The Real War

By Benjamin Schwarz


RIAN_archive_633054_Starting_attack_in_Leningrad_battlefrontIn his best-selling books Band of Brothers (1992), D-Day: June 6, 1944 (1994), and Citizen Soldiers (1997), the gruff historian Stephen E. Ambrose has advanced a pious interpretation of America’s role in World War II. According to this view, America waged a “crusade” to rid the world of the tyrannical and racist regimes of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. America’s fighting men “didn’t want to live in a world in which wrong prevailed,” Ambrose declares. “So they fought,” and thereby “stopped Hitler and Tojo.”

Buttressed by the NBC news anchorman Tom Brokaw, whose enormously popular The Greatest Generation (1998) and The Greatest Generation Speaks (1999) are largely inspired by Ambrose’s work, Ambrose has come to define the war in the American mind. His previous books examined only the U.S. military’s participation in the European theater of operations. But inThe Good Fight, written “for young readers,” he promises to present a chronicle of the entire global struggle. His extraordinarily widespread appeal almost certainly ensures that Ambrose will mold another American generation’s understanding of the war. (This book will likely become, as the publisher predicts, “THE book on World War II for kids.”) Because this is a book for young adults, the arguments and point of view are somewhat simplified. But Ambrose’s interpretation in The Good Fight is similar in language, tone, and substance to that in his books for adults, and in fact several passages are taken verbatim from Citizen Soldiers.

Ambrose’s version of events retroactively imposes an elevated meaning on the American side of the war. Although The Good Fight neglects a host of relevant events and subjects that did not directly involve the United States (the V-weapon attacks on Britain; Operation Bagration; the resistance movements in Yugoslavia, Italy, and France, to name a few), Ambrose does discuss—and in greater detail than any other event save D-Day—the Holocaust. Young readers could be forgiven for inferring that the plight of the Jews and others in the death camps in part motivated America’s involvement in the war. Ambrose quotes a former U.S. Army major who “voiced the emotions of so many of his fellow soldiers” when, many decades after the event, he maintained that when he saw Dachau, he said to himself, “Now I know why I am here.” In truth, stopping the mass murder of Jews figured in no way in either American war aims or American conduct. In fact, U.S. political and military leaders, along with the press, played down the Nazi effort to exterminate the Jews, and the Army’s own propaganda film series “Why We Fight” didn’t even mention the Holocaust.

As the critic and literary historian (and World War II combat veteran) Paul Fussell reminded us in Wartime (1989), his study of the psychology and emotion of the United States at war,

For most Americans, the war was about revenge against the Japanese, and the reason the European part had to be finished first was so that maximum attention could be devoted to the real business, the absolute torment and destruction of the Japanese. The slogan was conspicuously Remember Pearl Harbor. No one ever shouted or sang Remember Poland.

(This understandable American passion for vengeance against Japan easily metastasized into what Britain’s ambassador in Washington called a “universal ‘exterminationist’ anti-Japanese feeling” in the United States and among its armed forces overseas.)

The Good Fight is littered with lofty cant. To say, for instance, that the purpose of Operation Overlord (the Normandy invasion) “was to free France from Nazi tyranny” is to transform history writing (albeit “for kids”) into rhetoric. That statement places the accents on all the wrong syllables. Overlord’s goal was to establish a literal and figurative beachhead in Western Europe in order to help destroy German military power and hence end the war. To characterize it as Ambrose does is to confuse incidental results with fundamental purpose.

His literary endeavors seem largely motivated by a laudable desire to praise America’s World War II fighting men. Ambrose honors them, however, not simply by chronicling their indisputable bravery and toughness but by insisting on a sentimental and high-minded explanation of what those men believed they were fighting for. In his books he repeatedly asserts that U.S. soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines “knew they were fighting for decency and democracy and they were proud of it and motivated by it.” (Or, as Brokaw insists, “Everyone understood that the successful outcome of the war was critical to the continuing evolution of political and personal freedom.”) But has any man ever killed and risked being killed for such abstract, imprecise, and gaseous sentiments? Ambrose, if not Brokaw, has read too much military history not to acknowledge plainly—as he wrote in a passage in Citizen Soldiers which contradicts the thrust of the rest of the book—that, according to the vast literature that assesses the motivation of U.S. fighters in World War II, “there is agreement that patriotism or any other form of idealism had little if anything to do with it.” “The GIs fought because they had to,” he continued. “What held them together was not country and flag, but unit cohesion.” In the same book Ambrose papered over this difficulty by informing his readers that although the GIs fought for “decency and democracy,” “they just didn’t talk or write about it” (emphasis added). How, then, does he know? Rather than rely on what these men did write and say repeatedly during the war (which boils down to the reasonable, even courageously clear-eyed, but hardly righteous formula of kill or be killed, fight the war to end it so that we can go home), Ambrose draws on reminiscences and interviews and at least one “beer-drinking bull session” with a small number of veterans forty-five years after the fact—hardly the most reliable testimony.

