I have been reading Rick Atkinson's "Liberation Trilogy" tracing the U.S. Army's march across North Africa and Europe during World War II. Atkinson's account is extraordinarily detailed and frank about the errors and shortcomings of some American leaders and the horrific experiences of soldiers and airmen.
In reciting the statistics, still startling 70 years later, of morbidity among Allied bomber crews — an 89 percent casualty rate (which includes injured and captured as well as killed in action) — he quotes a poem by Randall Jarrell, who was a member of a bomber crew before winning fame as a poet. These three lines capture the horrors of the air war:
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I awoke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.
Young men, the contemporaries of my parents, went forward to almost certain death for their country, for their families, for democracy, for their own sense of responsibility, and because their government, their families and their neighbors expected it of them. The gut-wrenching opening scene of "Saving Private Ryan" is an accurate portrayal of what infantrymen faced on D-Day and on many other days throughout the war. Punching their way into Germany, Allied infantrymen went for days without leaving their stinking foxholes, which were bedroom, dining room and bathroom to the soldiers. Many went weeks or months without changing their socks or underwear. They developed trench foot, sunstroke and frostbite.
I read these accounts not because I share their experiences but because I wish to know what it took to secure the freedoms and advantages we share today.
The experiences of foot soldiers have changed little in the past 200 years. By World War II, the means of killing had been improved by machine guns, heavy artillery, aerial bombs and land mines, but the wretched lives of World War II soldiers were not appreciably different from the lives of our forefathers who huddled in trenches around Petersburg, Va., or who set out across an open field toward batteries of cannon and riflemen on the high ground at Gettysburg. All faced the likelihood of death or mutilation or, if they survived, the nightmares that put their minds back in those trenches or foxholes for decades thereafter.
Gen. W.T. Sherman's aphorism, "War is hell," does not to justice to just how cruel and inhumane war was 150 years ago and still is today.