Hell on earth

The Boys' Crusade: American GIs in Europe

Paul Fussell <em>Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 184pp, £9.99</em

Few writers have done more to deconstruct the heroic myths of western warfare in the 20th century than Paul Fussell. He has always stuck by the view that war is little more than badly managed hell. The fundamental idiocy of pitting ordinary human beings, built of nothing more robust than flesh and bone, against steel and high explosives illuminates all his thinking about war. It's a fair point.

The consequences of this mismatch of man and machine permeate Fussell's latest polemic against the incompetence, arrogance and thoughtlessness that defined the organisation of America's vast conscript army in the Second World War. The book is an antidote to the anniversary fever that has attended memories of D-Day 60 years on. Fussell was a junior lieutenant in the army that liberated western Germany, until he was severely wounded in March 1945. His strident rejection of the anniversary version of the US army's role in the conflict is spoken in the articulate voice of one who went through the real thing.

In a series of moving and often bitter vignettes, Fussell presents this army as little more than a bunch of "boys", mostly 18 or 19 years old, some enthusiastic but most, he insists, fear- ful. The boys were poorly trained and ill-prepared for what they had to do in combat; they barely understood the reasons why they had to fight; and they disliked the British and the French, while having little hatred for the Germans.

Posted to Britain in 1943 and 1944 to prepare for an invasion of France, the GIs spent much of their time when they were not being trained on chasing women. British men resented them hugely. US soldiers were smarter, more up to date, and better paid and supplied. Fussell records the odd statistic that American soldiers were allocated 22.5 sheets of toilet paper a day, but British soldiers only three. Tensions between Field Marshal Montgomery and General Eisenhower filtered down through the whole vast military pyramid.

Fussell goes on to describe in graphic detail the reality of life and death on the front line, where the low chances of survival created widespread demoralisation. He makes no bones about the willingness of countless US soldiers to desert, fake illness, break down psychologically or, in some cases, inflict wounds on themselves. This was such common practice that whole wards were allocated to men who had mutilated their hands, feet or legs to avoid having to risk death any longer. Almost all the injuries were to the left hand (the little finger was the favourite) or the left foot. German bullets were not usually so discriminating.

Fussell makes clear why so many of his comrades chose any route they could to escape combat. In the infantry, survival prospects were poor. Although they made up just 15 per cent of American forces, the infantry took 75 per cent of all American casualties. High death rates meant a flow of replacements, often even more ill-trained, sent to units in ones or twos, and often posted on the first dangerous missions by experienced soldiers who knew the ropes and had survived. The replacements were dispensable, and by Fussell's grim reckoning, they were the group hardest hit. Isolated, fearful and raw, the replacements (the name itself was a recognition that casualties happened) found themselves in units where they knew nobody, and understood nothing of battle-field realities. So heavy were their losses, that the US army was running out of men as it pushed into Germany in 1945.

Much of this reality was glossed over in official US histories with euphemism or deliberate silence. Incidents of death from friendly fire, incompetent attacks little better than the frontal assaults of the First World War, and orders that made no sense and resulted in large numbers of deaths were somehow transformed into the language of official recollection about "steady progress" or "the enemy inflicted heavy losses". The gap between reality on the ground and the public propaganda of the army seems about as true of forces in western Europe 60 years ago as it has proved to be of the forces in Iraq today.

The main problem here is the nature of the war. For all the complaints that Fus-sell exposes in a text both indignant and humane, the US army did play its part in destroying the German occupation of Europe. The alternative to not fighting was to allow that occupation to continue, or to rely on mass bombing, perhaps even an atomic bomb on Berlin, to end the war with dreadful loss of German civilian life. Fussell understands this. When at last they liberated the concentration camps, many of the US soldiers realised for the first time what it was they had been fighting for. Fussell's complaint is not about unseating Hitler. He just thinks that no army of innocent teenagers, unskilled in war and poorly led, should have been made to take on such an awesome responsibility.

The American army has come to realise that mistake. US forces in Iraq are not made up of Fussell's "boys" (even though the word is still too readily used in the west, whilst Iraqi militants are all "men"). It is a tough, heavily armed machine that takes low risks and pays back immense violence. War may still be hell, but it is undoubtedly better managed than it was 60 years ago. This is almost certainly not the lesson that Fussell would want anyone to draw from this book.

Richard Overy's most recent book is The Dictators: Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Russia (Allen Lane, the Penguin Press)