The Boys' Crusade is the great historian Paul Fussell's unflinching and unforgettable account of the American infantryman's experiences in Europe during World War II. Based in part on the author's own experiences, it provides a stirring narrative of what the war was actually like, from the point of view of the children-for children they were-who fought it. While dealing definitively with issues of strategy, leadership, context, and tactics, Fussell has an additional purpose: to tear away the veil of feel-good mythology that so often obscures and sanitizes war's brutal essence. "A chronicle should deal with nothing but the truth," Fussell writes in his Preface. Accord-ingly, he eschews every kind of sentimentalism, focusing instead on the raw action and human emotion triggered by the intimacy, horror, and intense sorrows of war, and honestly addressing the errors, waste, fear, misery, and resentments that plagued both sides. In the vast literature on World War II, The Boys' Crusade stands wholly apart. Fussell's profoundly honest portrayal of these boy soldiers underscores their bravery even as it deepens our awareness of their experiences.
- New York Times Notable Books of the Year
This short study of the U. S. Army's most burdened branch in the final campaign against Germany does not represent its National Book Award-winning author at his highest level. It focuses on the 17-, 18-, and 19-year-olds who were the backbone of the infantry. They were also frequently thrust into combat after no more than four months' training, led by officers as green as themselves; Fussell himself was one of them. If wounded, they were returned to some other unit through the infamous Replacement Depot system, and altogether not treated much better than the trench fodder of WWI. Thorough research has not prevented some questionable pieces of historiography, such as leaving out the resistance the American army eventually generated in the Battle of the Bulge. Fussell also tends toward space-consuming jabs at rival schools of interpretations and even journalists as distinguished as Ernie Pyle. The focus bounces around, with mini-essays covering such non-infantry affairs as the Allied deception operation for D-Day, at the expense of material on the infantry as other than victim. For a minihistory or minibiography of the same subject, readers should stick with Stephen Ambrose's Citizen Soldiers. (On sale Sept. 9) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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August 31, 2005
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Excerpt from The Boys' Crusade by Paul Fussell
When Ike Eisenhower was a boy, European history was more avidly pursued in schools than now, and it's also possible that he knew a bit about the Crusades from his own reading, if he hadn't heard about them in church his family was pious or at elementary or high school or even at West Point. In any event, the imagery of the Crusades was lodged strongly in his mind. In an Order of the Day given or read to Soldiers, Sailors, and Air- men of the Allied Expeditionary Force, just before the invasion of Normandy, he informed them: You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months.And, once successfully over, he would title his memoir of the war Crusade in Europe.
Eisenhower was not the only one conscious during the war of the Crusades. One of the enemy, Panzer leader Hans von Luck, had occasion three times to recall a poem about a military moment in the Crusades whose horrors resembled those he witnessed in the Falaise Pocket in 1944. He writes, Man, horse, and truck, by the Lord were struck. This saying, from a poem on the battles of the Crusaders in Palestine about 1213, had come to my mind twice before: in December, 1941, by Moscow, and in 1943 in North Africa.
The date 1213 suggests the so-called Children s Crusade, about whose actuality some historians have doubts. In the year 1212, it is said, an odd army set out from France and Germany. Its purpose was to liberate the Holy Land from the profane grip of Islam. This Crusade is reputed to have numbered fifty thousand young people, of whom only three thousand survived the attentions of pirates, slave dealers, and brothel keepers. Whether actual or mythical, the Children's Crusade can t help suggesting many dimensions of American youth's curious, violent journey eastward over France and Germany in the Second World War. Kurt Vonnegut invokes The Children s Crusade as a sardonic alternative title for his novel Slaughterhouse Five, which measures many significant features of that war and those children.
I intend no disrespect to the memory of Dwight D. Eisenhower by examining his term crusade. It made some sense at the moment, even if many of the still unblooded troops were likely to ridicule it. If they read or heard the Supreme Commander's words at all, they were doubtless embarrassed to have so highfalutin a term applied to their forthcoming performances and their feelings about them. It is likely that many never saw the sheet of paper on which the word appeared, and if the message was read to them (in the wind and the rain), their military experience so far had inclined them to greet all official utterances with scorn and skepticism. Indeed, when such pronouncements were read aloud they often ridiculed them noisily, until silenced by a sergeant's At ease!
At this distance, it may not be easy to remember that the European ground war in the west was largely fought by American boys seventeen, eighteen, and nineteen years old. At seventeen you could enlist if you had your parents written permission, but most boys waited until they were drafted at age eighteen. (Actually, the army contained numerous illicit seventeen-year-olds, their presence as soldiers more or less regularized by false papers not rigorously inquired into.) Some of these men-children shaved but many did not need to. Robert Kotlowitz remembers bayonet drill. We aimed, thrust, slashed or whichever screaming Kill! Kill! in our teen-age voices. Not a few soldiers hopeful of food packages from home specified Animal Crackers, which, one soldier said, can do wonders for low morale. (Perhaps what troops were recalling when seeking this specialty was eight-year-old Shirley Temple singing Animal Crackers in My Soup.) At the same time, the infantrymen, not yet versed in the adult conventions of the high-class uses of wine, did not wait until after dinner to sip a little cognac. In quantity, it often replaced water in their canteens.