The Real War 1939-1945

On its fiftieth anniversary, how should we think of the Second World War? What is its contemporary meaning? One possible meaning, reflected in every line of what follows, is obscured by that oddly minimizing term "conventional war." With our fears focused on nuclear destruction, we tend to be less mindful of just what conventional war between modern industrial powers is like. This article describes such war, in a stark, unromantic manner

The Necessity of Euphemism

THE WAY CENSORSHIP OPERATED TO KEEP THE real war from being known is suggested by Herbert Merillat, who during the war was a bright and sensitive public-relations officer attached to the Marines on Guadalcanal. In addition to generating Joe Blow stories, he had the job of censor: he was empowered to pass stories consonant with "the war effort" and to kill all others. Of a day in November, 1942, he wrote in Guadalcanal Remembered,

A recently arrived sergeant-reporter came around this afternoon, very excited, very earnest. Having gone through one naval shelling and two bombings he has decided that war is hell, and that he should write something stark. He showed me a long piece on the terror of men during bombings and shellings, the pain of the wounded, the disease and unpleasantness of this place. It was a gloomy and distorted piece; you would get the idea that every marine on the island is a terror-stricken, beaten man. I tried to tell him the picture was badly skewed.

That's how the people at home were kept in innocence of malaria, dysentery, terror, bad attitude, and psychoneurosis. Occasionally there might be an encounter between home front sentimentality and frontline vileness, as in an episode recalled by Charles MacDonald, a rifle-company commander in Europe, in his 1947 book Company Commander. One glib reporter got far enough forward to encounter some infantrymen on the line, to whom he put cheerful questions like, "What would you like best from the States about now?" At first he got nothing but sullen looks and silence. But finally one soldier spoke:

"I've got something to say. Tell them it's too damned serious over here to be talking about hot dogs and baked beans and things we're missing. Tell them it's hell, and tell them there're men getting killed and wounded every minute, and they're miserable and they're suffering. Tell them it's a matter more serious than they'll ever be able to understand"—

at which point "there was a choking sob in his voice," MacDonald remembered. Then the soldier got out the rest of his urgent message: "Tell 'em it's rough as hell. Tell 'em it's rough. Tell 'em it's rough, serious business. That's all. That's all."

Ernie Pyle, well known as the infantry's advocate, was an accredited correspondent, which meant that he, too, had to obey the rules—that is, reveal only about a third of the actuality and, just like the other journalists, fuel all the misconceptions: that officers were admired, if not loved; that soldiers were dutiful, if frightened; and that everyone on the Allied side was sort of nice. One of Pyle's best-known pieces is his description of the return to his company in Italy of the body of Captain Henry T. Waskow, "of Belton, Texas." Such ostentatious geographical precision only calls attention to the genteel vagueness with which Pyle was content to depict the captain's wound and body. Brought down from a mountain by muleback, Captain Waskow's body was laid out on the ground at night and respectfully visited by officers and men of the company. The closest Pyle came to accurate registration was reporting that one man, who sat by the body for some time, holding the captain's hand and looking into his face, finally "reached over and gently straightened the points of the captain's shirt collar, and then he sort of arranged the tattered edges of the uniform around the wound." While delivering an account satisfying on its own terms, this leaves untouched what normally would be thought journalistically indispensable questions, and certainly questions bound to occur to readers hoping to derive from the Infantry's Friend (as Pyle was often called) an accurate image of the infantry's experience. Questions like these: What killed Captain Waskow? Bullet, shell fragments, a mine, or what? Where was his wound? How large was it? You imply that it was in the traditional noble place, the chest. Was it? Was it a little hole, or was it a great red missing place? Was it perhaps in the crotch, or in the testicles, or in the belly? Were his entrails extruded, or in any way visible? Did the faithful soldier wash off his hands after toying with those "tattered edges"? Were the captain's eyes open? Did his face look happy? Surprised? Satisfied? Angry?

