Saturday, February 21, 2015

“Welcome to the War”

What was it about the war that moved the troops to constant verbal subversion and contempt?  It was not just the danger and fear, the boredom and uncertainty and loneliness and deprivation.  It was rather the conviction that optimistic publicity and euphemism had rendered their experience so falsely that it would never be readily communicable.

Those in the war – and most specifically, the small minority on the front line – knew the sanitized version that was portrayed for those at the home front; further, they knew that their own comrades who were in support positions knew little of the experience of actual war. 

Fussell also comments on this contempt in his companion book of the Great War, “The Great War and Modern Memory”:

The visiting of violent and if possible painful death upon the complacent, patriotic, uncomprehending, fatuous civilians at home was a favorite fantasy indulged by the troops.

…would like to see them crushed to death by a tank in one of their silly patriotic music halls, and in “Fight to the Finish” he enacts a similar fantasy.  The war over, the army is marching through London in a Victory Parade, cheered by the “Yellow-Pressmen” along the way.  Suddenly the soldiers fix bayonets and turn on the crowd:

At last the boys found a cushy job.

They hated the smiling women on the streets.  They loathed the old men….They desired that profiteers should die by poison-gas.  They prayed God to get the Germans to send Zeppelins to England – to make the people know what war meant.

Those in combat knew that their arms and equipment were inferior to that available to the Germans, their automatic rifles slower and clumsier, and that the Germans had a much better light machine gun.  They knew their tanks were under-armed and under-armored, their anti-tank mines unusable in sub-freezing weather.  The greatest weapon in the war – other than the atomic bomb – was the German 88-mm flat-trajectory gun, used to bring down thousands of bombers and countless tens-of-thousands of soldiers.

And they knew that no one at home was aware of any of these things.  And they knew that the relative capability of the enemy’s armaments was the least important secret being kept from the home front.

To the extent those at home saw pictures of the dead they saw peaceful, intact bodies.  If ever a corpse was shown in a disfigured condition, it was usually the enemy’s dead.

What annoyed the troops and augmented their sardonic, contemptuous attitude toward those who viewed them from afar was in large part this public innocence about the bizarre damage suffered by the human body in modern war.

The general public would not know that the official “Graves Registration form” had a space for indicating “Members Missing.”  It wasn’t always bullets and fragments that did the damage – how about being killed by a violently detached body part of your comrade?

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.

Men split into pieces, the head here, the legs there, the torso…unknown.  Severed heads thought to be mops.  Entrails, always entrails.

An example is offered – an observation by a German soldier after the failed Allied (predominantly Canadian) raid at Dieppe:

The dead on the beach – I’ve never seen such obscenities before.  There were pieces of human beings littering the beach.  There were headless bodies, there were legs, there were arms.

There were even shoes, “with feet in them.”

What was Dieppe?

The Dieppe Raid, also known as the Battle of Dieppe, Operation Rutter and, later, Operation Jubilee, was an Allied attack on the German-occupied port of Dieppe during the Second World War. The raid took place on the northern coast of France on 19 August 1942. The assault began at 5:00 a.m. and by 10:50 a.m. the Allied commanders were forced to call a retreat.

A total of 3,367 of the 6,086 men (almost 60%) who made it ashore were either killed, wounded, or captured.

After this, the madness.

You can’t take much of that sort of thing without going mad…

It wasn’t just the body parts, or lack of parts, that drove men mad; the fear, the constant, continuous, ever-present fear.  Not only on the front line.  Repeated tours on the “Murmansk run”; suffering depth-charges while in a submarine.

Fear induced vomiting, losing control of the bowels, urinating in their pants – common events for those so subjected.  One soldier, realizing his sergeant had just “pissed his pants,” and who then felt liberty to admit he did as well, was told by the Sergeant, “welcome to the war.”

Few soldiers while in training understood the meaning of the term replacement in their Replacement Training Centers.

What was going to happen to the soldiers they were being trained to replace?  Why should so many “replacements” – hundreds of thousands of them, actually – be required?

The answer came soon enough: combat divisions experienced well in excess of a 100% replacement rate.

If a division was engaged for more than three months, the probability was that every one of its second lieutenants, all 132 of them, would be killed or wounded.

After fighting from Normandy to Hamburg, as few as five men out of around 200 in each rifle company of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers remained from the original contingent.

It wasn’t just wounds and death: dysentery, pneumonia, malaria, freezing, burning.  And madness, mental breakdowns.

Inevitably, all will break down if in combat long enough….Each moment of combat imposes a strain so great that men will break down in direct relation to the intensity and duration of their experience.

…men will inevitably go mad in battle and…no appeal to patriotism, manliness, or loyalty to the group will ultimately matter.

Frontline soldiers, reduced to quivering wrecks.  Not quite as advertised.

