Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Great War From The Ground Up

I have spent the last couple of months making my way, several pages a night before sleep, through Dwight Eisenhower's Crusade in Europe, his eloquent, humble (though not modest), somewhat bloodless account of commanding American forces through North Africa, Italy, Normandy, the Battle of the Bulge, and VE Day. I picked up the book for 50 cents last summer, read the first few pages when I got back to New Hampshire in March, and gradually became absorbed. Now, I am on a kind of Eisenhower tear.

The events Eisenhower describes are of almost unimaginable human cruelty. Yet Eisenhower's voice remains reassuring and sane (actually, so much the voice you want to read to you before bed): the strategic commitments, the command of divisions, the management of personalities, the insistence on unchallenged command, the logistics, the respect for the power of the journalists and the opinion of citizens who read them, the carefully channeled indignation when required to discipline subordinates, the businesslike contempt for "the German"--all in all, a sense of what Camus called "common decency."

What you don't quite get, however, is a vivid sense of what Eisenhower's soldiers faced, though there is no doubt from his writing about visiting battlefields after the fact that the suffering he knew he was ordering men into weighed on him in prospect about as heavily as historians would wish in retrospect. His "veneer of callousness" (as he wrote Maimie before D Day) was crafted.

Anyway, it is with Eisenhower's book in mind that I am now reading the just-published book of my old friend, Charles Glass, The Deserters: The Hidden History of World War II, which seems to me Crusade in Europe's surprising complement. If Eisenhower's book provides an unexpectedly humane view of the war's end from the headquarters of the Supreme Commander, Glass's brings us an unexpectedly humane view from the the platoon, the psyche, and the brig.

I won't try to recapitulate the various stories Glass tells compellingly. (You can get a taste from this poignant conversation with "Fresh Air"'s Terry Gross.) I will say that Glass in his own way unpacks the horror of the war, and of war in general, with a kind of magisterial detachment, tact, and factual concreteness worthy, ironically, of Crusade in Europe. As with Eisenhower, Glass's decency and humility serve his subject well.

I will note that most of the soldiers whose careers Glass chronicles were by no means cowards.  Most had fought bravely, and for the very values Eisenhower intended; deserters were not lacking in passion or inspiration. These men were, for the most part, simply pushed (for reasons beyond Eisenhower's and Marshall's control, actually) beyond human endurance. To see why 50,000 Americans deserted is to see the war from the ground up in a way, I suspect, Eisenhower would have condemned but understood. Understandable--not the same as right.

Incidentally, Glass has been a war correspondent for most of his adult life and at times narrowly escaped death himself. He also escaped a Hezbollah kidnapping. His own bravery, and contempt for moral cowardice, should not be doubted; his latest report from Aleppo, a city he loves, is a model of how to describe the Syrian tragedy. Glass, much like Eisenhower, I dare say, has always intuited that, once guns fall silent, it takes more courage to advocate keeping them silent than to open fire once again.

Eisenhower commanded greater military power in Europe than anyone since Napoleon, but he did not seek glory. He knew very well that FDR's decision to keep his hero and mentor, George Marshall, in Washington meant credit for defeating "the German" would be his. Yet he was embarrassed, he writes, when French crowds hailed him after the liberation of Paris. As president, it became even clearer how little glory Eisenhower thought there was in war, which once peace was established had to be prevented almost at all cost--which led to his thwarted efforts to bring Khrushchev to "detente" before the concept gained currency.

Eisenhower's only obvious moral cowardice was keeping silent while McCarthy, that permanent crusader, was skewering Marshall. He had senatorial yahoos of his own to deal with and other senators whispering in his ear about electoral pragmatism. Eisenhower, who rolled back the gains of the Suez War of 1956, finally sent marines into Lebanon in 1958. People now rallying to Syrian intervention might want to consider what good that did--or just consult with Glass.