Reaching for the Real World War II — A Personal Journey

In Paul Fussell’s Wartime, his book on Americans’ understanding of World War II both during the war and since, Fussell, a combat veteran, argues that “America has not yet understood what the Second World War was like and has thus been unable to use such understanding to re-interpret and re-define the national reality and to arrive at something like public maturity”. The “real war”, as Fussell notes, never got in the books because the perceived nobility of the cause served to negate most meditations on the war’s actual horrors.

When I was young, my friends thought that I knew all about the “real war” because my father was a WWII combat veteran. He was a tanker in the Third Armored Division, and fought during 1944-1945 through the battles in Normandy, France, Belgium, and Germany. I could show my friends the war souvenirs that he had brought back; the stark orange and black Swastika banner, the bayonet, malevolent looking and still sharp to the touch, and the heavy black pistol. And there was his uniform jacket bristling with battle ribbons, sergeant’s stripes, and, on the shoulder, the Third Armored Division patch with its bold streak of yellow lightening.

But the truth was that I didn’t know any more about the war than my friends did. My father rarely talked about it, and when he did it was mostly in anger. My friends’ awe of his part in the war, and our broader American, national, shared sense of it as a noble endeavor was, to my father, as to Fussell, simply foolish. If for most Americans, thoughts about the war began and ended with its justness and obscured its brutality, my father knew that, in the words of Dwight MacDonald (cited by Fussell), the war was “the maximum of physical devastation accompanied by the minimum of human meaning”. It was my inability to accept MacDonald’s view that became a vital force for several of my journeys to west and east Europe and Russia.

From December 1944 to January 1945 the Battle of the Bulge was fought in the Ardennes region in southern Belgium, and my father and his division was in the thick of it. Hitler’s offensive attack at this weak point in American lines was geared to roll back allied advances in Europe, stop German reverses, and alter the course of the war. It was the largest land battle the U.S. Army engaged in during World War II. In March of 1998 I was at a student conference in Brussels, Belgium with some of my students from Beaver College. From the moment that we had planned to go to Belgium I knew that I had to get to the Ardennes. I had to visit the ground where my father and his buddies had struggled to stop Hitler’s last desperate gamble to save the Nazis’ “Thousand Year Reich”. I visited civil war battlefields in this country, such as Gettysburg and Antietam. But this trip was different. This was the biggest battle in “The Good War”, and my father had been in it. Maybe by actually standing on ground my father had fought upon I could begin to get some sense of how he felt.

I traveled by train and bus for two hours from Brussels to Bastogne in southern Belgium. My father was not at Bastogne, but he had been close by. This town was one of the key points of the battle, which had covered a huge area. American defenders in the town were encircled by Germans but held out against great odds. I could not visit all the towns and villages my father and his division had fought through. Still, since the war, Bastogne had become the central point to visit for those interested in seeing something of the immense battleground. It was the location of a museum dedicated to the battle, and the site of the Mardasson Monument dedicated in 1950 on the fifth anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge in honor of all the Americans who fought.

While the battle was fought during one of the most bitter winters in Europe’s history, my visit took place in early spring. Yet it was still a raw, rainy day. As the train entered into the dense forest which the Ardennes has always been known for, the rough terrain seemed not to have altered much in over fifty years. There were rolling hills among the sections of forest, thick with trees. Clouds touched the treetops, mist enveloped the woods, rain fell from time to time in brief showers. Small villages and farms were sprinkled in the few areas of flat land between the gaps in the forest. Streams rushed between the hills and the forest, racing towards the Meuse River, which we had crossed about an hour before reaching Bastogne.

Bastogne was severely damaged during the Battle of the Bulge. Now rebuilt, it is a living monument to the battle. A restored American tank sits at the center of the main town square. I do not speak French, but all I had to ask was “Mardasson?” and I was soon directed to the monument and the museum, which stand about a half mile outside the town. I walked up the long hill to the Mardasson Monument. Star shaped with pillar points of gray granite, standing about two stories high, the monument dominates the surrounding area in a dignified manner. The center of the star is open to sky, and on the inner walls a series of bronze plaques tell the story of the battle. Around the monument’s top, along the points of the star, are chiseled the names of the American states that gave their soldiers to the battle; down each wall of the five points of the star are inscribed the names of the American divisions involved in the fight.

There were a few cars in the museum’s parking lot but I was alone at the monument. Finally, I found the plaque with the Third Armored Division patch and its familiar lightening streak on one of the points of the star. It was set so high I could just barely reach up and touch it. I climbed to the monument’s top and followed a walkway around the points of the star. I stood there in the drizzle, looking over the surrounding fields, the raw wind cutting through my light spring jacket. I saw the rolling fields around the town and the thick forest in the distance and I tried to imagine my father out there, in deep snow and bitter wind, surrounded by dead comrades and enemies who were frozen into seeming grotesque “statues”, frozen almost before they could die.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the big studios opened their major productions in big cities on a reserved seating basis. My father detested The Battle of the Bulge, as he did most Hollywood attempts to tell the story of the war. It wasn’t only the sterile depiction of soldiers dying without bleeding or being blown to bits that bothered him, nor the ludicrous shots of fighting in snowy forests combined with tanks battling in a desert surrounding. It was the whole air of unreality; of noble deaths, of the glamour of a good fight, the glorification of this huge, terrible war. Now, standing at the site of the Battle of the Bulge, the quiet hills and forests hid their secrets of remembered savagery and brutality. In this peaceful setting, how could I conceive of the enormous pains and sacrifices that had taken place for miles in every direction around this monument? How could it be, as my father and Fussell believe, that this battle was not about a just cause? It was only about survival, and death in the snow.

