Books June 2001

The Real War

Stephen Ambrose's GIs are plaster saints engaged in a sanctified crusade
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In his best-selling books Band of Brothers (1992), D-Day: June 6, 1944 (1994), and Citizen Soldiers (1997), the gruff historian Stephen E. Ambrose has advanced a pious interpretation of America's role in World War II. According to this view, America waged a "crusade" to rid the world of the tyrannical and racist regimes of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. America's fighting men "didn't want to live in a world in which wrong prevailed," Ambrose declares. "So they fought," and thereby "stopped Hitler and Tojo."

Buttressed by the NBC news anchorman Tom Brokaw, whose enormously popular The Greatest Generation (1998) and The Greatest Generation Speaks (1999) are largely inspired by Ambrose's work, Ambrose has come to define the war in the American mind. His previous books examined only the U.S. military's participation in the European theater of operations. But in The Good Fight, written "for young readers," he promises to present a chronicle of the entire global struggle. His extraordinarily widespread appeal almost certainly ensures that Ambrose will mold another American generation's understanding of the war. (This book will likely become, as the publisher predicts, "THE book on World War II for kids.") Because this is a book for young adults, the arguments and point of view are somewhat simplified. But Ambrose's interpretation in The Good Fight is similar in language, tone, and substance to that in his books for adults, and in fact several passages are taken verbatim from Citizen Soldiers.

Ambrose's version of events retroactively imposes an elevated meaning on the American side of the war. Although The Good Fight neglects a host of relevant events and subjects that did not directly involve the United States (the V-weapon attacks on Britain; Operation Bagration; the resistance movements in Yugoslavia, Italy, and France, to name a few), Ambrose does discuss—and in greater detail than any other event save D-Day—the Holocaust. Young readers could be forgiven for inferring that the plight of the Jews and others in the death camps in part motivated America's involvement in the war. Ambrose quotes a former U.S. Army major who "voiced the emotions of so many of his fellow soldiers" when, many decades after the event, he maintained that when he saw Dachau, he said to himself, "Now I know why I am here." In truth, stopping the mass murder of Jews figured in no way in either American war aims or American conduct. In fact, U.S. political and military leaders, along with the press, played down the Nazi effort to exterminate the Jews, and the Army's own propaganda film series "Why We Fight" didn't even mention the Holocaust.

As the critic and literary historian (and World War II combat veteran) Paul Fussell reminded us in Wartime (1989), his study of the psychology and emotion of the United States at war,

For most Americans, the war was about revenge against the Japanese, and the reason the European part had to be finished first was so that maximum attention could be devoted to the real business, the absolute torment and destruction of the Japanese. The slogan was conspicuously Remember Pearl Harbor. No one ever shouted or sang Remember Poland.

(This understandable American passion for vengeance against Japan easily metastasized into what Britain's ambassador in Washington called a "universal 'exterminationist' anti-Japanese feeling" in the United States and among its armed forces overseas.)

The Good Fight is littered with lofty cant. To say, for instance, that the purpose of Operation Overlord (the Normandy invasion) "was to free France from Nazi tyranny" is to transform history writing (albeit "for kids") into rhetoric. That statement places the accents on all the wrong syllables. Overlord's goal was to establish a literal and figurative beachhead in Western Europe in order to help destroy German military power and hence end the war. To characterize it as Ambrose does is to confuse incidental results with fundamental purpose.

His literary endeavors seem largely motivated by a laudable desire to praise America's World War II fighting men. Ambrose honors them, however, not simply by chronicling their indisputable bravery and toughness but by insisting on a sentimental and high-minded explanation of what those men believed they were fighting for. In his books he repeatedly asserts that U.S. soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines "knew they were fighting for decency and democracy and they were proud of it and motivated by it." (Or, as Brokaw insists, "Everyone understood that the successful outcome of the war was critical to the continuing evolution of political and personal freedom.") But has any man ever killed and risked being killed for such abstract, imprecise, and gaseous sentiments? Ambrose, if not Brokaw, has read too much military history not to acknowledge plainly—as he wrote in a passage in Citizen Soldiers which contradicts the thrust of the rest of the book—that, according to the vast literature that assesses the motivation of U.S. fighters in World War II, "there is agreement that patriotism or any other form of idealism had little if anything to do with it." "The GIs fought because they had to," he continued. "What held them together was not country and flag, but unit cohesion." In the same book Ambrose papered over this difficulty by informing his readers that although the GIs fought for "decency and democracy," "they just didn't talk or write about it" (emphasis added). How, then, does he know? Rather than rely on what these men did write and say repeatedly during the war (which boils down to the reasonable, even courageously clear-eyed, but hardly righteous formula of kill or be killed, fight the war to end it so that we can go home), Ambrose draws on reminiscences and interviews and at least one "beer-drinking bull session" with a small number of veterans forty-five years after the fact—hardly the most reliable testimony.

Aiming to honor U.S. fighting men, Ambrose instead turns them into plaster saints engaged in a sanctified crusade, and so does them a disservice. Few eighteen- and nineteen-year-old males who had spent months slaughtering and witnessing slaughter would recognize themselves in Ambrose's celebration (in both Citizen Soldiers and The Good Fight) of "the spirit of those GIs handing out candy and helping to bring democracy to their former enemies." Many would even look askance at the following remark "about what it all meant," which Ambrose praises as "one of the best comments":

In the spring of 1945, around the world, the sight of a twelve-man squad of teenage boys, armed and in uniform, brought terror to people's hearts. Whether it was a Red Army squad, ... or a German squad ... or a Japanese squad ... that squad meant rape, pillage, looting, wanton destruction, senseless killing. But there was an exception: a squad of GIs, a sight that brought the biggest smiles you ever saw to people's lips, and joy to their hearts.

First, what about our allies the British Tommies? They weren't reputed to be barbaric hordes either. More important, although American soldiers acted as honorably as could reasonably be expected, such a statement belies the evidence of rape, looting, and the murder of enemy prisoners. Very few GIs were criminals, but Ambrose's approach discounts the real—and dehumanizing—experience of war for all fighting men. In trying to explain why American soldiers were so contemptuous of home-front attitudes, Fussell wrote,

It was ... 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.

An essential part of their experience was terror and madness on an unfathomable scale, and one of the ways some of them achieved relief was, indisputably, by committing acts of brutality.

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Benjamin Schwarz is the former literary and national editor for The Atlantic. He is writing a book about Winston Churchill for Random House. More

His first piece for the magazine, "The Diversity Myth," was a cover story in 1995. Since then he's written articles and reviews on a startling array of subjects from fashion to the American South, from current fiction to the Victorian family, and from international economics to Chinese restaurants. Schwarz oversees and writes a monthly column for "Books and Critics," the magazine's cultural department, which under his editorship has expanded its coverage to include popular culture and manners and mores, as well as books and ideas. He also regularly writes the "leader" for the magazine. Before joining the Atlantic's staff, Schwarz was the executive editor of World Policy Journal, where his chief mission was to bolster the coverage of cultural issues, international economics, and military affairs. For several years he was a foreign policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, where he researched and wrote on American global strategy, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and military doctrine. Schwarz was also staff member of the Brookings Institution. Born in 1963, he holds a B.A. and an M.A. in history from Yale, and was a Fulbright scholar at Oxford. He has written for a variety of newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Foreign Policy, The National Interest, and The Nation. He has lectured at a range of institutions, from the U.S. Air Force Special Operations School to the Center for Social Theory and Comparative History. He won the 1999 National Book Critics Circle award for excellence in book criticism.

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