Doing Battle: The Making of a Skeptic
Little, Brown, 1996
Paul Fussell was a combat infantryman in Europe during the last two years of WW II. “Before we’d finished in Europe we’d seen hundreds of dead bodies, GIs as well as Germans, civilians as well as soldiers, officers as well as enlisted men, together with ample children. We learned that no infantryman can survive psychologically very long unless he’s mastered the principle that the dead don’t know what they look like. The soldier smiling is not smiling, the man whose mouth drips blood doesn’t know what he’s doing, the man with half his skull blown away and his brain oozing onto the ground still thinks he looks OK. And the man whose cold eyes stare at you as if expressing a grievance is not doing that. He is elsewhere. The bodies are props on a set, and one must understand that their meaning now is as props, nothing more.”
“’The most extreme experience a human being can go through,’ says historian Stephen Ambrose, ‘is being a combat infantryman.’ Part of that experience involves, of course, intense fear, long continued. but another part requires a severe closing-off of normal human sympathy so that you can look dry-eyed and undisturbed at the most appalling things. For the naturally compassionate, this is profoundly painful, and it changes your life. In the First World War, platoon leader Wilfred Owen confesses at one point, ‘My senses are charred. I don’t take the cigarette out of my mouth when I write Deceased over their letters.’”
In the last months of WW II in Europe, Americans faced German troops who had been conscripted late and desperately. When captured, they showed no bravado. “Most were pitiful youths who came across willingly, persuaded that the war was lost, and tired and wet and hungry and scared as well. I found that the productive way to deal with them was to treat them kindly. It was not just fun to witness their astonishment at being offered a cigarette first thing, but such an act, if at all visible, helped encourage others to give themselves up too. And the cigarette lit and a couple of smiles and pats on the back awarded, they were often willing to tell about details on their side of the line.