Why Stephen Ambrose's World War II and Mine Are So Different





Editor's Note: Bernard A. Weisberger, now in his eighties, has lived a rich life as a teacher, historian, and writer of books and documentaries. For many years he wrote a column for American Heritage, where he was a contributing editor. What follows is the opening from Mr. Weisberger's unpublished memoir, My Personal War: 1942-1946. The memoir recounts his adventures as a young soldier assigned to a unit responsible for translating Japanese documents and messages. In this excerpt he recounts how different the war seemed to him than to Stephen Ambrose.

One, don't romanticize my service, such as it was. It's understandable that two generations or more after 1945, young people assume that any veteran was a "warrior" like those who populate the TV screens. I had the same feeling myself about the white-haired Civil War vet who, dressed in a splendid uniform, was paraded in an open car down the main thoroughfare of Hudson, New York, every Memorial Day in the early nineteen-thirties, though I have no idea of what he actually did. I want to make it clear at the start that I was never anywhere near an armed enemy. I performed my duties at a minimum of several hundred miles away from the front lines, sitting at a desk in a clean uniform, and each night slept safely in a clean bed.

I can't imagine the thoughts or feelings of those who were in actual combat. Of crew members in bombers, tanks and naval vessels thinking that at any moment they could be incinerated in gasoline fires or drowned like trapped animals in their own sinking ships. Or infantrymen already driven to the extremes of physical misery and exhaustion, trying to suppress the terror of knowing that they might be the next to take a bullet or worse, be eviscerated or dismembered by a shell burst. These are the realities of torn and charred flesh, extruded guts and spattered brains, bloodied stumps and splintered bone behind the pretty phrases about "giving one's life for one's country," or "making the supreme sacrifice." These are the true images of what Walt Whitman, writing of the Civil War in 1871 called, "the real war that will never get into the books." Well, it's gotten into a few books now, but it was not that war that I knew and is as remote to me (except through the memoirs of others) as it is to you who read my words all these decades later. If there is any meaning to the label of "hero" it belongs to all the men who could endure these horrors and go on doing whatever jobs they were trained for

But now I have to make another point clear. Six or seven out of eight veterans were like me, not them. I don't know how it works now, but the huge conscript armies of World War II required enormous establishments of men (almost entirely men back then) in logistical and support services-- men who drove trucks, forecast weather, drew maps, built roads and bridges, strung wires, stockpiled and issued supplies, repaired every kind of mechanical or electronic device used by the military--from tanks to typewriters-- registered and buried the dead and paid the living, and among other things intercepted enemy radio communications, then decoded and translated them for intelligence analysis--the translating part being my job.

They were all important. They all helped win the war. And of course, some "support" jobs like combat engineers and medics brought those who performed them under fire. But I repeat that millions of us underwent no sustained risk to life and limb, and I insist on putting the combat veterans first if you're inclined to hand out merit badges to the alleged "greatest generation," a label that in any case I firmly reject.

And a third caution--take the stars out of your eyes if you think of us as pumped full of noble sentiments about defending freedom. I'm thinking of the kind of beautification that Stephen Ambrose undertook in his books about us citizen-soldiers. "They'd rather have been tossing baseballs than grenades," (I'm paraphrasing) "but they knew something evil was loose in the world and it fell on their shoulders to confront it." That sort of thing.

Says who? I didn't do any scientific polling, but I think I have a fairly good idea of how the rank and file soldier in the rear areas responded to the "Why We Fight" propaganda films that we were regularly subjected to in what they called the "Troop Information and Education" program. Government-issue bullshit--part of the routine you had to endure like the monthly "short arm" exams to see if you had venereal disease. (The upside was that it was an hour off from duty, and in a darkened auditorium you might get away with a nap.) I am not saying that all of us thought that all of it was bullshit--that's both too cynical and not quite accurate. A more nuanced view would be something like this. Of course we all believed that the United States simply had to win the war--especially against Japan, which had attacked us. That's simple nationalism at work. In addition, those of us who paid much attention to politics and had followed the news closely for years were, for the most part anti-fascist and especially anti-Hitler, with compound interest if we were Jewish. We had a hunch that life, even in America, might be pretty awful in an Axis-dominated world. People who shared these feelings were often voluntary enlistees--partly out of principle and partly to get a choice of services and specialties or a head start on promotions that would be inevitable as the armies expanded. But the huge majority of the twelve million or so who served in the armed forces for all or part of the period from 1940 to 1945 were conscripted. That doesn't mean they were dragged in by might and main. They knew that they would be called up sooner or later and they simply weren't in a hurry to get to the head of the line. Not precisely captive warriors, or even reluctant warriors--but not crusaders by any means.

And they--we--were genuine examples of American thinking. The country was heavily isolationist before the summer of 1940, when Hitler's armies overran France and drove the British off the continent of Europe in a few weeks, forcing us to start our own crash programs of rearmament. Even in the year and a half between the fall of Paris and Pearl Harbor there was no wide consensus for a rush towards war. The draft enacted in 1940 was only for a year, and Congress barely extended it by a handful of votes only a few weeks before those Honolulu-bound Japanese planes took off from their carriers. Roosevelt's emergency measures to help Great Britain—the transfer of "surplus" stocks of arms and "over-age" destroyers, the participation of the U.S. Navy in escorting convoys halfway across the Atlantic and firing back at attacking German submarines in "self-defense"—were executive, and sometimes secret decisions. The Lend-Lease programs of "loans" of war supplies to Hitler's enemies, enacted in March of 1941, won Congressional approval only with the understanding that such "borrowing" would make it unnecessary for the United States to send over armies of our own. We had faith--or perhaps pretended to have faith--in Winston Churchill's promise: "Give us the tools and we will finish the job." On the whole, American public opinion was willing for us to become the "arsenal of democracy," but we'd have preferred that other nations do the actual fighting. The December 7th, 1941 attack on Hawaii, followed by Hitler's declaration of war on us (not the other way around) destroyed that hope. But the underlying sentiment of resistance to American entry into the war, which we of military age widely shared, did not disappear overnight.

And so we citizen-soldiers basically did what we had to do but had hoped to avoid. We all knew that we were on the right side. Our war was not only the last one officially declared by Congress but the last about which there was virtually no dissent once the Japanese naval air arm bombed us into it. Except for principled pacifists and a very few native fascists, nobody doubted that we were lined up with the angels, who of course were pro-American and would help us win. But as for saving the rest of the world from the curse of fascism, most Americans didn't think or know much about the world back then in spite of the efforts of some first-class foreign correspondents and sympathetic editors to educate us.

It's possible that at this moment I'm projecting backward my distaste for the "idealistic" bilge that is now emitted in defense of our war in Iraq. That's always the risk of the retrospective view. But on balance I still think that the image of the "Good War" in which we all resolutely and consciously marched off to keep the world free is somewhat prettied up. Ambrose is partly right--we'd rather have been doing something else. But what we had to do was simply win the war for our country. The noble sentiments were for politicians and speechmakers and make-believe soldiers in the wartime patriotic movies. Conquer an evil let loose on the world? Too abstract a proposition to give our lives for. We didn't even know how deep the evil ran until Germany was overrun and Hitler's extermination camps were revealed in all their overpowering detail.

Off the soapbox then, and back to December of 1941. I am nineteen years and three months old, and in my fifth semester at dear old Columbia College in the City of New York....


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