Skip to main content

My Guns

May 2024
20min read

Seeking the answer to a simple and terrible question: What was it like?

I was born in 1944, toward the middle of October, when a lot of people were getting killed for me, or blown up, or shot, or captured, or worse. Worse? “The shell hit him about here,” said a veteran not long ago, remembering that time and place; “he disappeared.”


The ones who survived their military service in those years eventually got their discharges, went home, went to work, raised families, and are now of an age to retire. Old age is beginning to do what the war could not, or would not. All these people, men and women, living or not, are part of what must be the most written-about generation in American history. As generations come and go, this is a particularly distinguished one, compared, say, with my own.

What, then, should one of my generation say in commemoration of those who fought in this war, most of the important things—presumably—already having been said? We know where all these people went and what they did. Any military atlas will show very large colored arrows, pointing this way and that: This is how the Australians and the Yanks traversed the Kokoda Trail to split New Guinea in half. On another page we can see Guadalcanal, an inconsiderable island, so far out of the way. Still farther on there is the campaign in North Africa and then inexorable progress across the Mediterranean to Italy, another jump into France (the “dash across France” is a perennially favorite phrase). Over in Poland, Byelorussia, and the Ukraine, the situation becomes a test of the cartographer’s art; everything seems a little messier. Back in the Pacific the friendly arrows multiply and advance toward the top of the page, “stepping-stones” to victory against Japan. Anyone can see how simple it is; anyone can criticize what was done, saying this was a better way. Why couldn’t they see it then?

We have the numbers too. Nearly to a finality, we can calculate the people involved, those killed and wounded (“disappeared” poses greater difficulties), where they were mostly killed or wounded, and what mostly killed or wounded them. For soldiers, artillery seemed to be the killer of killers. For civilians (let us not forget that more civilians were killed in this war than soldiers), gas or bombs, in that order. Indeed, all those matters that can be reduced to numbers have been, the tangibles as always being the most easily approached without understanding. Ships, planes, tanks, artillery pieces, “small” arms—“small” always referring to the size of the weapon and its projectile, not the damage one could do to a person—all these fill up the very large picture books found on the remainder shelves of local bookstores.

Of the millions of Americans sent overseas by the Army, only 14 percent were infantry. Those 14 percent took more than 70 percent of all the battle casualties.

If all this leaves us less than satisfied, we can know so much about the statesmen and generals of World War II that they seem like members of our own families. Their lives are so well accounted for that in the unlikely event a gap would appear in their wartime chronologies it would constitute a mystery sufficiently great to set battalions of historians into frenzied activity. The fraudulent “Hitler diaries” of a few years ago come to mind; we were nonplused that something so potentially significant could have escaped notice, so accustomed were we to knowing everything about this war.

Even a certain dislike of reading should pose no impediment to knowing about the war. Virtually every night of the year, television broadcasts some program on the war—the bigger, more visually dramatic pieces of the war, of course, but conveying a kind of recognition all the same. It is just possible that our present knowledge of the war comes mostly from this source, condensed, trivialized, and certainly very highly organized in digestible segments (one hour on “Barbarossa,” the German invasion of Russia).

With all these rather insistent intrusions of war history upon our modern consciousness, it might seem strange to argue that we have lost sight of the real war altogether. That was precisely the thesis Studs Terkel meant to convey when he did “The Good War,” bracketing his title in quotation marks that dripped with irony. But irony turned back on Terkel: It was a good war even to many who participated in it, and furthermore it got better all the time as the decisiveness of the Allied victory slowly revealed itself. Our very human impulse is to negotiate constantly with our memory, to domesticate it and manage it, remembering the good parts. With every passing year the old, real war loses another round in the negotiations.

The fiftieth anniversaries of the war are upon us. As in the real war, Americans are the latecomers. Europeans have been taking notice for a good two years, but the rush of events behind the old Iron Curtain has left precious few energies for commemorating the past. If our commemorations repeat the pattern of the war itself, our consciousness of the war will build to a kind of crescendo by about 1994. How, then, at a half-century’s remove, can we make a new approach on that time and its people, especially when its evidence and effect are still so much a part of us and still so meaningful to the events we see unfold on the nightly news? How do we pay proper attention to the old war and what it means without further contributing to what Paul Fussell has called the “disneyfication” of the war?

