The Boys' Crusade
by Paul Fussell
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.
The Rise of Western Christendom
by Peter Brown