Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Unknown Soldiers by Joseph E. Garland

Reliving World War II in Europe
Intelligence and Reconnaissance Platoon,
Headquarter's Company of the U.S. Army 45th Division's 157 Infantry Regiment.
Protean Press, Rockport MA. 2009

A couple of weeks after my solo celebration of Victory in Europe in the officers' parking lot above the Bay of Naples my shin was so well healed that to retain my limited service status my guardians at the hospital redefined my incapacity as psychoneurosis, I suppose on account of the baffling crippling of my legs. "I'm not terribly violent yet", I reported home. "Give me another six months, and I'll froth at the mouth for you!"

Of course the amusing psycho news brought a chin-up response from Ma.

Whatever is keeping you from feeling whole again, I'm sure we can set you right somehow, and soon. One by one the awful, terrifying possibilities are being eliminated, and you can see the way opening up, I'm sure, to return to an opportunity to make and shape your life again.

My father being on a fishing trip in Maine, his always protective wife added that she wouldn't show my letter to him until I sent a clarification, which I hastily and rather sheepishly attempted:

There has been an alarming amount of hogwash in the States about psychoneurosis, but the fact is that it runs the gamut all the way from near-insanity to mere nervousness. The latter is about my case. I'm only rather nervous, restlessly so, I mean. It's absolutely nothing to be alarmed about, for I've been that way ever since the first days on Anzio. It manifest itself by extreme restlessness, the inability to stay still, fairly heavy smoking, shortness of temper (frequent "blowing your top", just a way of getting off excess steam). Just about everybody who comes out of the infantry alive is that way, varying only in degree, and it will obviously wear off to a great extent in civilian life and through a process of adjustment. That ease your mind? I'm perfectly frank and holding nothing back. I'm just war-weary, that's all.

Little did I or anybody else know. So she showed Pa my letter and wrote back wondering that anyone who saw combat could think of anything else, "but of course the human mind and body can get over those things, especially young ones."

Meanwhile her reflective husband counseled their "rather nervous" son:

You have done your duty as a citizen-soldier, and when that duty is discharged your real life begins. This is trite and comes poorly from a parent, but while you are waiting don't let your time be too much wasted... After a year in civilian life you will look back on your army life as a strange interlude, but one in which much of your positive character will have been built.
We will not again inhabit the world or see the social systems reappear that flourished before the world upheaval of the first half of the twentieth century... There's going to be considerable equalization, and the wise people will adjust themselves to a world where the wealth is much more equally distributed than now...I can imagine no worse basis for a lasting friendship with Russia than the oft repeated predictions that we'll be at war with her inside of fifteen years. We, with our bank accounts, are just so afraid of the Russian influence and the possibility that we might have to share prosperity with the working classes that we can't bear it.


  1. "Ever since that last day under fire in Padoux I've felt that a leg split on a broken ladder wasn't quite a wounded one, that the Purple Heart I got for it was borderline ( never mind that it was part of a chain of events due to enemy action as if I'd taken a hit), and that my limited service reclassification despite eleven months in combat was a cop-out on the guys I left behind.

    For fifty years I saw my pain and immobility after becoming a casualty as an occult psychogenic manifestation of guilt verging on cowardice, reinforced by having been consigned to the psycho ward. Or it may just as well have been a transient infectious disease manifested by acute arthritis-like symptoms.

    No matter. After fifty years of latent combat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that blocked my recognition of it and my ability to tackle the guts of this book, it began to sink in that every survivor of combat endowed with a shred of compassion since men have gone to war feels some measure of guilt to be alive and must ask himself why he was spared when he thinks of the comrades who wern't.

    Not to make too fine a point of it, I'm relieved now to be thoroughly glad to have survived. I owe the completion of this work in large part to an evening of intense enlightement thirteen years ago with a Boston psychiatrist Jonathan Shay, MD. His compassionate bridging with the intensely suffering Vienam War survivors through his work with the Veterans Administration led to his pioneering recognition in the 1994 landmark book, "Achilles in Vietnam", that the Greek poet Homer described essentially the same behavior among the combatants in the Trojan War some 3,200 years ago. Dr. Shay postulated- corectly, I believe- that each of us who has been to war "in harm's way" over the centuries has stood, high or low, on some rung of the aftermath's haunting "ladder of guilt", if only for having come out alive."

  2. In this book, as in so many others about the War-there are numerous accounts of the vain-glorious strategic errors of top generals which resulted in the senseless, futile deaths of thousands American servicemen. The decision to land at Anzio- a flat plain with hardly a shred of cover over-looked by near impregnable mountains commanded by crack German infantry and artillary regiments here-in being the prime case in point.

    Eric Severeid of the Colombia Broadcasting System made the point in 1946. Severid took general Alexander to task for his

    "canard that we never had more than a "slight" numerical superiority over the German's at any time in Italy. He meant that the Allies had very few more divisions than the Germans, omitting to mention that the numerical strength of the average German division there was one half to two thirds of our own, that our air superiority was around twenty-to-one, and that our supply of tanks, artillary, and transport were enormously greater than the Germans'. And, most important of all for the final assessment of the Italian campaign, he admitted that the German's had diverted only five new divisions into Italy from other areas- one, I believe, coming from Yugoslavia. In May his officers had made it clear that the Italian misson would be a failure if we merely forced a slow German retreat and did not oblige the enemy to divert large forces.

    So it seemed to me that on their own scales the Italian campaign was weighed and found wanting. It was not due to stupidity on the part of generals or to the lack of valor on the part of fighting men; it was due to the impossible terrain of Italy itself, which made it possible for a third-rate army to hold off a first rate force with one hand.

    But Italy's terrain was not an unknown quantity when the original decision to proceed up the peninsula was made. Who made this decision, where and why, has never been explained to the Allied peoples" (" Not So Wild A Dream")

    Another example given in this book is the account of General Patton's Task Force Baum's attempt to liberate American POW's (including his son-in-law) from Oflag XIIIB. Out of 294 officers and men: nine dead, sixteen missing and presumed dead, thirty-two wounded, fifteen who made it back to the American lines, the rest captured, and no estimate of the number of "liberated" Amrican prisoners killed. This includes the pretty much total loss of sixteen tanks, twenty-seven half tracks and three self-propelled 105's... "making the fictitious mission of "Saving Private Ryan" in Steven Spielberg's powerful 1998 World War II motion picture look like a Boy Scout hike."

    Blunders led to the German break-out at the Ardennes Forest in the "Battle of the Bulge" in which my father's older brother, hitherto a truck driver with no combat exeperience, was thrown into battle and perished. It was a massacre and the Germans finally had to withdraw for lack of supplies.

    The real strategic value of the U.S. "island hopping" campaign in the Pacific and the unaccountable slaughter and brutality that resulted has been questioned many times, as has the dropping of atom bombs on Japan, outside the "official" accounts which dominate the popular press and public political discourse in this country.

    Even in generally positive accounts of our military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, good reasons for doubting the wisdom of our leaders can be found. Criticisms of the philosophy of "counter-insugency" by "chickenshit" Petraeus are available on-line e.g.

    Admiral Fallon's remarks reported in Asia Times by Gareth Porter on Sept. 14th, 2007
    "Counter-insugency as Military Mal-Practice"

    General Westmoreland's problems in Vietnan have been widely aired, but very little learned from them.

    MacArthur's precipitous advance to the Yalu river in North Korea is another example of a quest for personal glory gone fatally awry.