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As originally published in
The Atlantic Monthly

September 1972


"Is This Like Your War, Sir?"


The line of battle, 1944-1945, revisited

by Arthur T. Hadley

"Is this like your war?" The medic sergeant, two riflemen, the radio operator, the squad leader, and I, a reporter, lay huddled against the white grass-covered sand of a dike in central Vietnam, listening to the enemy bullets crack harmlessly overhead. Over and over again in one form or another throughout Vietnam I was asked the same question. Many times the requests for information were technical: What weapon did I fear most? How many men did we lose a day? Did we wear helmets? What were the lifers (regular soldiers) like? But underneath was the broader question: What had I inherited from my war?

In 1969, the twenty-fifth anniversary of the invasion of Europe, I had made a pilgrimage to my own European battlefields to try and answer that question. I had felt what truths I ever held about World War II were slipping from me. There was my tendency to boast, the pressure by society that a writer hold certain beliefs, the lack of discussion with people who shared the experiences, and time itself. So, since I was in Europe on another story, I flew to The Hague, rented a Volkswagen, and tried to drive into my past. My war actually began in France; but I was busy then learning my trade, the firing of artillery shells containing propaganda leaflets and the making of loudspeaker broadcasts to the enemy. My hostile contacts were far apart and brief. When I had visited my French battlefields some years before, I discovered I could remember nothing.

I have a specific objective for my first day. (I find myself slipping back into the old military terms as I drive.) I am looking for fifty yards of country road just east of a small bend in the Maas River between Sittard and Roermond. In memory the road is one lane, macadamized, treelined, and runs straight between the tiny, gentle hills of southeast Holland. Walking down this stretch of road late one morning, through a mist that kept rising and falling, I heard the sound of incoming shells and threw myself against the grassy verge without even time to make the drainage ditch. When I picked myself up, I saw fresh white scars on the already mutilated trees, and of the five men walking with me, two were unhurt, one wounded slightly, two seriously. One of these died; the blue-white death color was rising into his face as we, the unhurt, ripped open bandages. My dive had been no faster, further, wiser than the others. Chance had decided.

From this road on I ceased to think about chance, but accepted it as a basic fact of life. Later, I easily accepted as true the Darwinian and quantum revolutions with their lessons of probability and chance.

I cannot find anything that remotely resembles my stretch of road. I was prepared for changes, a few houses built here, some suburbs grown there; but I was unprepared for the total transformation of agricultural countryside into urban workshop, the industrialization of post-Marshall Plan Europe. Where I believe my road to have been there is now a four-lane divided highway, on either side of which stretch gigantic factories rivaling Detroit. Between my memories and old military maps and the new maps and ground of today exists zero correlation. After several hours of frantic search, I become as bleak as the damp September weather, convinced the whole trip will prove a mistake.

As I awaken early the next morning in Maastricht near the Dutch-Belgian border, I at least recognize the weather, the thick, cold fog that contains both safety and menace. Thinking "what luxury," I shave in warm water and take a hot bath. Perhaps for this trip I should have tried to find the old-time clothes: scratchy winter undershirt, olive-drab flannel pants and shirt, tank boots, combat jacket. (By midwinter of 1944, I had worn undershirt and pants, winter undershirt and pants, a sweater, a ski parka, olive-drab flannel pants and shirt, combat pants, a second sweater, a British leather cold-weather vest, combat jacket, scarf, wool helmet, helmet, and, finally, an overcoat. The overcoat had my mittens pinned to the sleeves like a child's, so I wouldn't lose them when tired. Sometimes people ask me now about the Battle of the Bulge, and I have to start with the clothes, and being cold and tired and having the flu. By the time I get to the bullets, they have wandered off.

Outside of Maastricht, I find the turnoff to Bemelen, where my unit was headquartered for two months. The road used to be dirt and now is asphalt. Where it once went through fields, it now passes row houses; but in some indefinable way I am sure it's the same road. I am certain about the fields because I used to watch a farmer digging up his turnips and think of Hardy's poem that begins: "Only a man harrowing clods . . ."