But even Pyle's copy, resembling as it does the emissions from the Office of War Information, is frankness itself compared with what German correspondents were allowed to send. They were a part of the military, not just civilians attached to it, and like all other German troops, they had taken the oath to the Führer. Their job was strictly propaganda, and throughout the war they obeyed the invariable rule that German servicemen were never, never to be shown dead in photographs, moving or still, and that their bodies, if ever mentioned, were to be treated with verbal soft focus. Certainly, so far as the German home front knew, soldiers' bodies were not dismembered, decapitated, eviscerated, or flattened out by tank treads until they looked like plywood. Even more than the testimonies sent back by such as Steinbeck and Pyle, the narratives presented to the German people were nothing but fairy stories of total heroism, stamina, good will, and cheerfulness. This meant that for almost six years a large slice of actuality was declared off limits, and the sanitized and euphemized remainder was presented as the whole. Both sides were offered not just false data but worse: false assumptions about human nature and behavior, assumptions whose effect was to define either a world without a complicated principle of evil or one where all evil was easily displaced onto one simplified enemy—Jews on the Axis side, Nazis and "japs" on the Allied. The postwar result for the Allies, at least, is suggested by one returning Canadian soldier, wounded three times in Normandy and Holland, who recalls (in Six War Years 1939-1945, edited by Barry Broadfoot) disembarking with his buddies to find on the quay nice, smiling Red Cross or Salvation Army girls.

They give us a little bag and it has a couple of chocolate bars in it and a comic book. . . . We had gone overseas not much more than children but we were coming back, sure, let's face it, as killers. And they were still treating us as children. Candy and comic books.

Considering that they were running the war, it is surprising how little some officials on each side knew about the real war and its conditions. Some didn't care to know—like Adolf Hitler, who refused to visit Hamburg after its terrible fire storm in the summer of 1943. Some thought they knew about the real war—like Josef Goebbels, who did once visit the Eastern Front. But there he "assimilated reality to his own fantasies," as Neil Acherson has said, and took away only evidence establishing that the troops were "brave fellows" and that his own morale-building speeches were "rapturously received." His knowledge of ground warfare remained largely literary: the course of the Punic Wars and the campaigns of Frederick the Great had persuaded him (or so he said) that in war "spirit" counts for more than luck or quantity of deployable men and munitions.

In addition to a calculating ignorance, a notable but not unique emotional coldness in the face of misery helped insulate him from the human implications of unpleasant facts. In his diary for September 20, 1943, airily and without any emotion or comment (not even a conventional "I was sorry to see" or "It is painful to say"), he totaled up the casualty figures for two years on the Eastern Front alone: "Our total losses in the East, exclusive of Lapland, from June 22, 1941, to August 31, 1943, were 548,480 dead, of whom 18,512 were officers; 1,998,991 wounded, of whom 51,670 were officers; 354,957 missing, of whom 11,597 were officers; total 2,902,438, of whom 81,779 were officers." If it was callousness that protected Goebbels from the human implications of these numbers, it was rank and totemic identity that protected King George VI from a lot of instructive unpleasantness. According to John W. Wheeler-Bennett, his official biographer, what the King saw on his numerous visits to bombed areas fueled only his instinct for high-mindedness. He concluded that among the bombed and maimed he was witnessing "a fellowship of self-sacrifice and 'good-neighbourliness,' a comradeship of adversity in which men and women gave of their noblest to one another, a brotherhood of man in which the artificial barriers of caste and class were broken down." The King never saw perfect fear operating as Connolly saw it, and it is unlikely that anyone told him that while the Normandy invasion was taking place, "almost every police station and detention camp in Britain was jam-packed full," as Peter Grafton put it, in You, You and You. "In Glasgow alone . . . deserters were sitting twelve to a cell." It is hard to believe that the King was aware of all the bitter anti-Jewish graffiti his subjects were scrawling up in public places. Nor is it recorded that he took in news of the thievery, looting, and robbing of the dead which were widely visible in the raided areas. Thirty-four people were killed in the cellar ballroom of the Café de Paris on March 8, 1941, when a bomb penetrated the ceiling and exploded on the bandstand, wiping out the band and many of the dancers. Nicholas Monsarrat, in his autobiography Breaking In, Breaking Out, recalled the scene that followed.