Aiming to honor U.S. fighting men, Ambrose instead turns them into plaster saints engaged in a sanctified crusade, and so does them a disservice. Few eighteen- and nineteen-year-old males who had spent months slaughtering and witnessing slaughter would recognize themselves in Ambrose’s celebration (in both Citizen Soldiers and The Good Fight) of “the spirit of those GIs handing out candy and helping to bring democracy to their former enemies.” Many would even look askance at the following remark “about what it all meant,” which Ambrose praises as “one of the best comments”:

In the spring of 1945, around the world, the sight of a twelve-man squad of teenage boys, armed and in uniform, brought terror to people’s hearts. Whether it was a Red Army squad, … or a German squad … or a Japanese squad … that squad meant rape, pillage, looting, wanton destruction, senseless killing. But there was an exception: a squad of GIs, a sight that brought the biggest smiles you ever saw to people’s lips, and joy to their hearts.

First, what about our allies the British Tommies? They weren’t reputed to be barbaric hordes either. More important, although American soldiers acted as honorably as could reasonably be expected, such a statement belies the evidence of rape, looting, and the murder of enemy prisoners. Very few GIs were criminals, but Ambrose’s approach discounts the real—and dehumanizing—experience of war for all fighting men. In trying to explain why American soldiers were so contemptuous of home-front attitudes, Fussell wrote,

It was … the conviction that optimistic publicity and euphemism had rendered their experience so falsely that it would never be readily communicable. They knew that in its representation to the laity what was happening to them was systematically sanitized and Norman Rockwellized, not to mention Disneyfied.

An essential part of their experience was terror and madness on an unfathomable scale, and one of the ways some of them achieved relief was, indisputably, by committing acts of brutality.

To be sure, a world of difference separated Americans’ motivations for such acts from the institutionalized hatred that inspired, say, German soldiers on the Eastern Front. Nevertheless, Ambrose’s sunny depiction of U.S. soldiers’ behavior (a photo of a GI shaking a toddler’s hand graces the cover of The Good Fight, and Ambrose assures us that “America sent her young men halfway around the world … not to conquer, not to pillage, not to loot, not to rape, but to liberate”) ignores the terrible fact that a great casualty of America’s involvement in the war was, unavoidably, American “decency.” Six months after Hiroshima the war correspondent Edgar L. Jones acknowledged in this magazine,

What kind of war do civilians suppose we fought, anyway? We shot prisoners in cold blood, wiped out hospitals, strafed lifeboats, killed or mistreated enemy civilians, finished off the enemy wounded, tossed the dying into a hole with the dead, and in the Pacific boiled the flesh off enemy skulls to make table ornaments for sweethearts, or carved their bones into letter openers.

Ambrose’s romanticizing of “the good fight” evades the truth that for the men who fight it, war—even a war that defeats Nazi Germany—is, as William Tecumseh Sherman wrote, “cruelty, and you cannot refine it.”

Still, the impulse behind many of Ambrose’s evasions is understandable. Take, for example, his depiction of the air war against Japan. No doubt he is impatient with ill-informed and tendentious arguments suggesting that America’s incendiary-bombing campaigns against Germany and Japan, as well as the decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, were particularly immoral. In fact, it’s impossible to imagine that any responsible leader of any of the democracies would not have employed the atomic bomb if it meant, as it surely did in Harry Truman’s case, ending the war sooner and saving the lives of that leader’s countrymen. And although, of course, all the states fighting the war terrorized their enemies’ populations, the United States was indeed more squeamish about employing such means than any other belligerent. Still, Ambrose’s discussion of the U.S. strategic-bombing campaign against Japan, which admits no shades of gray in what young readers would construe to be blameless American conduct, is highly misleading. According to Ambrose,

This new stage in the air war [firebombing] started in the middle of February 1945. The results were greater than anyone ever expected. Because most Japanese buildings were made of wood, entire cities were destroyed … Everyone knew that Japanese civilians would be hurt in these attacks. No one liked it. The goal was to destroy Japan’s industrial might, not its civilians. But the Japanese leaders kept the civilians near the war-industry factories.

