Journal of Social HistorySummer, 1999 The World Within War: America’s Combat Experience in World War II.(Review)Author/s: Michael NeibergBy Gerald F. Linderman (New York: The Free Press, 1997. viii plus 408pp.).
More than 16,000,000 Americans served in the Armed Forces during World War U, but only 800,00 (or just 5%) took part in what Gerald Linderman calls extended combat. (1) Their world, he convincingly argues, differed so fundamentally from the world of non-combat soldiers that it constituted a separate world within war. Combat, over and above military service generally, altered the very world view of the soldier and shook his basic assumptions about his enemy, his peers, his God, and the nation he had pledged his life to defend.
Linderman uses the letters, diaries, and books of combat veterans along with a survey done by the Army War College to let the combat veterans speak for themselves. He focuses primarily on ground combat in Europe, North Africa, and the Pacific, though he addresses the air war in chapter one. In chapters 3 and 4 he argues that the geographic, cultural, and military contexts of the three theaters produced very different kinds of war and different understandings of what the rules of war meant.
Linderman is not the first scholar to write about this world. Paul Fussell’s 1989 book Wartime argued that the world of the combat soldier was so much as odds with any non-combatant’s ability to understand it that the real war will never get in the books. Linderman agrees. Indeed, the combat soldiers themselves understood that civilians and non-combatants could not (and perhaps should not) know about the world of combat. In this world, men became callous to the deaths of enemies and of comrades alike, acted in ways that contradicted a lifetime of church and school, and sometimes found themselves inexplicably fascinated by the enduring appeals of battle.
The distinct world of combat, and its inaccessibility to anyone who has not experienced it, underscored the sense of alienation that the combat soldier felt from everyone except his closest comrades. Only those men who had fought together that men in combat developed. Combat veterans knew all too well that their world lay beyond the ability of outsiders to understand. Witness two Marine Corps veterans asked to leave a theater during a showing of SANDS OF IWO JIMA because they could not stop laughing at a Hollywood depiction of a real war (315).
Linderman’s best chapter examines the close relationship between American values and the combat experience. Americans, coming from the Great Depression, saw the war, and combat more specifically, as a job to be completed as soon as possible. The likening of combat to a job gave combat veterans a way of dealing with the horrible acts they were required to perform as well as the knowledge that their death or survival had become purely a matter of chance.
Ironically, those same values made combat appealing for some. Combat was the one place where true comradeship, without concern for background (except race – the Armed Forces remained segregated until 1948), ethnicity, or even military rank, existed. It was also the one part of military life where chicken *censored* military discipline and regulations (particularly anathema to American soldiers) mattered very little. Paradoxical as it may seem, the world of combat was, in many ways, the most un-military part of the thousand yard stare. While those at home enjoyed high wages and savings accounts, and noncombat personnel experienced relative comforts like beds and hot food, the combat veteran lived with the knowledge that only the end of the war or his own death would end his suffering. In order to survive, imagination, tenderness, and compassion had to die. Soldiers often believed in God (male and benevolent) or luck (female and usually malevolent) to get them through. Because their experiences outstripped their ability to explain them, they relied on men like Ernie Pyle and Bill Mauldin to explain the war to civilians in words that would convey some semblance of truth without the shock of the whole truth.
Because so few people experienced this world within war, World War II has come to be thought of as the Good War. The recent Enola Gay controversy reveals America’s unease with any implication of guilt or wrongdoing in what Dwight Eisenhower called The Great Crusade. Such an interpretation seriously minimizes the sacrifices and Armed Forces. understood the common language, the shared suffering, and the struggles of the combat soldier. The war profoundly changed his understanding of himself, his world, and his mortality. Gerald Linderman has done the historical record a great service by telling the story of the men who lived, and often died, at the very edges of civilization.
Linderman quotes combat veteran James Jones, who noted that among the combatants, There was a lot more bitterness in World War II than historians allow (197). Because that bitterness runs so counter to American conventional wisdom about World War II, it has remained hidden beneath what Fussell angrily described as a war sanitized and romanticized almost beyond recognition. Linderman’s insightful and moving book goes with Fussell beyond the war of Hollywood into a world beyond the abilities of Hollywood to describe. Gerald Linderman has restored the voice of the combat soldier to the historiography of the Second World War with dignity and humanity so that their world shall not be forgotten.
Michael NeibergUnited States Air Force AcademyHistory Essays