The first thing which the rescue squads and the firemen saw, as their torches poked through the gloom and the smoke and the bloody pit which had lately been the most chic cellar in London, was a frieze of other shadowy men, night-creatures who had scuttled within as soon as the echoes ceased, crouching over any dead or wounded woman, any soignée corpse they could find, and ripping off its necklace, or earrings, or brooch: rifling its handbag, scooping up its loose change.

That vignette suggests the difficulty of piercing the barrier of romantic optimism about human nature implicit in the Allied victory and the resounding Allied extirpation of flagrant evil. If it is a jolt to realize that blitzed London generated a whole class of skillful corpse robbers, it is because within the moral assumptions of the Allied side that fact would be inexplicable. One could say of the real war what Barbara Foley has written of the Holocaust—not that it is "unknowable" but that "its full dimensions are inaccessible to the ideological frameworks that we have inherited from the liberal era."

Unmelodramatized Horror

FINDING THE OFFICIAL, SANITIZED, "KING George" war unbelievable, not at all in accord with actual human nature, where might one turn in search of the real, heavy-duty war? After scrutinizing closely the facts of the American Civil War, after seeing and listening to hundreds of the wounded, Walt Whitman declared, "The real war will never get in the books." Nor, of course, will the real Second World War. But the actualities of the war are more clearly knowable from some books than from others. The real war is unlikely to be found in novels, for example, for they must exhibit, if not plot, at least pace, and their characters tend to assume the cliché forms demanded by Hollywood, even the new Hollywood, and even if the novels are as honorable as Harry Brown's A Walk in the Sun, Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead, and Joseph Heller's Catch-22. Not to mention what is perhaps the best of them, James Jones's The Thin Red Line. Sensing that action and emotion during the war were too big and too messy and too varied for confinement in one 300-page volume of fiction, the British have tended to refract the war in trilogies, and some are brilliant: Evelyn Waugh's Sword of Honor (1965) of course, collecting his three novels about Guy Crouchback's disillusioning war, written from 1952 to 1961; Olivia Manning's Balkan Trilogy (1960-1965); Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time: Third Movement (1964-1968); and Manning's Levant Trilogy (1977-1980). The American way seems to be less to conceive a trilogy than to produce three novels of different sorts and then, finding them on one's hands, to argue that they constitute a trilogy, as James Jones did. Despite many novels' undoubted success as engaging narrative, few have succeeded in making a motive, almost a character, of a predominant wartime emotion—boredom—or persuading readers that the horrors have not been melodramatized. One turns, thus, from novels to nonfiction, especially memoirs, and especially memoirs written by participants not conscious of serving any very elevated artistic ambition. The best are those devoid of significant dialogue, almost always a sign of ex post facto novelistic visitation. Because they were forbidden in all theaters of war, lest their capture reveal secrets, clandestine diaries, seen and censored by no authority, offer one of the most promising accesses to actuality. The prohibition of diaries often meant increased devotion and care on the part of the writer. In Cairo in April of 1943 D. A. Simmonds, an RAF pilot officer, addressed his diary thus:

I understand that the writing of diaries is definitely forbidden in the services, and you must therefore consider yourself a very lucky diary to have so much time and energy expended on you when you're not entitled to be in existence at all.

And, a month later, "You are becoming quite a big lad now, my diary; slowly but surely your pages swell."

One diary in which much of the real war can be found is James J. Fahey's Pacific War Diary (1963). Fahey, a seaman first class on the light cruiser U.S.S. Montpelier, was an extraordinarily patient, decent person, devoid of literary sophistication, and the authenticity of his experience can be inferred from his constant obsession with hunger and food, subjects as interesting as combat.

For breakfast we had some hash and 1 bun, for dinner baloney sandwich, and for supper we had coffee, baloney sandwich, 1 cookie and 1 candy bar. This morning our ship shot down its lucky #13 Jap plane and one probable.

