is about what the war did to the bodies and minds of the soldiers who fought it.
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 front-line 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 experiences as the following, repeated in essence tens of thousands of times.