As mentioned, it wasn’t only the civilians that were unaware of this reality – most soldiers weren’t aware of this either.  Only a small minority of soldiers did any fighting that brought them into such contact with the enemy – as many as 90% of those who wore uniforms saw no such fighting and knew little if anything about this reality.  Out of 11 million American men in the army, only about 2 million were in the combat divisions and of these, fewer than 700,000 were in the infantry.

It seems reasonable to surmise that the overwhelming majority of those veterans being thanked for their service likely saw little if any combat: those who were on the frontline died, it was those in support who returned.

Why were these realities so unknown?  Believe it or not, a compliant press.  as John Steinbeck confessed in 1958: “We were all part of the war effort.  We went along with it, and not only that, we abetted it.”

Not that the press were liars – they just didn’t tell the truth!  They never wrote of thieves, cowards, rapists or looters; not of the cruel or stupid commanders. 

As Walt Whitman declared after examining the facts of the American Civil War (and equally applicable in the present case):

The real war will never get in the books.


  1. Okay, I served in Korea, after the war, thus a potential "replacement" for nobody. Yet still they so "serve" today.

    The viewpoint is well done, and right, one never heard. Thanks.

  2. Illuminating and sobering highlights, b-m-. Thank you.

  3. The real war will never get in the books.
    Not true at all. Read Doubler, SLA Marshall and John Ellis for starters.
    You and Fussell are wrong.
    The 88. It was taken from the flak units, after the SS had run away from British tanks in 1940 and in Russia 1941, and it was taken to battle by horses, as most of the German army depended on horses.
    and the Germans used an out of date bolt action rifle, infsrior grenades, lousy food, indeed, German soldiers preferred the Soviet submachine gun and they wanted to copy the T 34. Most German guns were not 88s, those allied planes and tanks were destroyed by 75s, 120s, fighters and panzerfausts
    Take a look at what the Germans had before you make up more junk. At Kursk only a fifth of all German armor were Ferdinands, Panthers and Tigers same for Normandy.
    Ellis describes that 88 fever when every allied soldier thought all the German shells were 88s, they
    were not
    And that is just one area
    We tricked them, Ultra, they tricked themselves.
    They threw away jet fighters, advanced u boats, strategic bombers, a large u boat fleet, mass production, attacks on troops using V 1 and V 2 rockets AND declared war on the USA when they didnt have to

    1. pretty much dead on target there. vietnam another similar situation. except after 'contact' it was always the helicopters that came in and hauled out the wounded and dead in that order. [door gunner in ch-46 'phrog' twin rotary winged helicopter]

    2. And now you want to know why the Germans, with all of these faults, did so well.
      Simple: no one thought Hitler meant what he said and everyone was figgting WW 1 and the Germans got lucky
      Same for the Japanese.
      The Germans were never ti reoeat Kasserine Pass. In the Ardennes, the Germans were checked at St Vith and Bastogne, unlike 1940. The Japanese had a rough time at Bataan, even considering Macarthurs screwups, and at Wake, and little sucess at Guadlcanal. Our troops did lack some supplies at Guadalcanal, but the Japanrse had a lot less and were unable to properly function
      Indeed, the Germans had to rstion their ammo because we had cut their supplies, read the complaints Rommel and von Paulus had.

    3. "The real war will never get in the books.
      Not true at all. Read Doubler, SLA Marshall and John Ellis for starters."

      He meant it figuratively, and he was correct. How many people have heard of Doubler, SLA Marshall and John Ellis?

      For that matter, I bet not 1 of 100,000 has ever read anything by Sassoon,Toland or even Lindbergh.

      The point is that few have a clue about the realities of war, yet vast numbers mindlessly support the imbecility.

  4. The loudest WAR cheerleaders are those with the most deferments ---- Cheney and Biden FIVE each. Boehner did not serve and on down the line.
    March 3rd,2015 The DAY of SHAME
    On this day the republicans brought an outsider into AMERICA'S HOUSE to fight their FAMILY fight for them . Boehner brought a foreigner into AMERICA'S HOUSE to argue a FAMILY dispute. The republicans brought an alien presence into AMERICA'S HOUSE to tamper in FAMILY policies. Those were not "standing ovations" .... they were yellow-bellied-groveling In front of the entire World the republican party groveled to an alien politician, in their desperate, failed, attempt to publicly shame the President of the United States. The republicans SHAMED America and destroyed what patheticly tiny scrap of honor congress had left. Only filthy cowards drag outsiders into a FAMILY arguement. Johnny Boehner could not even find enough testosterone to wait until after that disgrace, before he folded on his limp-wristed "stand" against ILLEGALs . Boehner folded on ILLEGALS as he was bringing in a FOREIGNER to fight his battles for him ..... The World is laughing in derision ...... at republicans, not the PRESIDENT.