Almost as trustworthy as such daily entries, unrevised later, are accounts of events written soon after by intelligent participants, like Keith Douglas (Alamein to Zem Zem, 1946), John Guest (Broken Images, 1949), and Neil McCallum (Journey With a Pistol, 1959). Those are British, and they are typical British literary performances, educated, allusive, artistically sensitive, a reminder of the British expectation that highly accomplished and even stylish young men would often be found serving in the infantry and the tanks. There they would be in a position to create the sort of war memoirs virtually nonexistent among Americans—the sort that generate a subtle, historically conscious irony by juxtaposing traditional intellectual or artistic images of transcendence against an unflinching, fully mature registration of wartime barbarism.

The best American memoirs are different, conveying their terrible news less by allusion and suggestion and ironic learned comment than by an uncomplicated delivery of the facts, in a style whose literary unpretentiousness seems to argue absolute credibility. No American would write of his transformation from civilian into soldier the way John Guest did, in Broken Images: "I am undergoing a land-change into something coarse and strange." American attempts to avoid the plain frequently backfire, occasioning embarrassing outbreaks of Fine Writing. Speaking of the arrival, finally, of American planes on Guadalcanal, one U.S. Marine, Robert Leckie, wrote in Helmet for My Pillow:

All of Guadalcanal was alive with hope and vibrant with the scent of victory. . . . The enemy was running! The siege was broken! And all through the day, like a mighty Te Deum rising to Heaven, came the beat of the airplane motors. Oh, how sweet the air I breathed that day! How fresh and clean and sprightly the life that leapt in my veins.

In contrast, the American procedure at its best, unashamed of simplicity, is visible in Eugene Sledge's memoir of a boy's experience fighting with "the old breed," the United States Marines. His With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa (1981) is one of the finest memoirs to emerge from any war, and no Briton could have written it. Born in Mobile, Alabama, in 1923, Sledge enlisted in December, 1942. After his miraculous survival in the war, he threw himself into the study of zoology and ultimately became a professor of biology at the University of Montevallo, in Alabama. The main theme of With the Old Breed is, as Sledge indicates, "the vast difference" between what has been published about these two Marine Corps battles, which depicts them as more or less sane activities, and his own experience "on the front line." One reason Sledge's account is instantly credible is the amount of detail with which he registers his presence at the cutting edge, but another is his tone—unpretentious, unsophisticated, modest, and decent. Despite all the horrors he recounts, he is proud to have been a Marine. He is uncritical of and certainly uncynical about Bob Hope's contribution to the entertainment of the forces, and on the topic of medals and awards he is totally unironic—he takes them seriously, believing that those who have been given them deserve them. He doesn't like to say shit and he prays, out loud. He comes through as such a nice person, so little inclined to think ill of others, that forty years after the war he still can't figure out why loose and wayward straps on haversacks and the like should be called, by disapproving sergeants and officers, Irish pennants: "Why Irish I never knew. " Clearly he is not a man to misrepresent experience for the momentary pleasure of a little show business.

If innocent when he joined the Marines, Sledge was not at all stupid, and he knew that what he was getting into was going to be "tough": in training, the emphasis on the Ka-Bar knife and kicking the Japs effectively in the genitals made that clear. But any remaining scales fell from his eyes when he saw men simply hosed down by machine-gun fire on the beach at Peleliu: "I felt sickened to the depths of my soul. I asked God, 'Why, why, why?' I turned my face away and wished that I were imagining it all. I had tasted the bitterest essence of the war, the sight of helpless comrades being slaughtered, and it filled me with disgust." Before the battle for Peleliu was over, with casualties worse even than at Tarawa, Sledge perceived what all combat troops finally perceive: "We were expendable! It was difficult to accept. We come from a nation and a culture that values life and the individual. To find oneself in a situation where your life seems of little value is the ultimate in loneliness. It is a humbling experience." He knew now that horror and fear were his destiny, unless a severe wound or death or (most unlikely) a Japanese surrender should reprieve him. And his understanding of the world he was in was filled out by watching Marines levering out Japanese gold teeth with their Ka-Bar knives, sometimes from living mouths. The Japanese "defense" encapsulated the ideas and forms and techniques of "waste" and "madness." The Japanese knew they could neither repel the Marines nor be reinforced. Knowing this, they simply killed, without hope and without meaning.

