Baptisms of fire for the child soldiers

The Boys' Crusade
April 1, 2005

Even those who have never read a conventional history or memoir of the Second World War have a vivid idea of what life was like for the young men who were drafted into the US Army to serve in Europe in 1944-45.

For many it is gleaned from Joseph Heller's Catch -22 or Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five , which, as Paul Fussell points out, is subtitled The Children's Crusade . Chaos and Fear is what Fussell chooses for his own subtitle; he might have borrowed Hunter S. Thompson's "Loathing", but there was perhaps no need - the feeling suppurates from almost every page.

Fussell is a distinguished scholar, but his book in many ways reads more like an aftershock of the "new journalism" of the 1960s than a history book of the 21st century. It tells - with fury - of how the US Army took boys still wet behind the ears, half-heartedly trained them, lied to them, then sent them into the maelstrom of northern Europe and set them loose in situations where a rookie's chance of survival was pitifully small. Sometimes the commanders were criminally dumb; sometimes friendly fire took its toll; and sometimes old soldiers in the companies to which new troops were sent as "replacements" just wanted to get shot of them (often literally) as soon as possible.

The story begins in pre-Operation Overlord England, where the GI's lot was a reasonably happy one - well paid relative to his British counterpart, smartly dressed and soon intimately acquainted with the local ladies'

underwear ("one Yank and they're off"). But he was given little idea what lay in store in France. And once there, it took a while for reality to strike - partly because of a blind refusal to believe that German tanks might be better than Uncle Sam's and partly because self-inflicted horrors such as the Cobra air strikes, which were supposed to prepare for a triumphant advance into St Lô in late July 1944 but in fact caused hundreds of US casualties, were massaged by army spin-doctors into triumphs. The army had its share of Milo Minderbenders.

Fussell follows the boys of his title as they struggle with insanely costly strategy, random violence, obscene horror and the imminence of an inglorious death. It is a familiar story, with more than an echo of Vonnegut, and is told through reference to a large number of memoirists.

Though he served in France as a 19-year-old second lieutenant and was badly wounded in the back in 1945, young Fussell is only a shadowy presence in this book. We learn of his feelings of shock, outrage and disgust through the professorial voice of old Fussell, but his military career is never discussed directly.

Ultimately, what Dwight Eisenhower had dubbed a "crusade" is vindicated with the liberation of Dachau and the other camps, and GIs' sudden realisation that the war was about something important after all. With this discovery, Fussell has his boys grow into men, and he makes clear - it had looked unlikely through most of the book - that he believes that, in the end, all that the youngsters went through was worthwhile.

There is little new research or information in this book and it is not a proper memoir (Fussell has already written one, Doing Battle , 1996). So what should we judge it on? Its literary merit, perhaps? It is certainly a powerful read. There is no question he indelibly expresses the impotence, hatefulness and ultimate necessity of the infantryman's weary lot - but I suspect we were well aware of that, in this war as in most others.

Fussell offers many sharp judgements, on officers, commanders and politicians but, sometimes, the confusion between the historian and the memoirist grates a little. There is a recurrent sub-theme, for example, of the difficulty of being an intelligent person in a boneheaded and mendacious organisation. Presumably this was not a standard GI point of view.

In the end, Fussell pays his dignified respects to the endurance and the suffering of the boys and all they went through in Eisenhower's Great Crusade, and so must we.

Peter Furtado is editor, History Today .

The Boys' Crusade: American GIs in Europe - Chaos and Fear in World War Two

Author - Paul Fussell
Publisher - Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Pages - 184
Price - £9.99
ISBN - 0 297 64693 1

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