Perhaps the biggest problems facing American commanders as the fighting in western Europe and the Mediterranean raged in late 1944 and early ’45 were desertion, insubordination, and malaise. By the time more than a million soldiers from this holy land, Great Britain, and sundry allies had spread out across the continent to the west and south of Germany, many — too many — had lost sight of whom they were trying to kill and why.
Rick Atkinson’s superb Liberation Trilogy recounts in eye-opening detail the waning zeal American soldiers had for the war as it — our part, at least — dragged on into its third and fourth years. Army brass as high up as Eisenhower had to run around to spots on the various fronts to buck up the troops. The story goes that when the Americans “liberated” the Ohrdruf death camp in the Thuringia region of Germany in the final month of the war, Ike angrily turned to the grunts nearby and barked, “Now do you understand why we’re fighting?”
This Is Not War
Columnist Neil Steinberg writes today of the biography of World War II cartoonist Bill Mauldin. The two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning inkster showed the folks back home exactly what their fathers, brothers, and sons really were going through. A fellow named Todd DePastino penned the biography, Bill Maudlin: A Life Up Front, released in 2009. Most guys, Mauldin’s cartoons revealed, wanted warmth, clean clothes, a hot shower and a cooked meal. What they weren’t doing was marching like tin soldiers through liberated towns, with cheering throngs pressing in on either side of the street, showering them with rose petals, beautiful women clutching at them. A lot of them would have been embarrassments to the bullshitters who called them “heroes.” Steinberg writes.
During the last nine months of World War II, Todd DePastino tells us, more American soldiers fighting in Europe died of alcohol poisoning than of communicable disease. In Italy, 20,000 U.S. troops deserted their units — one reason the military brass tolerated Bill Mauldin’s syndicated blasphemy was because the truth was far worse, and they hoped that collapsing morale might be bolstered if the men could see a faint reflection of reality and laugh at it.
Very few humans who fought in World War II viewed themselves as heroes. That’s a word people back home who have no idea of the horrors of war like to throw around. Truth is, war fucks up a person’s mind, not just her or his body.
That’s what happens in war, even in “good” war. People get tired of seeing their pals and colleagues turned into ground meat. Others begin to want to snuff out the lives of anybody who isn’t a pal or colleague. To wit:
In this book, American soldiers rape and kill, driving around Morocco shooting Arabs for fun.
“Some shot them for sport,” DePastino writes, ” ‘like rabbits in the States during hunting season,’ as one American explained in a letter home.”
Another Pulitzer Prize-winner, the war correspondent Ernie Pyle, it must be pointed out, toward the end of his life had become profoundly depressed, largely thanks to the unrelenting evils he’d witnessed.
Today’s no day for celebration. Waving our cheap little flags and hand-jobbing the veteran who lives down the block is an easy way for the rest of us to pretend that the inhuman ugliness of war simply doesn’t exist.
Or should I say human ugliness.