"This book is not intended as a pacifist text,” Paul Fussell promises inThe Boys’ Crusade, his new, rather uneven and very brief account of American infantrymen in Europe during World War II, “but the appalling truth may be let out occasionally.”

This bit of well-earned cynicism, tossed at the reader in an aside, is typical Fussell.

In fact, it would be difficult to ever mistake Fussell for a pacifist, given his 1996 memoir Doing Battle, in part about his own experiences as an Army lieutenant during the war. In it, he argues passionately, even persuasively, that it was necessary for the United States to obliterate Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Total war is total war: To draw the line at atomic bombs and not at the intentional mass killing of civilians in Dresden, Tokyo and elsewhere (even in France, as The Boys' Crusade points out) makes no moral sense.

One could flip that argument around, of course, but what makes ultimate sense to Fussell is saving the lives of the boys who would be called upon to invade mainland Japan.

Neither should readers be terribly surprised at Fussell’s fascination with the “appalling truth.” His landmark cultural and literary study of World War I, The Great War and Modern Memory (1975), worked hard at reawakening our imaginations to the horror of the trenches. The degree to which the lifeblood of meaning has been drained from phrases like “No Man’s Land” and “over the top” is the degree to which we have forgotten this event and the myriad ways it has changed us.

A different kind of memory loss formed the core of 1989’s Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War, a forgetting that later would be exemplified by such films as Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers: While the unspeakable brutality of war is acknowledged through special effects, the implications of that brutality on the boys who endured it are left unexplored. (In The Boys’ Crusade, Fussell suggests that he would consign all but the very beginning of Private Ryan “to the purgatory where boys’ bad adventure films end up.”)

Wartime was criticized in some corners for unfairly ignoring the righteousness of the Allied cause in favor of lurid tales of military ineptness. Whole chapters were devoted to the devastation wrought by (to employ today’s euphemism) “dumb bombs.” But it’s no accident that Fussell’s memoir was subtitled The Making of a Skeptic. He’s not interested in the baseline assumptions of our culture, except to challenge them.

This same impulse drove German novelist W. G. Sebald to pen the controversial and much-debated essay “Air War and Literature.” Published posthumously earlier this year, it challenges the German literary community to confront the awesome wreckage left in the wake of those dumb bombs. Sebald’s argument—that Germans’ obsession with their collective guilt has obscured the reality of their simultaneous victimhood—can be neatly turned around to fit Fussell’s purposes: Americans’ obsession with their collective good has obscured the reality of their simultaneous evil.

For that reason, the best-selling work of Stephen E. Ambrose, Tom Brokaw, Studs Terkel, et al., in service of our image of the Good War and the Greatest Generation is crankily dismissed by Fussell as mere “chatter.” Still, when reading The Boys’ Crusade, you can’t help but sense that he’s been stung by the criticism of Wartime and, perhaps, reminded of the extraordinary complexities that must accompany any honest consideration of World War II.

Hence the play of his title.

In his opening pages, Fussell recalls the famed Children’s Crusade of the early 13th century, when 50,000 young people may or may not have marched into the Holy Land in an attempt to free it of Islam. It was an adventure that strikes modern sensibilities as nothing if not appalling.

He then points to Eisenhower’s unironic invocation of the term “crusade” 700 years later, on the eve of D-Day. It was an invasion that would cost 135,000 American boys their lives—boys, Fussell points out, who were mostly still teenagers.

“I mean no disrespect to the memory of Dwight D. Eisenhower by examining his term crusade,” Fussell writes. “It made some sense at the moment, even if many of the still unbloodied troops were likely to ridicule it. If they read or heard the Supreme Commander’s words at all, they were doubtless embarrassed to have so highfalutin a term applied to their forthcoming performances and their feelings about them.”

What the troops understood beforehand and what Eisenhower saw fit to forget even in retrospect (the title of his war memoir was Crusade in Europe) forms the bulk of Fussell’s short book: a litany of the horrors of war experienced by and perpetrated by our boys in Europe.

There is mention, for instance, of the extensive Allied bombing of Pas de Calais in 1944 to further the ruse that this would be the D-Day landing spot. “Even the Germans found it hard to believe that their enemy would kill so many civilians merely to maintain a deception,” Fussell notes.

There is a revealing examination of American soldiers’ attitudes toward the French and vice versa, as well as an acknowledgement of just how much better supplied GIs were next to the Brits (compare 22.5 sheets of toilet paper per day for the former to just three for the latter)—a fact that resulted for the Americans in better hygiene and lots more sex with British girls.

There are many instances of gross incompetence—incompetence that, for Fussell, was the rule and not the exception—leading to countless military and civilian casualties alike. In one memorable chapter, ironically titled “One Small-Unit Action,” Fussell narrates a platoon’s doomed frontal assault on a superior German position. The order to attack may have been unintentionally precipitated by the platoon’s lieutenant, who, in an argument with his superior, corrected the use of the word “revelant.” The lieutenant was subsequently shot through the neck, and several soldiers were forced to painfully play dead for 12 hours before being rescued.

Fussell lets us see how talk of medals are used immediately after to cover up cowardice and ineptitude, and then how the unit’s official history boils the horrifying encounter down to a “fracas,” and a victorious one at that.

Fussell writes with characteristic anger, humanity and furious insight. His knowledge is wide-ranging —he is by trade an English professor and has as much to say about poetry as he does about war—but his voice thankfully lacks the somber, this-is-good-for-you quality of Chris Hedges, recent author of War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning and What Every Person Should Know About War.

Still, The Boys’ Crusade feels undercooked: too arbitrary in its choice of vignettes, too vague in its arguments. It’s tough to figure if it’s too short or, even at fewer than 200 pages, too long.

What redeems it in the end is its willingness to wonder about the complications of its title. In his chapter “The Camps,” Fussell shows how the Holocaust provided, nearly after the fact, a viscerally powerful moral justification for the war’s slaughter. On the other hand, discovery of the death camps also brought to the surface our own darkest impulses: “I will never take another German prisoner armed or unarmed,” declared one American lieutenant at Dachau. “How can they expect to do what they have done and simply say ‘I quit,’ and go scot free? They are not fit to live.”

Eisenhower himself was quoted as suggesting, in all seriousness, that the 3,500 members of the German army’s general staff be marked for “extermination” and, for “liquidation,” all members of the Gestapo as well as Nazi party members from mayors on up.

“He means, kill them all,” Fussell writes. “Issues like that are what the war was about, our desire to pretend it couldn’t have been notwithstanding.”

In other words, it was the same Eisenhower who favored use of the word “crusade” who also perfectly embodied the war’s ugliest reality. Hate started the fighting and hate became necessary to end it. It’s a lesson that only sounds simple, and it’s one that bears repeating—so long as we continue to talk of such a thing as a “Good War,” and so long as we continue to send our troops into harm’s way.

The Boys’ Crusade by Paul Fussell (Modern Library, 184 pages)
Concord (NH) Monitor, October 2003