Peleliu finally secured, Sledge's decimated unit was reconstituted for the landing on southern Okinawa. It was there that he saw "the most repulsive thing I ever saw an American do in the war"—he saw a young Marine officer select a Japanese corpse, stand over it, and urinate into its mouth. Speaking of the "incredible cruelty" that was commonplace when "decent men were reduced to a brutish existence in their fight for survival amid the violent death, terror, tension, fatigue, and filth that was the infantryman's war," Sledge notes that "our code of conduct toward the enemy differed drastically from that prevailing back at the division CP." Unequivocal is Sledge's assertion that "we lived in an environment totally incomprehensible"—not just to civilians at a great distance but "to men behind the lines."

But for Sledge, the worst of all was a week-long stay in rain-soaked foxholes on a muddy ridge facing the Japanese, a site strewn with decomposing corpses turning various colors, nauseating with the stench of death, "an environment so degrading I believed we had been flung into hell's own cesspool." Because there were no latrines and because there was no moving in daylight, the men relieved themselves in their holes and flung the excrement out into the already foul mud. It was a latter-day Verdun, the Marine occupation of that ridge, where the artillery shellings uncovered scores of half-buried Marine and Japanese bodies, making the position "a stinking compost pile."

If a marine slipped and slid down the back slope of the muddy ridge, he was apt to reach the bottom vomiting. I saw more than one man lose his footing and slip and slide all the way to the bottom only to stand up horror-stricken as he watched in disbelief while fat maggots tumbled out of his muddy dungaree pockets, cartridge belt, legging lacings, and the like. . . .

We didn't talk about such things. They were too horrible and obscene even for hardened veterans. . . . It is too preposterous to think that men could actually live and fight for days and nights on end under such terrible conditions and not be driven insane. . . . To me the war was insanity.

And from the other side of the world the young British officer Neil McCallum, in Journey With a Pistol, issued a similar implicit warning against the self-delusive attempt to confer high moral meaning on these grievous struggles for survival. Far from rationalizing their actions as elements of a crusade, McCallum and his men, he said, had "ceased largely to think or believe at all."

Annihilation of the spirit. The game does not appear to be worth the candle. What is seen through the explosions is that this, no less than any other war, is not a moral war. Greek against Greek, against Persian, Roman against the world, cowboys against Indians, Catholics against Protestants, black men against white—this is merely the current phase of an historical story. It is war, and to believe it is anything but a lot of people killing each other is to pretend it is something else, and to misread man's instinct to commit murder.

IN SOME WARTIME VERSES TITLED "WAR POET," THE British soldier Donald Bain tried to answer critics and patriots who argued that poets were failing to register the meaning of the war, choosing instead to note mere incoherent details and leaving untouched and uninterpreted the great design of the whole. Defending contemporary poets and writers, Bain wrote:

We in our haste can only see the small components of the scene;
We cannot tell what incidents will focus on the final screen.
A barrage of disruptive sound, a petal on a sleeping face,
Both must be noted, both must have their place.
It may be that our later selves or else our unborn sons
Will search for meaning in the dust of long deserted guns.
We only watch, and indicate and make our scribbled pencil notes.
We do not wish to moralize, only to ease our dusty throats.

But what time seems to have shown our later selves is that perhaps there was less coherent meaning in the events of wartime than we had hoped. Deprived of a satisfying final focus by both the enormousness of the war and the unmanageable copiousness of its verbal and visual residue, all the revisitor of this imagery can do, turning now this way, now that, is to indicate a few components of the scene. And despite the preponderance of vileness, not all are vile.

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.

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