A white sign says Bemelen. I do not remember this cluster of stone houses. I didn't live in this map place. Natives lived here. My Bemelen is where my unit deployed around a small hotel outside of town, the one the guidebook describes as having a flowered terrace and a lovely view toward the west. I don't remember that.

I round a corner and see the hotel. The building appears unchanged: whitewashed walls, thatched roof. I pull into the parking lot. In the early morning no one else is up. I tour the outside of the hotel and end up on the terrace, which is full of flowers. The early morning mist burns off. There is, indeed, a magnificent view west. I never saw it. An anti-aircraft unit had two guns on this terrace and I used to think: what a great field of fire. The harsh angles of steel and the attitude of soldier blotted out today's tourist's vision. We brought our war world with us to live in, as we do now in Vietnam. We named our battles and halting places after nearby towns, but the names held different meanings for us and those who lived there.

I walk into the hotel to have coffee. The hotel has changed hands twice since the war. No one is around who remembers my reality, or is interested.

Traveling again, I take the road north toward Heerlen and Sittard. Again the country has not merely changed: it has been transformed. industrial suburbs, factories, new roads, mines. In Sittard I cannot even find the church from whose tower I watched a group of Germans going through their chow line for about half an hour. We lacked the ammunition to fire. There I learned how short of ammunition the drive across France had left us.

I drive east out of Sittard, toward the German border. The signs say Geilenkirchen and Dusseldorf. Intellectually, I accept these signs as true, realizing I could be in Dusseldorf for lunch. But emotionally, I regard them as total lies, insults to my intelligence. You cannot get from Sittard to Geilenkirchen, twelve miles away. The German army and Siegfried Line lie in between. And as for Dusseldorf, that's on the other side of the Rhine. You get there after six months, by way of breaching the West Wall, the Battle of the Bulge, crossing the Roer, bridging the Rhine. I could see these signs every day of my life and still not have the cartography of my past erased by the truth of their present.

Trying to get back on my World War II maps, I turn off the main road toward the tiny town of Hastenrath. Suddenly, for the first time, I move into total recall. Not just memory recognized, as in Bemelen; here I re-enter the event itself. I race along this narrow road through these flat fields being mortared, trying to make the next curve past that farm ahead, after this deadly stretch of straight. Look, the trees bordering the road are all the same half size, planted after the war -- except that lone tall one, which lacks branches from its middle up and is twisted and maimed. I stop the Volkswagen and get out, breathing heavily. If you fire a pistol close to a child when he eats ice cream, he will in a few days become frightened of ice cream. I am terrified by this tree.

I return to the car, drive slowly to the corner, and turn left toward the twenty-odd buildings that make up Hastenrath. The town has not changed, though the red brick church at its center has a new tower (the bricks a darker shade of red) to replace the old one torn apart by giant shells. While I crouched on a beam in this tower, adjusting leaflet fire, the Germans ranged on the church with high-velocity cannon. One shot struck the tower's base. I had read several months before, while still in the States, that if taken under fire while adjusting artillery, one should not stop because the enemy would then be certain where you were and shell the hell out of you. Instead, you should keep firing until he shifted his fire to another place and then stop, causing him to clobber the wrong target.

Against the advice of the other officer in the Hastenrath tower, I kept firing. The Germans quit shelling us and began to work over the church tower in the next town. I quit firing. The Germans blew the hell out of the wrong tower. Years later, I read a lecture by Werner Heisenberg on the implications of modern physics which concluded: "We can only use our powers to maximize our chances." Physicist and soldier, we lived on the same map. I had forgotten Hastenrath, and that I learned this lesson here. I had not been looking for this church tower. I am glad I found it.

Sittard and Hastenrath set the pattern for my trip. The bigger towns and industrial cities have grown so much that though now and then I may recognize a landmark, too little remains the same to set the tapes of memory playing with force. Even places I was certain I could not possibly forget, like the main square of Hildesheim, where Sergeant Plice left the safety of his tank to save my life, appear brand-new. The smaller towns, the farming dorfs like Hastenrath, remain more as they were. Sometimes they seem to have been placed under a spell, like the mythical Germalshausen, to wait unchanged to mingle their present with my past.

