So we've all seen Private Ryan now and think we know something about the horrors of war, but I would suggest that there is no way that anybody who was not there can truly understand it. This great book, written by an American paratrooper about his experiences leading up to and then at D-Day, makes us realize that the visceral horror of war is something that probably can not be conveyed.
It is a rather short read and is in three parts: the first is at training camp in Georgia; the second in England preparatory to the assault; and the third is the terrifying jump into France, and the grim, terrible battle which followed. To say the least, it makes for very compelling reading.
The training aspect was remarkable for its undisguised brutality. The men were told in no uncertain terms that the paratroopers did not want them; they were going to try to make them quit. The first day, for example, several men collapsed during the morning's six mile run. They were left by the side of the road, to crawl back as they could, with one of them not arriving until after midnight. He quit. Treatment, as well as being harsh, was also intentionally unfair. The narrator, after his first night jump, broke his ankle. He was left out there as well, in the darkness, to crawl back to the barracks as best as he could. "If I knew how to cry," he said. "I would have." The men were told that their likelihood of surviving combat was very poor, and that they should expect to die. The men accepted this. Most died.
Their mission was to jump behind enemy lines the morning of D-Day. Each company was given specific tasks to accomplish, but one gets the sense that all it was really hoped they would do was to create as much chaos as possible. This is exactly what happened after the chaotic, haphazard way in which they were dropped. Nobody was dropped where they should have been. Entire planeloads of men were actually dropped at sea, where they drowned. The author witnessed one cowardly pilot, fearful of anti-aircraft fire, drop the men from an altitude of 100 feet. Every one of them was killed before his chute could open.
The battle scenes are horrific, almost beyond comprehension. The way one killed one's enemy was by creating situations in which there were large amounts of flying metal in the enemy's area. This was done with bombs dropped from planes or fired from cannons and mortars, tanks, bazookas, grenades, machine guns, rifles and pistols. With such firepower on both sides, one realizes that getting killed was likely not a matter of if, but when. The author, diving into a hole, finds two German soldiers apparently hit by a bomb. Their faces, hands and feet are all blasted away but incredibly, they are still alive. The author shoots them, and prays that if the same were to happen to him, the Germans would show the same mercy.
After a time the Americans are able to establish some order. The author is sent behind with communications, and retreats through fields of dead. For a quarter of a mile, they litter the ground so thickly that he is literally able to step from body to body. Finally coming to the end of this, he describes the experience as of coming from some hideous darkness, back into light.
Eventually the author is wounded, first surviving a grenade blast which deafens him, then a piece of shrapnel which rips away the muscle of his forearm, exposing four inches of naked bone. He is sent behind to recover only so that he can come back and fight again.
The narrative is written in a candid, matter-of-fact way, remarkable for its lack of sentimentality. This, we realize, is the way he was supposed to be. This is how he was trained. Gentility, kindness, thoughtfulness, and feelings were emotions wiped clean from the consciousness of these young men, trained as they were to kill and to die. This fine book is a sobering reminder of the sacrifice made by them, most of whom met a gruesome end at an age when Americans today are graduating from high school or going to the martini bar to meet girls. They instead lie in cold graves dug hastily for them in the north of France.