The Boys' Crusade

by Paul Fussell (Modern Library)


(This column first appeared in the December 23, 2004 issue of ArtVoice of Buffalo.)


Historian Paul Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory won the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award so his writing deserves our attention. And his slight 165 page extended essay The Boys Crusade: The American Infantry in Northwestern Europe, 1944-1945 well merits that attention.

This book is especially important because it offers, as the author has pointed out in interviews, a view counter to those of Stephen Ambrose's Band of Brothers and Tom Brokaw's The Greatest Generation.

Fussell sees the dark side of that difficult advance from Anzio to Torgau and he tells the stories we too seldom hear. For example, about the planners' failure to realize that this would not be simply a battle between machines and the necessary transfer of officer recruits almost directly from colleges to the front lines. About the butchering of so many of the new, ill-trained recruits: one squad had eight newcomers report during one week, at the end of which all were dead; their comrades didn't yet even know their names.

"Before the end of the carnage," Fussell tells us, "135,000 American boys were dead, 586,628 wounded." And about the 19,000 U. S. soldiers who couldn't or wouldn't remain in those front lines and deserted. This is a disquieting story but an important and necessary one.

No war should be oversimplified and especially not idolized. As we continue to see in Iraq, mostly young men and now young women get killed in them-- Gerry Rising.