This omits and obfuscates far more than it explains. That the materials of which Japanese cities were built rendered them especially vulnerablegrief to firebombing came as no surprise to U.S. war planners: even before Pearl Harbor the Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall had directed his aides to make contingency plans for “general incendiary attacks to burn up the wood and paper structures of the densely populated Japanese cities.” It’s true that the primary purpose of the bombing was not to kill civilians—although terrorizing the Japanese nation was one of the intended if ancillary goals of the campaign (along with the crass aim of promoting the establishment of an independent Air Force in the postwar era). Ambrose is correct that the main objective was to destroy Japanese industry, and that the only way to accomplish this was, in essence, to burn Japanese cities entirely. But it’s also true that this meant that 300,000 Japanese men, women, and children, overwhelmingly noncombatants, were “scorched and boiled and baked to death,” as Major General Curtis LeMay, who planned the campaign, later wrote. And those civilians were killed not because they were “kept” near factories but because factories happened to be dispersed throughout residential areas, owing to the willy-nilly way Japanese industry had developed.

Ambrose’s suggestion that at the time of the firebombing concern for the lives of Japanese civilians played an important role in U.S. military or civilian leaders’ planning is equally misleading. The intelligence officer of the U.S. Fifth Air Force—using the logic that, after all, defined “total war”—declared at the time, “The entire population of Japan is a proper military target. There are no civilians in Japan.” One can argue with the conclusions of Brigadier General Bonner Fellers, a close adviser to General Douglas MacArthur, who claimed in a confidential memorandum at the time of the incendiary bombings that the campaign was among “the most ruthless and barbaric killings of non-combatants in all history” (and, in fact, a cogent, if cold, argument can be made that the firebombing campaign was militarily justifiable), but Ambrose’s version of events is entirely untenable.

One grasps just how simplistic and sanctimonious Ambrose’s approach to his ostensible subject is, however, only when one reads in this and his other works the repeated and triumphant assertions that it was U.S. soldiers who would “win the war against Nazi Germany” and that Americans “stopped Hitler.” His implication that America is morally great because it defeated what was probably the most hideous regime in history becomes somewhat muddier when we recall that the United States was very much the junior partner in that crusade, which was fought primarily by Stalin’s Soviet Union—probably the second most hideous regime in history.

Ambrose’s books both reflect and have intensified and helped to shape a self-aggrandizing mythology of World War II. Readers are promised on the jacket flap that The Good Fight is a “chronicle of World War II.” But what young readers get is a solipsistic—and egregiously skewed—history. Forget for now that Britain fought the war alone against Hitler for more than a year (a fact easily forgotten, since it goes unmentioned in Ambrose’s account, along with the Battle of Britain and the Blitz). Without question, the main scene of the Nazis’ defeat was the Eastern Front, a theater of operations that Ambrose entirely fails to assess in his narrative of “how World War II was won.” The conflict there was the most terrible in history, claiming, according to the best and most-recent estimates, as many as 35 million Soviet civilians and 14.7 million Soviet soldiers. And more to the point, Ambrose’s readers wouldn’t know that the struggle with the USSR accounted for 88 percent of all German casualties.

Until the Normandy invasion—from June of 1941 to June of 1944—nearly the whole Nazi war machine was concentrated in the East; even two months after D-Day 2.1 million Germans were fighting the Red Army while one million opposed Allied operations in France. Ambrose devotes more space in The Good Fight to D-Day than to any other event, and he clearly sees that operation as the pivot of the war and of his narrative. In fact the turning point of the war in Europe was not at Normandy or anywhere else Americans fought but either at Stalingrad, two years before D-Day, where the Red Army eradicated some fifty divisions from the Axis order of battle, or at Kursk, nearly a year before, where the Soviets smashed the Wehrmacht’s strategic tank force, breaking the Nazis’ capacity for large-scale attack. Ambrose lavishes a section of The Good Fight on the U.S.-British invasion of Sicily, which drove 60,000 Germans from the island, but completely ignores Kursk—the largest battle in history, in which at least 1.5 million Soviets and Germans fought, and which occurred at exactly the same time. Neither Ambrose nor we need honor Russia’s war dead as we do our own, but simple honesty demands that we acknowledge the Red Army’s awesome achievement. And as much as it may make us squirm, we must admit that the struggle against Nazi Germany (which Brokaw asserted was “testimony to America’s collective and individual resistance to tyranny”) was primarily, as the great military historian John Erickson called it, “Stalin’s war.”

Ambrose’s view of World War II is similar to what Robert Penn Warren characterized as the self-righteous “psychological heritage” bequeathed to the North by the Civil War. Both engender what Warren called a “treasury of virtue”—a moral narcissism that can make us insufferable to other nations and can delude us into behaving like a crusader state. But the great problem with Ambrose’s books—especially this one—is that they fail to treat history as tragic, ironic, paradoxical, and ambiguous. If readers are old enough to study an event that involved the deaths of more than 60 million people, they are old enough to learn that one studies history not to simplify issues but to illuminate their complexities.

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