Immendorf and Puffendorf are two such unaltered farming towns. Just west of the Roer River, the pillboxes and concrete tank obstacles of the Siegfried Line snaked through their fields. I used to move through those fields among the rotting cabbage heads, reciting to myself over and over again a variation on A. E. Housman:

Immendorf and Puffendorf
Waurichen and Prum
Are the deadliest places
Under the sun.

Approaching Immendorf, I know exactly where I am. I park my Volkswagen-turned- Jeep and walk down a road, as familiar as my home driveway, to the farm I used as an OP (Observation Point) and in whose basement I stored the loudspeakers. To climb its roof now would be to trespass; but peering around the corner, I see in the hazy autumn distance the exact landscape I knew. And I am again afraid.

Some children point at me and laugh. Can they smell my alien fear? In the fields the cabbages are blue and green, not the dead browns and purples I remember. The noise, too, is totally different, more silent and yet noisier, alive with children, dogs and birds. I begin to drift out of my past back into the present, feeling great, suddenly realizing how beautiful the day is -- life is. In the four months I was here then, I do not recall ever noticing a beautiful day. And the distances, deprived of danger, have shrunk. In five minutes I walk across a field between Waurichen and Immendorf that took us over a month to cross: October 7 to November 16. The antitank ditch is weed-filled but still there. I climb into it, feeling safer.

On these fields, day after day, by conscious choice, men were brave, sometimes brave beyond wildest fiction. I do not mean that all men were noble, that there were no cowards, that the fields shone like the sun. That's crap. But so is the belief that there were no heroes present, or only the confused, the father-dominated, the too early toilet-trained, or the latently homosexual. And the bravest were most often the first hit. I cry, part in relief to be alive, part in guilt at being alive. I feel the strangeness of my then self inside my now.

When I was discharged from the hospital, I went into a drugstore to buy razor blades for the first time in my life. I was acutely embarrassed because I, a grown man, just dumped from the peak of Captain Hadley to ordinary civilian, had no idea how much blades cost. I had not had to use them when at eighteen, I entered the Army. For four years I had been issued them. I put down a ten-dollar bill so that the woman behind the counter would not guess my ignorance. When she could not change the ten, I fled, bladeless.

I want to eat lunch at a little inn in Immendorf. But walking through the town before my meal (seeing bits of ground I'd raced across, hearing the tank engines), I come upon the cemetery. A great many of the tombstones are from October and November, 1944, the months of our offensive. Many, by their names, are women; others, by their dates, are, yes, children. I skip lunch.

The next day, five miles southeast of Immendorf's, familiarity, I search for, and cannot find (Aachen's suburbs have overgrown the fields), a crossroads I revisit in memory and pain at least four or five times each year. The Twenty-ninth Division had been attacking a group of buildings near Merzenhausen. I knew I could get the Germans there to surrender by loudspeaker, for the Second Armored almost had the position outflanked, but I couldn't get permission from the colonel in charge of the attack to make a loudspeaker broadcast. Loudspeakers were new and suspect; I was barely twenty and a second lieutenant, lacking both the rank and the tenacity to move authorized seniority. So I sat in the loudspeaker parked by the crossroads and watched in impotence and agony as the two tired columns of infantry trudged forward along each side of the road. I, who had the means to help them, had failed.

That crossroads is gone. I can no more find it than a Roman who marched out of Aachen, then Aquisgranum, to push the German tribes back beyond the Rhine, would recognize a landmark. In A.D. 463 the Ripuarians defeated the Romans here and reconquered the area. Norsemen and Normans, Germans and French, fought over these fields from A.D. 600 to 1248, when William of Holland won a famous victory that brought peace for two hundred years.

I spend eight days on my trip. Too long. Occasionally a whole day passes when I don't recognize a thing, or only think I do. But I must put in every day because I never know when the spool of memory will suddenly restart.

I am following, in low gear, a forest track through the Teutoburger Wald, from which we debouched north of Detmold. The old maps tell me, and I believe, that I am on the right path; but I am not emotionally involved. After all, inside a forest a tree is a tree is a tree. I come around a corner and before me, at an intersection, stand two tanks and an armored car. I recognize the insignia of the British Seventeenth Hussars, a NATO unit.

