Books October 2003

New & Noteworthy

What to read this month

The Boys' Crusade
by Paul Fussell
Modern Library

In this superb, tough-minded, and impressionistic introduction to the experiences of the U.S. infantry in northwest Europe from D-Day to Germany's surrender, Paul Fussell confronts the sanctimonious "military romanticism" of Messrs. Ambrose, Brokaw, and Spielberg, "which, if not implying that war is really good for you, does suggest that it contains desirable elements—pride, companionship, and the consciousness of virtue enforced by deadly weapons."

In fact, Fussell says, "there is nothing in infantry warfare to raise the spirits at all, and anyone who imagines a military 'victory' gratifying is mistaken." Fussell (who as an infantry officer was severely wounded in France during the war) is the author of two of the great works of postwar literary and cultural history, The Great War and Modern Memory and the undeservedly neglected Wartime, which explored the chasm between the sanitized, optimistic publicity and euphemism of the American and British home fronts and the trauma and terror that confronted the fighting men. In The Boys' Crusade he applies the critical perspective of Wartime to chronicle, in a mere 184 pages, the U.S. ground war in France and Germany. His account is selective: the D-Day landings are so well known that he skips them entirely (but does note the largely forgotten fact that to fool the Germans into thinking that the Allies would land at Calais rather than Normandy, the Americans and the British bombed the former area far more heavily than the latter, so "even the Germans found it hard to believe that their enemy would kill so many civilians merely to maintain a deception"). He focuses instead on small, unnoticed, and invariably unpleasant, if not appalling, details. (For instance, to illustrate the disparity between the relative luxury of the American GIs and the austerity of the British Tommies—which engendered profound ill will on the part of the latter toward the former—Fussell notes that the American Army allocated 22.5 sheets of toilet paper per day for its soldiers, and the British allocated three.) Above all, Fussell honors his fellow combat veterans by treating them not as plaster saints, as Brokaw and Company would have it, but as men—and remembering that when they were shipped to Europe, most were merely boys. To Ambrose, all fighting men "knew they were fighting for decency and democracy and they were proud of it and motivated by it"; Fussell is highly skeptical that men would kill for such abstract and gaseous sentiments, and knows that "the threat of shame and contempt before an audience of valued intimate acquaintances was more powerful than patriotism or ideology or hatred of the enemy in exacting uncowardly behavior from soldiers." And whereas Ambrose celebrates "the spirit of those GIs handing out candy and helping to bring democracy to their former enemies," Fussell brings a dose of realism to the behavior of seventeen-, eighteen-, and nineteen-year-old American males (rarely drawn from the most refined circles) who had spent months slaughtering and seeing their fellows slaughtered: the French sold the troops watered-down wine; "the GIs countered by throwing from their vehicles, in answer to begging cries for cigarettes and candies, used and ripe old condoms, 'filled,' said one soldier, 'with our drainings.'" And he possesses the intellectual clarity to note the obvious: "What has been celebrated as the Greatest Generation included among the troops and their officers plenty of criminals, psychopaths, cowards, and dolts." Sardonic, with a sharp eye for the absurd, Fussell elucidates both strategy (he's especially insightful on the thorny relationship between the British and American high commands) and the perceptions, behavior, and experience of the troops. His viewpoint—that combat, even combat that defeats Nazi Germany, is without uplift, without virtue, and without purpose—will antagonize some readers and offend the moral narcissism of others. But his book is the best—the smartest, most concise, and most briskly written—introduction to its subject. It would make an excellent high school text (and Father's Day gift). Those readers wishing to explore the topic in more detail should—please—eschew Ambrose and Brokaw and turn instead to three unusually clear-eyed, and hence overlooked, accounts: The Sharp End: The Fighting Man in World War II and Brute Force: Allied Strategy and Tactics in the Second World War, both by John Ellis, and the often terrifying The Crash of Ruin: American Combat Soldiers in Europe During World War II, by Peter Schrijvers, which is a masterpiece.

History

The Rise of Western Christendom
by Peter Brown
Blackwell

Very few scholars so dominate their fields as Peter Brown does the history of late antiquity and the Dark Ages (roughly the years 200 to 1000), and his supremacy owes as much to the felicity and authority of his prose as to his truly awesome learning. His Augustine of Hippo, first published in 1967, remains the definitive account of its topic and one of the great scholarly biographies. For the next nearly thirty years he wrote a series of monographs that continually revolutionized academic thinking on late antiquity. In 1996 he published his great distillation, the first edition of this book. It instantly became the essential work on the subject. But research incessantly accrues—and, as Brown emphasizes, there was a "dam burst" of scholarship on late antiquity in the late 1990s (an astonishing number of works cited in this latest edition were published after he wrote the first edition)—so, with characteristic rigor and conscientiousness, Brown has comprehensively revised, expanded, and amplified his original study to produce this even richer, deeper, and more polished summa. Surveying economic, military, religious, art, and agricultural history; employing the terms and perspectives of anthropology and social psychology; and ranging from Iceland to the borders of China, from Beowulf to the Koran, from the monks on the bleak islands off Ireland to the holy men in the Egyptian desert, from the conversions in Scandinavia to Islamic-Christian contact and collisions in northern Syria, Brown reifies not merely the processes by which Christianity rose to dominate Western Europe but nearly every aspect of a profoundly alien world. Or, more precisely, worlds—for Brown emphasizes both the lack of a defined center in late antiquity (a period defined by many "micro-Christendoms") and the fluidity between barbarian and classical societies, between Islam and Christendom, between paganism and Christianity, and between Eastern and Western Christendom. (In a startling reversal of his readers' Western perspective, Brown reminds us that "Rome was a frontier city" from 535 to 800. "It lay on the western periphery of a great, eastern empire. Every document which the popes issued ... was dated according to the reigns of East Roman rulers ... whose careers were determined not by events in western Europe, but by what happened along the eastern stretches of the Danube, on the steppes of the Ukraine, in Iran, and on the Arabian peninsula.") With its dexterous and confident handling of an array of subjects and disciplines, and its exhaustive and detailed endnotes and bibliography, this book has encapsulated and synthesized a burgeoning field of scholarship at the point of perhaps its greatest creativity and imagination.

Presented by

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.

Google Street View, Transformed Into a Tiny Planet

A 360-degree tour of our world, made entirely from Google's panoramas

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Google Street View, Transformed Into a Tiny Planet

A 360-degree tour of our world, made entirely from Google's panoramas

Video

The 86-Year-Old Farmer Who Won't Quit

A filmmaker returns to his hometown to profile the patriarch of a family farm

Video

Riding Unicycles in a Cave

"If you fall down and break your leg, there's no way out."

Video

Carrot: A Pitch-Perfect Satire of Tech

"It's not just a vegetable. It's what a vegetable should be."

Video

The Benefits of Living Alone on a Mountain

"You really have to love solitary time by yourself."

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In