Culture in World War II
Beneath "The Good War"
American popular memory of World War II as "The Good War" communicates the positive effects of wartime mobilization upon the economy, the ideological fight to end fascism, and the defense of American civilization against enemy attack. The simple phrase, however, does not reflect the extraordinary and, for some soldiers, the senseless sacrifices made on the battlefield; it euphemizes the horrors of war.
Popular films, novels, comic books, and memorials also tell an often simplistic story of patriotic Allied forces, bloodthirsty enemies, glorious battles, and grand victories, emphasizing the fact that, in the end, good triumphed over evil. But the soldiers' story of World War II is far more complex; it's raw, unfiltered, disturbing, and difficult to stomach-full of anger, panic, irony, and confusion. As many veterans of war will attest, the day-to-day reality of life on the frontlines is as important to the history of this—or any—conflict as the study of other aspects of modern warfare.
Perhaps it is easy to recognize physical harm—injury, dismemberment, and death—suffered by the servicemen who fought on the World War II battlefields, but war also inflicted damage upon each soldier's intellect, wit, honesty, compassion, privacy, and individuality. Soldiers dealt with boredom, loneliness, and the terrible pain of being homesick. These "wounds" are far less obvious, but they can be illustrated through records of first-hand accounts, journals, letters, poems, jokes, slang, rumors, idioms, and, even profanity; that is, through all the materials used by each GI to communicate and to escape his plight.
Servicemen sought distractions from the realities of war whenever and wherever they could find them. Erotic literature, rumors, and lewd humor all served as temporary antidotes for despair. Fibs about promiscuous women back home or in the Women's Army Corps, tall tales of free Ford cars awaiting each soldier upon his return home, and rumors of impending peace settlements soothed discontent and sustained hopes. Alcohol and superstition provided buffers against the difficult reality of deploying weapons to kill others. Profane expressions such as "chickens---," "f---ing -A," and, simply, "f---in'" became popular in wartime for conscripts who wished to express their bitterness among one another.
Just as marijuana and heroin soothed American soldiers fighting in the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 1970s, World War II servicemen indulged in alcohol to overcome fear, numb pain, and distract themselves from gruesome images of sticky body fragments and charred corpses lodged in their memories. "You can't take much of that sort of thing without going mad," one veteran explained.12
These various coping mechanisms, though essential to the survival of many young soldiers on the frontlines, did not always help them make sense of their predicament, and they certainly did not protect them from evisceration, dismemberment, or death.
Advances in military technology were meant to ensure the success of Allied forces in World War II, but new, poorly tested inventions only increased their vulnerability. Small "Handy-Talkie" devices—precursors to the Walkie-Talkie radios—were developed to replace human "runners" for communication. The Handy-Talkies seemed to work fine in training, but failed miserably on the battlefield. In 1945, 500 men safely evacuated the United States battleship Indianapolis after an attack, but the Handy-Talkie radios used by the survivors to contact a nearby U.S. naval base failed and each of the men were left to die on rafts in the ocean. Other malfunctioning communication devices left American bomber pilots confused and unable to decipher friend from foe. Thousands of ground troops lost limbs, and some their lives, to friendly fire.
With rapid mobilization in preparation for the D-Day invasion of Normandy in the summer of 1944, new technology promised to safely and efficiently transport troops from sea to land. Developed to be a "tank that could swim," the Dual Drive vehicle was equipped to float on canvas skirts and propel itself through the waves onto land. 27 of the 32 "D.D." tanks that were launched offshore on D-Day never reached the Normandy beaches but instead sank like stones with crewmen trapped inside.
Uniform "innovations" also compromised the lives of servicemen. One-piece uniforms, or coveralls, designed to be more easily and rapidly produced to meet warfront demand, had one unforeseen—and dangerous—drawback; soldiers had to remove the entire top half of the uniform when anticipating a bowel movement, which left them severely vulnerable when suddenly under mortar fire.13
The Problem of Inexperience
As the war intensified, daily death tolls climbed, and with the tremendous loss of soldiers came a steady demand for replacements. Frightened newcomers were often teenagers, fresh from civilian life. (The minimum draft age in the United States during World War II was 18; in Great Britain the age was 16). These young recruits engaged in what amounted to on-the-job training in a hostile, chaotic, and unfamiliar environment, and were often ill-equipped physically and emotionally to grapple with mortal danger. Still, military personnel operated as if each soldier knew exactly what he was doing. Tragically, error, injury, and death resulted from the terror and naiveté of inexperience. For instance, in 1943, new, frightened American ground troops in Sicily shot down two-dozen Allied planes, mistaking them for German aircraft. Blunders like these were common, and often comfort came only from knowing that the enemy made mistakes too.14
"The Reason You Fought"
Some American soldiers committed themselves to military service because they sought to aid in the ideological struggle against totalitarianism, the murder of civilians, and genocide. Still, many World War II servicemen describe a far less romantic or moral sense of purpose. War veteran and historian Paul Fussell reflects, "To get home you had to end the war. To end the war was the reason you fought it. The only reason." In stark contrast to familiar portrayals of battlefield glory and patriotic sacrifice, many infantrymen were driven by the longing for family and for the comforts of home, and the desire to return to a normal life in America.