I pick the battered World War II map off the Volkswagen seat beside me and walk over through the rain to the British major whose head protrudes above the edge of the armored car turret. He is working his radios. "Pardon me," I say. "You are standing on my map."

I show him my old map. He shows me his modern one. He, on a NATO maneuver, is attacking through the same pass we did. "It's frightfully interesting, your taking part in that World War II action," he says to me. "It's a classic. We studied it in school."

Christ. I have passed into history without enjoying a present. When? A mile from here Arminius defeated the Roman legions under Varus. A decisive battle. The Emperor Augustus, waking from nightmares all his remaining life, to cry: "Varus, Varus, give me back my legions." The major and I talk awhile. I drive on.

Just before the track breaks from the Teutoburger Wald, it jogs left. I pull between two pines and quickly stop. As I walk forward through the pines, I know that around the barn in front I will see across the field and low hill to the next town. I do. The town, Fromhausen, is there as then. Not memory, the past instant itself, deep frozen, is liberated at this moment. Suddenly, behind me, I hear the NATO tanks, unseen, grind into position. They fire blanks. The hairs on the backs of my arms rise, and I feel the cold, before-battle sweat start on my palms. For the next two hours, from Fromhausen through Bad Meinberg, Blomberg, Bad Pyrmont, I make every jog and turn through the countryside instinctively, threaded perfectly into the sprocket of my past. I know what lurks around each corner, hear the shell-fire, see the tracers; a tank burns.

I am singing as I drive, yelling at the top of my lungs, for I remember the joy. Days when my heart sang, as at Ahlen, when the Germans came out to surrender after a loudspeaker broadcast, and I saw the relief on the tankers' faces. Most war novels, the conventional wisdom, literary criticism, deny this joy. I had almost grown afraid to admit it to myself, but it was there. I was in history. I had a part to play. I was as happily committed to the welfare of my fellowmen, while looking after myself, as a reform medieval monk. Do those under fire in Vietnam have the same feeling? Some appear to; but the diminution of this joy seems to me a vital difference between "then" and "now."

My trip ends against the twenty-foot-high triple lines of barbed-wire fences, studded with machine gun towers and patroled by dogs, that the Russians and East Germans have emplaced to separate them from the world. I will not be able to drive over the stretch of road on which I was wounded; but that moment itself is unimportant. I had assumed I would be hit someday (much as I believe football players assume they may be hurt). The actual event merely removed me to safety and stopped my concern over when and how.

However, part of what I have inherited from World War II is a result of that moment. I wake each morning in some pain, not much, but noticeable. A faint trace of the past, like my remembered joy; but recalling totally different values.

Much more importantly, I will not see again the treelined lane near Magdeburg that led to my first concentration camp. Coming down the road toward the barbed-wire walls, alert, expecting to be fired at, I saw dead bodies, all withered, hanging on the wire, and was amazed that men could be barbarous enough to string up corpses. Then some of the corpses on the wire moved. I was looking upon the living. Every horror I had imagined fell short of this reality. Since then I have rejected as totally false the belief that men are born naturally good and only society corrupts them.

"Is this like your war, sir?" the medic sergeant asked me again later that afternoon, as we washed the dust, fear, and excitement off ourselves in water poured into my helmet.

I am limited in my ability to answer that question. I can explain my war; but the ultimate explanation of Vietnam must come from those involved there. An observer, even when blood splatters his clothes, remains outside. The basic experience of Vietnam combat is to be bound to stay in that war for a year or until one is wounded or killed. No reporter can impose this shackle on himself. He is like a doctor in an asylum. He can report; with compassion and empathy he can understand a great deal; but the final truth remains with those who must exist in madness or in the combat of their war.


Return to The Other Side of War: An Interview With Paul Fussell



Copyright © 1972 by Arthur T. Hadley. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; September 1972; "Is This Like Your War, Sir?"; Volume 230, No. 3; pages 90-95.

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