I made another trip to Russia in June of 1998 to participate in a seminar for college professors studying recent Russian political developments. I visited Russia four times prior to this. Now, though, in addition to current Russian politics, I was also thinking of what I had seen in Russia that reflected the Russians’ deep-seated connection to what they call “The Great, Patriotic War”. On this trip, with thoughts of America’s World War II and my recent journey to Bastogne in mind, I hoped to come to grips with the facile American view of the war.

During this trip I more closely observed the Russian war veterans. I had seen them on previous trips to Moscow and St. Petersburg, and in smaller towns and villages. They were stern looking old men, sitting in the cafes, or in the parks in the summer, taking in the sun. Most seemed to be formally dressed, in suit jacket, often with tie, medals and ribbons proudly worn above the breast pocket. I must not have looked very closely before. For now I became very aware of the reverential treatment accorded these old veterans. They had special seating in the Metro, and they were immediately seated in restaurants. People would approach them on the street, doff their hats and shake their hands. Those who showed their respect did not ostentatiously fawn over the old men, or seem to engage in long conversations. Rather, their small yet emphatic gestures struck me as powerful respect for the horrors these veterans had endured to save Russia.

As I observed the old veterans and the way they were honored so publicly on a daily basis, I thought back to a previous Russian trip in 1993 and a visit with my friends, Tatyana and Pavel in St. Petersburg. They and others spoke of the war’s events, such as the terrible 900-day German siege of Leningrad, which lasted from September 1941 to January 1944, and the bitter June to December 1941 fight to defend Moscow from the German invasion. They spoke as if these were recent events. And in the minds of most Russians, even those born after WWII, these were defining periods for their nation.

In 1993 Tatyana and Pavel took me to see Piskarov Memorial Cemetery in St. Petersburg. In the cemetery lay more than a half million people who died during the siege of Leningrad. At one end of the cemetery is an eternal flame, and at the other, a large yet simple wall inscribed with the words, “No one is forgotten, nothing is forgotten”. We had gone on a sunny July afternoon, and there were many people coming and going, walking slowly around the austere yet warmly enveloping field of green studded with simple bronze markers marking mass graves, the markers inscribed only with the dates of the siege. I asked my friends if any of their family members had died during the siege. “Yes,” Tatyana answered, “But,” she went on, “all who lie here are our family.”

Five years after my visit to Piskarov Cemetery with Tatyana and Pavel, standing in Red Square, I found myself thinking about Bastogne and Leningrad. It was a warm and beautiful day in Moscow, the kind of promising day that helps Muscovites endure the harsh Russian winter. The sun sparkled on the beautiful and distinctive onion domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square. I left our group of professors. I wanted to wander a bit by myself. I had a specific spot in mind that I wanted to see again.

I walked through the vast Square, crowded with vendors, tourists, and itinerant musicians filling the air with Russian folk music. I headed down a hill from the Square around the Corner Arsenal Tower to the north entrance of the Alexander Garden by the ancient red brick Kremlin wall. There, under a simple memorial of black and red granite, lies the Russian Unknown Soldier. In a recessed area next to the tomb, an eternal flame danced in the breeze. As I stood several limousines pulled up, and I at last was able to witness a ceremony that I had heard of but not yet seen. It was a bridal party. The newlyweds, their family and friends came to the tomb as most Muscovite newly weds do, to pay homage, to remember those who suffered in the Great Patriotic War, to honor those whose death had truly made this wedding day possible.

The group stood in silence. Some quietly wept. The bride and groom stepped forward, crossed themselves, placed flowers near the marker, stood again in silence, then turned and walked slowly back to their waiting cars. For these newlyweds, as for many Russians today, it is clear that the five horrifying years of World War II have been burned into the very fiber of their being. In a matter of months I traveled from the ground where my father and so many other Americans participated in unspeakable savagery in the Ardennes during the Battle of the Bulge, to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Moscow. I realized that for Russians there was no other war but the Real War. In America today, even in the wake of films like Saving Private Ryan and a deluge of books about “The Greatest Generation”, we still struggle to see the war’s basic bestiality.

Despite the outpouring of books and movies on the subject, we American’s still struggle to memorialize the war. Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day are seen primarily as shopping and sales days. The attempt to construct a WWII monument in Washington D.C. has foundered on controversy and contentiousness. Ground was broken at the end of the Clinton administration, but legal wrangling has stopped the project. Some critics argue that the proposed location on the Mall near the Reflecting Pond, between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument will destroy the integrity of that historic ground. Others say that the monument’s proposed immense size and huge arches echo the grandiose architecture of the Fascists and Nazis against whom the war was fought.

Grotesque buildings of the “Stalinist Style” built during that dictator’s rule blight the big cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg. But at Piskarov Cemetery and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, erected during Stalin’s rule, WWII is remembered at quiet places and with simple family traditions. Even Stalin must have recognized that no large tribute could memorialize a suffering so great.

Perhaps when it comes time for Americans to memorialize the attacks of September 11 we will be better able to respond to the suffering of that day. This time, our civilians were attacked on our own soil. Thousands of Americans perished in a moment, in a great American city. It may be that only such a visceral connection to conflict and loss can enable people to realize what that loss entails. No great edifice will be necessary to express that realization.

Our ability to truly understand World War II’s reality, and to develop the collective intellectual maturity Fussell writes about and my father knew only too well, may always be grasping at that which is just beyond our reach. But then again, post September 11, maybe it won’t be such a stretch, anymore.