- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 24, 2004

Paul Fussell’s The Boys’ Crusade: The American Infantry in Northwestern Europe, 1944-1945 (The Modern Library, $19.95, 184 pages) is a perfect antidote to the sentimentality of Tom Brokaw and the late Stephen Ambrose, both of whom over-romanticized the American role in World War II.

Mr. Fussell, unlike both Mr. Brokaw and Ambrose, is a warrior veteran who was seriously wounded in combat. There is not an ounce of sappiness in him — nor should there be. Those who idealize war make it more tolerable.

Mr. Fussell, author of many books on war including the classic “The Great War in Modern Memory,” tells us his purpose: “Now almost sixty years after the horror, there has been a return, especially in popular culture, to military romanticism, 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 this book I have … tried to confront this view with realistic details. Some readers may think my accounts of close warfare unjustifiably pessimistic in implications, but attention to the universal ironic gap between battle plan and battle actualities will suggest the ubiquity of my joyless material. There is nothing in infantry warfare to raise the spirits at all, and anyone who imagines a military ‘victory’ gratifying is mistaken.”

As for the title “The Boys’ Crusade,” it reflects the fact that for the most part young people did the dying.

The butchery was terrific. Mr. Fussell quotes Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower on the slaughter in western France: “The battlefield at Falaise was unquestionably one of the greatest ‘killing grounds’ of any of the war areas. Roads, highways, and fields were so choked with … dead men that passage through the area was extremely difficult. Forty-eight hours after the closing of the gap I was conducted through on foot, to encounter scenes that could be described only by Dante. It was literally possible to walk for hundreds of yards, stepping on nothing but dead and decaying flesh.”

Mr. Fussell frequently mentions fratricide and even the deliberate killing of friendly combatants who had angered the troops unnecessarily or their superiors: It “was not unknown practice for battalion and company officers to select ‘undesirable’ officers to lead especially hazardous actions as a payback for slights, discourtesies, disparagement, or silent contempt, what the British army calls ‘dumb insolence.’”

The author writes unblinkingly of the “hideous battleground” and “outrageous casualties” of the Huertgen Forest. Of the “120,000 boys who fought there, 33,000 were killed or wounded or went back sick or were driven insane.”

The battle in that forest did not significantly shorten the war, but it illustrated to Mr. Fussell “all at one time the deficiencies of the American system of troop replacement, the insuffiencies of American troop training, the failure of American divisional leadership, the innocence or ignorance of large-unit tactics by corps and army commanders, supply and imagination failure … and unjustified staff optimism …”

Mr. Fussell also writes unsparingly of desertions and self-inflicted wounds, both of which were far more numerous than ever admitted officially.

Here is an articulate short read that tells about war as it is, and needs to be read by decision-makers and those who elect them.

• • •

Another insightful, brief book that deals mainly with World War II is John Keegan’s Winston Churchill (Viking, $19.95, 195 pages). Mr. Keegan, who needs no introduction to readers of military history, focuses on Churchill’s eloquence and capability to inspire with language. Churchill’s whole life is here, but the concentration is on the 15 years leading up to and during World War II.

Mr. Keegan writes: “Churchill’s words did not only touch his people’s hearts and move the emotions of their future American allies; they also set the moral climate for the war. Churchill … avoided threats, condemned few … . Instead he appealed to a commonality and nobility of sentiment that took liberty as his ideal and humanity as its spirit… .

“Thus, on 12 June, 1941 he broadcast a ‘message … to all the States or nations bound or free, to all the men in all lands who care for freedom’s cause, to our allies and well-wishers in Europe, to our American friends and helpers drawing ever closer in their might across the ocean: this is the message — Lift up your hearts. All will come right. Out of the depths of sorrow and sacrifice will be born again the glory of mankind.’”

Mr. Keegan, still enthralled by the words he heard as a youth, writes that Churchill’s oratory was “perhaps the greatest of all his achievements. In 1940 his words captured the hearts of his people. In 1941, and in the years that followed, his words drowned out the drumbeat of totalitarianism that had dominated the airwaves of the dictator years, revived belief in democracy among the downtrodden, inspired a new patriotism in the defeated, created a new confidence, and transmitted a promise of victory that was believed.”

Mr. Keegan gives us ample quotes from Churchill’s writings and speeches. Here is a short book on the most powerful orator of the 20th century, well worth the time of any reader trying to understand the moral foundation for the Allied victory.

• • •

Churchill’s greatest moments during World War II came in the summer of 1940 when Britain faced Hitler’s Germany alone. This period is well covered in Norman Moss’ 19 Weeks: America, Britain, and the Fateful Summer of 1940 (Houghton Mifflin, $27.50, 400 pages, illus.).

Mr. Moss is a journalist who gives us a fast-paced account of the deliverance from Dunkirk followed by the Battle of Britain, which were among the finest moments of British history. He provides sufficient background to form a foundation for the reader to understand the period of June-September 1940.

The author recounts the slow awakening of the U.S. Congress and public to the true hazards of a Hitler victory over Britain, and demonstrates Franklin Roosevelt’s and especially Churchill’s leadership. Mr. Moss tells us that “a Nazi victory would have changed history in ways more profound than a redrawing of political maps. In a world in which the Nazis won, the democratic idea would be in retreat… .

“Fascism would acquire a body of intellectual justification in the Anglo-Saxon world. Anti-Semitism would become respectable and accepted in the mainstream of political discourse … The continuing evolution of Western societies in a more humane direction … would have been halted and reversed.” Indeed. “19 Weeks” is an important book showing how close the West came to the abyss.

Alan Gropman is the Distinguished Professor of National Security Policy at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces, National Defense University. His views are his own.


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