The answer for me cannot be wholly historical; such an answer implies an emotional distance from the war that I do not enjoy. My connection to this war is one of long and personal standing, and my connection to its people is so close that I dread reading obituaries for fear that one of my old war people has died. Those who made history so fresh for me are disappearing, one by one.

Exactly when I became sentient about war in general, or particularly about this war, I cannot say. It never seems to have been far away. I recall, imprecisely, photographs of relatives in uniform, well scrubbed, creased, and confident, very much younger than I thought they ever could have been. Growing up in the fifties, my friends and I always had at hand an old helmet, a shirt, or a bayonet to complement the imagination of the playground. Bloodstained items were a great premium to us. No one thought for a moment about the cost of these things. The father of one of my playmates was missing several fingers, lost in combat somewhere, torn away by a stream of machine-gun fire—or so it was rumored among us. He was otherwise a calm, respectable adult presence on the fringes of childhood life, but his debility added immeasurably to his mana, a piece of secret knowledge to be conveyed in whispers on the playground. Sometimes we played him in action, traumatic amputation and all.

Since then I have studied war more seriously, or so I think. I would like to think as well that I grew out of that childish infatuation with the play of war, but I often wonder if that is true. Once I began to study war in earnest I wondered whether I had made any intellectual progress at all. The questions that still interested me were a child’s questions, really, chief among them: What is it really like? Not the war of the statesmen or the generals. Not the war of the scientists or the staff officers. Not, even, the war of the field commanders. To verge on being unkind as well as ungrateful, all these people were really office workers. I wanted to know about war at the darkest corner of its heart, that one quality that so differentiates war from all other human activity: combat itself.

For years now I have moved through the world of soldiers and soldiering as a privileged spectator, and it is from them that I have inherited a certain interest in the practicalities—what Fussell would call the actualities—of war, not to mention a certain impatience with the more domesticated versions of war that one finds so much in modern American life. Too, my privilege is complicated by a certain responsibility. I teach soldiers the history of war and so contribute to their vision of what war is. Soldiers, and especially professional soldiers, carry with them into their first combat an expectation of what their war will be like. My responsibility is to see that the distance between what they expect and what they get is as small as possible.

A decade and a half ago, the British military historian John Keegan wrote The Face of Battle, the kind of book for which historians reserve the word seminal, really meaning that the author created a new way of thinking about an old problem. Keegan’s view differed markedly from conventional military histories that interpreted wars from the top down. Regardless of the ways in which war had changed over the centuries, he wrote, what all wars have in common is that they are human enterprises, conducted, it is true, at extremes of human behavior and tolerance, but human all the same. Even if understanding war does require some measure of technical knowledge, it is also true that any understanding of war that does not recognize its essential humanness is flawed. The “face of battle” has always been, finally, the human face itself.

When we reduce war to an affair of numbers or great men or grand strategies, when war’s humanness finds it difficult to make its way past the trivializing negotiations of memory, we have lost sight of what war is and have begun to interest ourselves in what it is not. Paradoxically, war is most human and reveals its essential character at the very place where humanness is in the greatest danger of extinction: in the killing grounds, the zones of combat where men devote every impulse of their mental and physical energy to destroying one another. Making sense of this world is a singularly demanding undertaking. And for any exploration of this world, expert guides are essential.

Those guides are all about us in the form of books, certainly, but they are about us in person as well—perhaps our fathers and mothers, our relatives, our neighbors. Only a couple of years ago I discovered that a close relative, a sweet and decent man, had done the worst kind of fighting in the Pacific and had never uttered a word about it to me—until I asked. The soldiers of the old war, notoriously laconic as they are, have begun to speak more and more. They are even beginning to return to the deadly old places where they fought, visiting comrades they left behind in the ground, or elsewhere. What they, in written and personal form, have taught me about this war is beyond calculation, perhaps even beyond my expression. I remember this war—its most important parts—through them. I think it must be, in the end, the best way of all to know a war. What have they taught me?

