Download Citizen soldiers : the u.s. army from the normandy
December 21, 1997Put Out More Flags Two books give ordinary American soldiers the lion's share of the credit for winning World War II.
By CARLO D'ESTE
The U.S. Army From the Normandy Beaches to the Bulge to the Surrender of Germany, June 7, 1944-May 7, 1945.
By Stephen E. Ambrose.
Illustrated. 512 pp. New York:
Simon & Schuster. $27.50.
THE WORLD WITHIN WAR
America's Combat Experience
in World War II.
By Gerald F. Linderman.
408 pp. New York:
The Free Press. $26.
hen Hitler's armies invaded Poland in September 1939 and ignited World War II, the Army of the United States numbered less than 200,000. Six years later, more than 8.2 million men and women were serving in the Army, and around 3.8 million in the Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard. This immense force was composed almost entirely of citizens who voluntarily (and involuntarily by way of the draft) answered the call to arms.
Since the end of that war there has been a stream of memoirs and fiction recording the experiences of these people. Their ordeals have been poignantly portrayed in novels like ''The Naked and the Dead,'' by Norman Mailer, and ''The Thin Red Line,'' by James Jones. Historians, however, have largely neglected the role of ordinary soldiers, how they fought and the consequences of battle to them, but two outstanding new books redress this omission.
Stephen E. Ambrose's ''Citizen Soldiers'' is a sequel to the story of the American fighting man in the European theater of operations begun in ''D-Day,'' his acclaimed 1994 account of the Normandy landings in 1944. Although D-Day was arguably the single most important milestone of the war for the Allies, it was but one of a series of battles fought to bring about the defeat of Nazi Germany. Often nameless, these battles raged amid the hedgerows of Normandy, in the mud of Lorraine, in the bitter cold of the Ardennes during the Battle of the Bulge, and along the Rhine where, in one of the war's epic moments, American troops seized the railroad bridge at Remagen. Other battles, like those in the deadly Hurtgen Forest, were as senseless as they were lethal.
These events have all been well documented, but in Ambrose's capable hands, the bloody and dramatic battles fought in northwest Europe in 1944-45 come alive as never before. Drawing heavily on oral history accounts from the Eisenhower Center (which he founded at the University of New Orleans), he manages to keep the big picture clearly in focus while detailing the gut-wrenching experience of combat, in which trench foot and frostbite were enemies as dangerous as the Germans. The equivalent of three entire American infantry divisions (45,000 men) were lost to trench foot in the winter of 1944-45, one of the most bitterly cold periods of this century in Europe.
To highlight their hardships Ambrose takes us through a harrowing night in a foxhole at the front, into the cockpit of a B-17 bomber, through a terrifying assault-glider landing and into a deadly minefield. Although his primary focus is the front-line soldier, an entire section of the book is dedicated to descriptions of the lifesaving work of the Medical Corps, the air war, the experiences of prisoners of war, the many logistical screw-ups and the Jim Crow racism of a segregated Army. Ambrose also indicts a ''criminally wasteful'' replacement system that sent frightened and untrained young men to the front where too many died foolishly and needlessly. As one NCO summed it up, ''we are all proud of having been so severely tested and found adequate.'' Ambrose has deep empathy for these people and thinks they deserve a far greater accolade: ''At the core, the American citizen soldiers knew the difference between right and wrong, and they didn't want to live in a world in which wrong prevailed. So they fought, and won, and we all of us, living and yet to be born, must be forever profoundly grateful.'' ''Citizen Soldiers'' is an unforgettable testament to the World War II generation.
Gerald F. Linderman, who examined the Civil War combat experience in ''Embattled Courage,'' turns his attention to World War II in a penetrating examination of the ordinary front-line soldier. In ''The World Within War,'' Linderman, a professor emeritus of history at the University of Michigan, draws on a wealth of both fiction and war memoirs for his deep reflection on the role of American fighting men. Although he explores the experiences of airmen and soldiers of many different specialties, he concentrates on those who carried the heaviest burden: Army infantrymen and the Marine riflemen who fought the bloody island battles in the Pacific.
Linderman maintains that war has been seriously overglamorized. Most American soldiers were actually eager for combat, only to learn by bitter experience just how psychologically ill-prepared they were for the stark reality of the battlefield, an enemy intent on killing them and the awful realization that they were expendable cogs in a giant war machine. ''What American soldiers in World War II failed to foresee,'' he says, ''was that battle also possessed a power to impose thorough and dramatic change on those whom it did not kill.'' Those changes took many forms: loneliness, isolation, helplessness, neuropsychiatric collapse, post-traumatic stress disorder and, for those who survived, intense, lifelong feelings of guilt.
The experience of most soldiers was boredom, discomfort, a hearty disdain for military discipline and regimentation, a dire fatalism and a foreboding that in war no one ever wins. There was a solemn bond of comradeship that was repeatedly tested in combat. That so many performed heroically was due not so much to a sense of duty as to a grim determination to survive without letting down comrades in arms. Soldiers did whatever it took to survive, however barbaric or contrary to the rules of warfare, and ultimately they treated their war experiences as something best forgotten.
The strains placed on ordinary men thrust into the alien experience of combat fundamentally altered the lives of those who survived. It is an anomaly of the war that enormous effort was expended to train men to kill but very little to prepare them for an orderly return to civilian life. Instead, they came home with unseen anguish and a belief that only they and their comrades could understand the magnitude of their ordeal. As Linderman notes, ''the chief recourse of World War II veterans striving to heal themselves was repression.'' He cites the former All-American football star Tom Harmon, a P-38 pilot in China, who wrote in his autobiography that ''perhaps it was too bad that the United States had never been bombed because Americans didn't seem to appreciate the horrors of war and the sacrifices it imposed.'' ''The World Within War is a grim depiction of the dreadful price war extracts from those who are called on to fight.
Both authors wisely permit their characters to speak for themselves. Ambrose focuses on the heroic aspects of the American fighting experience in Europe, arguing that ''G.I.'s believed in their cause. They knew they were fighting for decency and democracy and they were proud of it and motivated by it.'' Linderman draws a much grimmer, profoundly pessimistic conclusion: that combat dehumanized and demeaned; it was ''a disintegrative experience.''
With the passage of time, World War II is rapidly becoming a distant memory that fewer and fewer Americans share. The significance of Tom Harmon's observation has become evident by increasingly ill-attended Veteran's Day ceremonies. Decreasing budgets and academic indifference have combined to bring about a worrisome decline in the teaching of military history in universities. Both of these books are stark reminders that forgetfulness and apathy are the worst sins of all.
Bob Dole recently wrote in Newsweek that the nation owes a debt to the soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines of World War II. ''We repay it with a pledge: to preserve their memory against the tide of time.'' ''Citizen Soldiers'' and ''The World Within War'' are powerful arguments why Dole's declaration must be honored. Each is destined to rank among the finest books about the American fighting experience in World War II. Despite their differing perspectives, they constitute an enduring affirmation of America's debt and validate Gen. George S. Patton's maxim: ''Wars may be fought with weapons, but they are won by men.''Carlo D'Este, a former Army officer and the author of ''Patton: A Genius for War,'' is writing a biography of Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower from birth through World War II.
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