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Fields of Fire

Another re-post, dating back to Obscurorant 1.0, presented here with editorial adjustments for dead links.

Over the next few days, as we approach the 60th anniversary of the D-Day invasion, one catch phrase that will bandied about quite a bit is the greatest generation, in reference to the men and women who lived through and fought the Second World War.

I have always cordially detested this phrase.

That is not to say that the sacrifices and achievements of the WWII generation should forgotten or denigrated. They should not. But the phrase greatest generationto me seems to stem less from a desire to honor those men and women,than from the current impulse in our society to hype everything and anything in the spotlight as The. Best. Thing. Since. Sliced. Fucking. Bread. I find it odd, and vaguely repulsive, that the same sort of media hoopla we see bestowed upon J. Lo and Ben or Harry Potter is turned on these veterans, as if they were somehow (and obscenely) equivalent. I find it instructive that I have yet to come across a member of this generation, in person or print, who would claim this accolade of their own will. The phrase itself is silly. The Greatest Generation – as if one can look at the triumphs and tragedies of our ancestors and then rate them, like hit songs or best-sellers. The Greatest Generation coming in at number one, followed by the Founding Fathers with a bullet. The very idea is repellent.

But mostly I hate the term because it is short-hand way of honoring men and women who most assuredly deserve to be honored. Toss a title at them,pay them lip service at the appropriate time and place, and then blithely continue on with our lives, without any real reflection on who we are honoring and what they did and endured. The slice of hell undergone by the small percentage of men who saw front line combat is, in the final analysis, unknowable to those of us who have never have, and never will, experience the sharp end. But if you seek to honor those men, then you must attempt to understand those grim realities. Our understanding will ultimately fall short, but any words of appreciation or gratitude ring hollow if not accompanied by that attempt to understand what was endured on our behalf. One cannot claim to honor a sacrifice while remaining ignorant of the nature of that sacrifice.

In the Wall Street Journal, David Gelernter attacked the phoniness of the Greatest Generation accolade, and notes that one way to truly honor these people is to pay heed to the veterans neglected voice. One veteran with a voice worth listening to is Paul Fussell. A long-time college professor and a veteran of combat in northwest Europe, Mr. Fussell has written several books on the Second World War: Doing Battle (his memoirs), The Boys Crusade: The American Infantry in Northwestern Europe,1944-1945, and Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War. All three of these works have an over-arching theme, perhaps best expressed by Mr. Fussell in the introduction to Wartime:

The damage the war visited upon bodies and buildings, planes and tanks and ships, is obvious. Less obvious is the damage it did to intellect, discrimination, honesty, individuality, complexity, ambiguity and irony, not to mention privacy and wit. For the past fifty years the Allied war has been sanitized and romanticized almost beyond recognition by the sentimental, the loony patriotic, the ignorant, and the bloodthirsty.

Mr. Fussell does not argue against the idea that the Second World War was a necessary struggle;he notes that its very necessity serves to obscure the horrors inflicted on the combatants:

Because the Second World War was fought against palpable evil, and thus was a sort of moral triumph, we have been reluctant to probe very deeply into its murderous requirements.

Murderous Requirements. In our rush to celebrate the beginning of the Allied victory over totalitarianism,we must not forget what achieving that victory entailed. Mr. Fussell does his best to bridge that vast gap of knowledge between ourselves and the veterans of that conflict, to strip away any veneer of myth and romance, and shine a light on those grim realities and murderous requirements. He writes of the particular horrors modern technology brings to the battlefield:

The troops could not contemplate without anger the lack of public knowledge of the Graves Registration form used by the U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps, with its space for indicating “Members Missing.” You would expect frontline soldiers to be struck and hurt by bullets and shell fragments, but such is the popular insulation from the facts that you would not expect them to be hurt,sometimes killed,by being struck by parts of their friends bodies violently detached. If you asked a wounded soldier or Marine what hit him, you’d hardly be ready for the answer “My buddy’s head”, or his sergeant’s heel or his hand, or a Japanese leg, complete with shoe and puttees, or the West Point ring on his captain’s severed hand.

He writes about fear, and madness:

In the Great War Wilfred Owen was driven very near to madness by having to remain for some time next to the scattered body pieces of one of his friends. He had numerous counterparts in the Second World War. At the botched assault on Tarawa Atoll, one coxswain at the helm of a landing vessel went quite mad, perhaps at the shock of steering through all the severed heads and limbs near the shore. One Marine battalion commander, badly wounded, climbed above the rising tide onto a pile of American bodies. Next afternoon he was found there, mad. But madness did not require the spectacle of bodies just like yours messily torn apart. Fear continued over long periods would do the job, as on the merchant and Royal Navy vessels on the Murmansk run, where grown men went steadily and fixedly insane before each others eyes, as Tristan Jones testified in Heart of Oak. Madness was likewise familiar in submarines, especially during depth-bomb attacks. One U.S. submariner reported that during the first months of the Pacific war such an attack sent three men stark raving mad: they had to be handcuffed and tied to their bunks.

The above quotes were taken from this article, originally printed in The Atlantic Monthly on the 50th anniversary of WWII; the same material can also be found in Wartime. It’s a long article, but one well worth the reading. I recommend you print it out and read it at your leisure this weekend. Perhaps after dinner Saturday night around the time 60 years ago when the young men of the 82nd and 101st Airborne were readying themselves to jump into Normandy. Or perhaps early Sunday morning, after your coffee, around the same time the men of the First Infantry Division were motoring in to Omaha beach. All the empty titles and platitudes in the world do less honor to these men than an individual citizens attempt to understand and thus appreciate what was done so that he or she may live comfortably today.

ADDENDUM

The Atlantic‘s archives are free and online, which is why you can also read this piece from November 1960: First Wave at Omaha Beach.

At exactly 6:36 A.M. ramps are dropped along the boat line and the men jump off in water anywhere from waist deep to higher than a mans head. This is the signal awaited by the Germans atop the bluff. Already pounded by mortars, the floundering line is instantly swept by crossing machine-gun fires from both ends of the beach.

Able Company has planned to wade ashore in three files from each boat,center file going first, then flank files peeling off to right and left. The first men out try to do it but are ripped apart before they can make five yards. Even the lightly wounded die by drowning, doomed by the waterlogging of their overloaded packs. From Boat No. 1, all hands jump off in water over their heads. Most of them are carried down. Ten or so survivors get around the boat and clutch at its sides in an attempt to stay afloat. The same thing happens to the section in Boat No. 4. Half of its people are lost to the fire or tide before anyone gets ashore. All order has vanished from Able Company before it has fired a shot.

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