Twenty million Americans were examined for military service in World War II; fourteen million were accepted. Yet in World War II, as in all modern wars, the fighting part of this vast number was relatively small. Most Americans in uniform during this war knew less than nothing about combat and, what is more, were not particularly anxious to find out. The service one entered, and when one entered, had a great deal to do with whether one would actually fight. In the Navy the chances of engaging in seaborne combat were very high if one happened to be part of the fleets deployed to contested waters or on convoy duty in the Atlantic, and indeed the bulk of early American casualties came from just these sources. As the war wore on, the casualty rate slowed. Next came the air forces, whether Army or Navy. Like the convoy sailors, they saw combat relatively early; unlike the sailors, they did not see their casualties decline until nearly war’s end. The story among the ground forces, the Marines and GIs, was precisely the reverse of the naval war: Their early casualties were “light”—always in war the most relative of terms—and intensified throughout the war until, like those of the air forces, their casualties declined at the end of the war.

Regardless of the medium in which they fought, the American combatants of World War II were not relentlessly fighting. In the naval war, combat was a series of episodes that interrupted days and sometimes months of steaming from one position to another. Surely the catastrophes of naval combat could kill or wound or drown several thousand sailors at one time, and the possibility just as surely preyed upon those who manned these ships, working its own special kind of stress on them. Aerial warfare had its own particular rhythms, and for the air crews there was at least a hint of war’s end in certain commands that allowed for a maximum number of combat missions for each flier. Yet on any one of their missions war’s end was never far away, and what is more, the air crewmen were often unwilling witnesses to the end of someone else’s war. If the “flyboys” seemed to have more opportunities to get away from their war than other combatants, as many foot soldiers grumbled, that only means we have misunderstood how their real war was composed. We do not hear the muffled sobs of fear in the squadron barracks on the night before a thousand-plane raid against Germany.

Soldiers found that all the defenses their society had given them in preparation for their war were too fragile to withstand the grind of combat.

The war on the ground was predominantly the infantry-man’s war. Despite notable advancements in the equipment and techniques of armored warfare, this war belonged to the GI. If one is searching for a picture of those in something close to sustained combat for long periods of time, this is where one finds it. Here, too, the disparity between those who fought and those who did not seems the greatest. Of the millions of Americans sent overseas by the Army during World War II, only 14 percent were infantrymen. Those 14 percent took more than 70 percent of all the battle casualties among overseas troops.

Even among the fighting parts of an army, a relatively small proportion actually suffered combat. The most combative of all the combat units was the infantry division. Within these American formations, combat troops of all categories counted for only 68 percent of the whole. One wartime study by a division commander, Lucian Truscott, estimated that 95 percent of his losses were sustained by his line troops. Harold Leinbaugh and John Campbell, officers of a rifle company in the fall of 1944 and into 1945, who later wrote The Men of Company K, put it less clinically: “We were the Willie Lomans of the war.”

All this means that during World War II there existed on this planet men in all varieties of uniform who belonged to a vast military underclass, and that still millions more of their fellow citizens were in the stands, so to speak, rooting them on. They fought in the service of causes that were radically, one might even say mortally, different, but the essence of the daily lives they led was not. It consisted, as Fussell reminds us, of “the experience of coming to grips, face to face, with an enemy who designs your death.” Under these circumstances, the popular wartime phrase “We’re behind you all the way” takes on a rather different meaning.

Surely, then, it was the cause that made it all worthwhile. At first glance one might think that the nobility of one’s cause had an important and easing effect upon those who fought in its service or even that a soldier who fights for a great and moral cause is a superior soldier, so protected by his nobility. It isn’t true, and it was no closer to being true in the Second World War than in any other. Soldiering is a morally neutral act, so designed by centuries of tradition. Soldiers have fought bravely and well for the most despicable of causes, and the Second World War lasted for six years because millions of soldiers did exactly that. The great wartime cartoonist Bill Mauldin discerned among the GIs a grudging respect for the fighting qualities of enemy troops, even if they were “skunks.” Some critics since the war have said that enemy troops, especially German troops, were far better soldiers than the GIs, but this is a contention far from being proved.

