Monday, March 25, 2013

Cannon fodder

Although I enjoy reading war histories, I have no romantic illusions about war or the life of a soldier. And once in a while I stumble across books that really emphasize - whether deliberately or not - that war is hell. Yes, there is bravery and heroism, but sometimes it's just death and destruction. The First World War was especially one of those odd contrasts: whitewashed at the time with plenty of romanticism, and yet the reality was so much pointless devastation both of people and the land.

Yanks : The Epic Story of the American Army in World War I is one of those that emphasizes the waste and recurrent futility, although I think it was unintentional. It was written by John S. D. Eisenhower, whose father was later the president, but served under General Pershing after the war as head of the commission for war memorials. As a child, John tagged along with his father visiting the battle sites and he brings this knowledge to the book, but as an Army Reserve general himself, he also brings a general's tactical eye, and this book reads more like a topographical overview of troop movements and battle skirmishes. The focus here is on America's role in the war and he attempts to mix in personal information from ordinary soldiers, but it's minimal and all it does is serve to emphasize the low value placed on human life when it's reduced to numbers, especially by those who fight wars behind the front lines. That's not to say it isn't interesting, and it really gave me a better idea of what was going on. After all, the personal experience of the soldiers only tells one of the stories of the war, and the bigger picture is another of those stories.

Unfortunately, as much as I'd like to think human life was valued more in the next war, The Bedford Boys: One American Town's Ultimate D-day Sacrifice doesn't really support that idea. It was written by Alex Kershaw who has a way of presenting history in a readable way but it's thinner on the technical aspects and heavier on the personal side. He writes of the young men from Bedford, Virginia, who were part of the invading force on Omaha Beach. D-Day was unfortunately one of those situations where overwhelming numbers were needed to break through the German lines. Unfortunately, plans to knock out German defenses didn't go so well and Allied troops walked into a shooting gallery on the beaches. What ensued was a hard fought victory with a high number of casualties - especially for the little town of Bedford. Supposedly this book was the inspiration for the movie “Saving Private Ryan,” but it's also a reminder of the sacrifices we too often take for granted.

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