Brief, wholly memorable essays—sometimes little more than vignettes—on a season in hell.
Not for literary historian and combat veteran Fussell (Veterans, 2002, etc.) all this talk of “the greatest generation” and the mawkish military romanticism that has settled on WWII: the young men, many scarcely more than boys, who fought against the formidable German enemy in places like Normandy and the Hürtgen Forest were a “reluctant draftee army,” their deeds usually less heroic than desperate. Building on his fine memoir Doing Battle (1996), Fussell explores the lives and actions of those boys, “who bitched freely, but seldom cried, even when wounded.” Among the themes he explores, at the length of a few pages or paragraphs, are the widespread dislike for the young Americans among British civilians, who famously complained that they were “overpaid, oversexed, and over here,” and even among the liberated French, “who didn’t at all appreciate the immense black market in Paris run by over two thousand American deserters”; the extraordinary, and underreported, rate of desertion among those boys, traumatized by battle settings straight out of the Grimm Brothers and the constant presence of ignoble death; the carnage of battle in places like the Falaise Pocket, where, Dwight Eisenhower recalled, “It was literally possible to walk for hundreds of yards, stepping on nothing but dead and decaying flesh” (to which Fussell, ever the curmudgeon, adds, “And Eisenhower is gentleman enough not to offend . . . by dwelling on the smell”); and the general insanity of war and its fighters, torn between the “quite contradictory operations” of trying to kill some people with the greatest efficiency while trying to save others to the same high standards. Throughout, Fussell writes vividly and sardonically, sounding like the spiritual twin of Kurt Vonnegut at some points and an aggrieved Julius Caesar at others, and painting extraordinary scenes at every turn.
A bracing corrective for a literature recently dominated by Ambrose, Brokaw, and other cheerleaders, and just right for a new season of war.