Assuming—only for the moment—that some enemy troops were better at their trade than American troops, should we not then view our relative lack of ability as a mark of honor, all the more indicative of sacrifice in the name of a great crusade? Then the GIs become noble amateurs or even martyrs to the cause of freedom. Surely no American armed force ever took the field for better reasons than the defeat of the Axis Powers. Was this motivation not a powerful force in our favor? Evidently not.

Field research during the war showed that frontline troops were notoriously impatient with “morale lectures” laid on by well-meaning staff. Appeals to patriotism or cause met with little response from men who were constantly on the verge of physical or mental exhaustion because their lives were threatened every day. No doubt the same well-meaning commanders and staff officers who thought troop lectures were a good idea dismissed the lack of frontline enthusiasm as unwholesome cynicism, as evidence of suspiciously low morale. Still, the troops did fight on. Why?

For most of the world’s noncombatant population, the war may have been about one cause or another, but for the Willie Lomans the war was about staying alive. To ordinary men in such circumstances, no amount of morale building could offset this fundamental fact, and to such men all those who were not with them were in no position to lecture. Combat consumed too much energy to allow any left over for higher considerations of national philosophy. All the defenses their society had given them in preparation for their war—the national and popular support they received, their training and their equipment, even the official sanction to kill—were found by the soldiers to be altogether too fragile to withstand the grind of combat. The sustenance of one’s own comrades, today understood by professionals as the essential cement of any combat unit, proved to be unequal to the demands of combat. Leinbaugh and Campbell’s rifle company began its war with two hundred men; by war’s end combat had used up four hundred. Their casualties equaled twice their original strength. This rifle company, Leinbaugh and Campbell insist, was a wholly typical unit of its kind.

A kind of solidarity did exist on the front lines, one that commanders found threatening and attempted to suppress whenever possible; in the Great War and after, this solidarity would have been called “the brotherhood of the trench.” It was a feeling best expressed by Erich Maria Remarque in All Quiet on the Western Front when he has his character Paul Bäumer realize that all the soldiers on the front line, friendly and enemy alike, are not fighting each other so much as they are fighting against the war itself.

My impression, but only that, is that those who fought in World War II came to this realization much sooner than their precedessors in World War I because they expected much less from this war. When the war broke out, they knew it was going to be a bad one and suffered fewer illusions about what it could do for, or to, them. Harold Bond, a young infantry officer who fought with the 36th Division in Italy, wrote years afterward: “My generation, brought up on A Farewell to Arms, All Quiet on the Western Front, and plays such as Journey’s End, was not easily persuaded that modern war made any sense at all. Most certainly none of us thought any longer of glory and military heroics.” For all that, Bond needed no lectures on morale to tell him why he fought: “One has to fight against a clear and palpable evil; the Nazis were both vicious and degrading, appealing as they did to the worst side of human nature.” What moved Bond in the end, however, was his simpler conviction, one that was closer to war’s practicalities, “that young, unmarried men should be the first to go.” The go in Bond’s memory is ambiguous. Bond seems to have meant to go overseas, but going could also mean never coming back, given the possibilities inherent in his particular situation. Infantry officers, especially junior ones, were a highly expendable commodity along Italy’s Gustav Line in those days. A division on the line could easily spend its complement of lieutenants (137 of them) in a month or two.

And in those days, late in 1944 and early in 1945, the Allied victory was by no means a sure thing. One reads in the histories of the war pronouncements that after a given battle—say, Stalingrad, or D-day, or the Schweinfurt raid, or the Battle of the Coral Sea—the Allied victory was “only a matter of time.” For those who fought, the matter of time was more than incidental; it was everything. One of Harry Brown’s characters in his novel A Walk in the Sun sees the war continuing forever, one day of combat after the other, until decades later he will fight in the “Battle of Tibet.”

In late 1943 and early 1944, the war was very much in control, the human beings fighting against it not having arrested its murderous progress. So the war assumed a certain monotony for those who fought in it at sea, in the air, on the ground, and we should not be startled to discover a sense of futile wonderment and perhaps even fatalistic bitterness among them. Not surprisingly, after the war ended, such feelings were suppressed. While the war was on, they were very much alive. One infantry scout in Italy remembered that “we felt simply that we had been left to die. Men in our division gave up all hope of being relieved. They thought the Army intended to keep them in action until everybody was killed.…All the men have hope of getting back, but most of the hope is that you’ll get hit someplace that won’t kill you. That’s all they talk about.”

