Paul Fussell: He Hates Sugarcoating History





Roger Moore, in the Orlando Sentinel (Feb. 29, 2004):

In a recent radio interview, noted historian Paul Fussell admitted that he wrote his new book, The Boys' Crusade, as a"response" to the works of Stephen Ambrose and Tom Brokaw. Fretting over rose-colored obituaries highlighting Bob Hope's USO shows ("Front-line troops never saw Bob Hope") and Brokaw's pervasive"greatest generation" sugar-coating, Fussell wants to set -- or reset -- the record straight.

And Fussell, a decorated World War II infantry veteran and the author of The Great War and Modern Memory, as well as other authoritative works on how time and revision gild combat history, is just the guy to do that.

In 184 footnoted and pointed pages, Fussell reminds sentimentalists how furious the British were that the U.S. military and its troops brought their racism to the British Isles along with their pre-D-Day gear. He ridicules the misty-eyed last two-thirds of Saving Private Ryan. He reminds the reader of the near mutinous infighting within the Army -- 19,000 men who deserted in the 11 months U.S. troops fought in France, the Low Countries and Germany. He details the"friendly fire" blunders and intelligence failures that cost thousands of lives.

The boots on the ground, Fussell writes, knew all this. Whatever the"morale" back home or in the rear echelons, where Bob Hope put on his shows, the men on the lines were simply trying to stay alive.

And Fussell makes the point, over and over again, that the staggering casualties of the first months after D-Day meant that the U.S. Army in Europe grew younger, more poorly trained and"worse" as the war went on. Hundreds of thousands of young draftees were uprooted from their lives and sent to save the Brits and free the French, who didn't much care for them, in spite of their sacrifice.

Fussell has statistics, letters home, on-the-scene accounts and his own memories to bolster his arguments.

"Many officers neither had nor deserved the confidence of their men," one general of the day noted.

Pentagon"spin" was as vigorous then as it has proved since. Failures were covered up, lives wasted and young men left embittered by the friends they saw used up and spit out for a war most had a hard time understanding.

The word" crusade" that so many historians use to describe the Allied war effort? Fussell says that would have made your average infantryman laugh. Until, that is, the last days of the war, when they liberated the first concentration camps. Then, the"boys" of Fussell's army, got it. But that wasn't why they were there. They were drafted.

Fussell's point is that Brokaw, Ambrose and others do no one any favors by making"the Good War" more righteous and less savage than they should. World War II history should not be mythologized nor sanitized to create best sellers gobbled up by rear-echelon heroes, stateside warriors and the generations that came after them. Romanticizing an earlier war is the easiest way to drum up support for the next one.


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