All wars contain their own particular human secrets. One such secret in this war was the hostility those in “the line” felt for those who were in “the rear.” The rear was both a place and an identity, it was “any sonofabitch whose foxhole is behind mine,” remembers J. A. Croft, who served as a rifleman in Leinbaugh and Campbell’s Company K. The gulf of misunderstanding that existed between those who fought and the thousands of uniformed spectators who milled around any combat zone most often manifested itself in brutal insensitivity. Elliot Johnson was an artillery officer with the 4th Infantry Division five days into the Normandy invasion, when a close friend was accidentally killed by one of his own men. Overcome by grief, Johnson sought medical aid for his dead friend at battalion headquarters, where a drunken colonel ordered Johnson to “get that goddamn hunk of rotten meat out of here!” But there were other, less dramatic evidences of animosity between the line and the rear, and indeed no particular incident was required to keep the animosity alive. The distinguished classicist Bernard Knox, a combat veteran of both the Spanish Civil War and World War II, has written only lately but still with much feeling that “while it is true of every war that much as he may fear and perhaps even hate the enemy opposing him, the combat infantryman broods with deep and bitter resentment over the enormous number of people in his rear who sleep safely at night.”

Misunderstanding the humanness of war, historians and others have superimposed upon it judgments whose weight is too great a burden for the war to bear.

And so they soldiered on until they were killed or wounded or captured or disappeared, having little choice in the matter—or at least no choice most cared to make. The Army recorded only forty thousand deserters during the war, and of these about twenty-nine hundred were actually court-martialed. Forty-nine received the death penalty, but only one such sentence was actually carried out. The numbers of AWOLs—”absent without leave,” a bureaucratic rendition of the “straggling” of older wars—was much higher, and when the American army bypassed Paris, James Jones reports, the city acted as a giant magnet for ten thousand or so troops. How many of those were actually in contact with the enemy, Jones did not know, but that kind of behavior was much less likely among the combat soldiers than among those in the rear echelons.

Sometimes when talking with my students, I ask them to calculate the number of a combat soldier’s enemies, and at first they do not understand what I mean. But the sources of mayhem in any modern war reach dizzying numbers, and the enemy’s work is only one. The anxious trigger finger that killed Elliot Johnson’s friend in Normandy was all too common. When one arms thousands of men and confines them in a concentrated battle area, such incidents are inevitable. Our own artillery fire, mistakenly calculated, killed its share of friendly soldiers and probably was the source of the old artilleryman’s fatalistic comment: “Looked good when it left here.” Of course, the artillery could be dead on its designated target when, in a friendly version of mechanical ambush, a ground unit could walk right under it.

An additional danger threatened if one’s fighting happened to involve a complicated machine. Military versions of industrial accidents were all the greater because these machines were operated in the excited atmosphere of real or potential danger. Sailors came to understand that a single enemy shell could set off a round of secondary explosions on their ships, killing and maiming far more of them than the original attack; but even when they were not under attack, the dangers of manning a modern warship were significant and ever present. In the same way, aerial combat was only one of several ways to die. “There are a variety of possible deaths which face a member of a bomber crew and each man is free to choose his own pet fear,” wrote John Bennett, a squadron commander in the 8th Air Force. “A tire could blow out or an engine could fail on take-off. The oxygen system or electric heating system might fail at high altitude. There is the fear of explosion or midair collision while flying formation.” Or, as sometimes happened, a gunner could accidentally hit another plane in formation while testing his guns before the run to target.

Back on the ground, the killing of friends could be far more intimate. Eugene B. Sledge’s memoir of the Pacific war, With the Old Breed on Peleliu and Okinawa, one of the best of its kind, records how one night, when a soldier became hysterical and threatened to reveal their positions, his comrades killed him with an entrenching tool because they couldn’t keep him quiet any other way. “Christ a’mighty. What a pity,” said one of Sledge’s comrades after hearing the shovel find its mark.

Looking at the war from the vantage point of the combatants, one can easily envision one’s own commander and staff as enemies. They are the ones, after all, who assist the enemy in creating the deadly environment, and if they do not look after their men, much as a doctor his patients in intensive care, the natural alienation between line and rear can sour into sullen, refractory behavior. Harold Leinbaugh saw his regimental commander on the line only once in more than a hundred days of combat, and as Leinbaugh’s own confidence as a company commander increased, he was less than reluctant to see to the welfare of his company according to his own lights rather than follow the dictates of a remote command. In Wartime, Paul Fussell’s acerbic rendition of the war that has infuriated so many spectators and no doubt has pleased just as many combat veterans, a view of the staff as being completely ignorant of war’s actualities can be found throughout. “There is a ‘staff solution’ to the fear problem,” Fussell writes, “when under shelling and mortar fire and scared stiff, the infantry should alleviate the problem by moving—never back but forward. This will enable trained personnel to take care of the wounded and will bring you close enough to the enemy to make him stop the shelling.” So far so good. Then Fussell adds: “That it will also bring you close enough to put you within rifle and machine-gun and hand-grenade range is what the theorists know but don’t mention. The troops know it, which is why they like to move back.”

All these testimonies and more leave little doubt that the real engines of combat are not mechanical but human. Fear and fatigue give combat its true character. Whether it is in the actual or the historical rear, neither is present, and so the distortions begin. Human beings are adaptable, we think, and can get used to anything; haven’t they done so? Soldiers on the line did not think so. As the war went on, combatants and almost no one else knew that everyone would break under the strain of combat at some time or another, provided always he is not otherwise harmed. Break they did. At one point in the war, more “neuropsychiatrie casualties” were shipped home from overseas than those who were physically injured. Significantly, these soldiers received more understanding care close to the fighting line than they did as they went to the rear, where facile moral judgments about courage were still unsullied by the realities of war.

Inevitably some of these misunderstandings of what war is really like have infected the history of the war. Misunderstanding the humanness of war, historians and other commentators have superimposed upon it judgments whose weight is too great a burden for the war to bear. Sometimes, in the soldiers’ memoirs, we hear the old war strain under its modern burdens when notes of embarrassment sound about actions that in combat no one would have blinked at. For most of the veterans, however, the domestication of the war seems not to matter so much; they are mostly indifferent to the meanings we impose upon it.

Having talked with so many of these men over the years, I still find it surprising that they will talk at all to one from “the rear.” It is something like asking a person to discuss his medical record. What is even more interesting is that once they do begin to talk, it is clear they see their war as the single greatest event in their lives, no matter how distinguished their postwar careers. They would agree with E. B. Sledge, the youthful combatant turned college professor, who long after his first amphibious assault against the beaches at Peleliu, still regards that event in no uncertain terms: “Everything my life had been before and has been after pales in the light of that awesome moment.” Sledge’s view is remarkably similar to an old friend’s, well respected in his postwar profession when I first met him. In moments of confidential conversation he always turned back to the days when he flew B-17s against the Germans, his memories vivid and detailed and not at all sentimental, but more significant to him than anything he had done since.

The study of war in our colleges and universities has never been a popular subject with our professors and the academy will disdainfully ignore the anniversaries of this war if at all possible. And because the most dramatic kind of history is being made daily before our eyes, the rest of our society may find it all too easy to turn its attention away from the old war. Yet from Xenophon and Thucydides onward, war’s interior landscape has posed a great mystery, and those men who made war were the most mysterious of all, their experiences perceived as impenetrable to those who were not there. The Second World War, so close at hand in time, is now only a bit more familiar to us than the wars fought by the ancient Greeks, and our limited familiarity is fading daily. Our commemorations over the next few years may postpone our forgetfulness, but eventually our most important war will take its final place in the histories, there to be investigated by the chance encounters of scholarship.

By then my old war friends will be gone as well, but their war will live with me as it always has. For one who plies a trade that makes so much of detachment, the impression of a sentiment is close to heresy, but these men of World War II will have been the closest of my friends. How close were we? Writing in Dispatches about a far different war in Vietnam, Michael Herr asked the same question of himself and the soldiers he encountered. How close? “But of course we were intimate,” he wrote. “They were my guns.…”

We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this magazine of trusted historical writing, now in its 75th year, and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.