Article — From the January 1982 issue

My War

How I got irony in the infantry

( 2 of 10 )

My war is virtually synonymous with my life. I entered the war when I was nineteen, and I have been in it ever since. Melville’s Ishmael says that a whale ship was his Yale College and his Harvard. An infantry division was mine, the 103rd, whose dispirited personnel wore a colorful green-and-yellow cactus on their left shoulders. These hillbillies and Okies, dropouts and used-car salesmen and petty criminals were my teachers and friends.

How did an upper-middle-class young gentleman find himself in so unseemly a place? Why wasn’t he in the Navy, at least, or in the OSS or Air Corps administration or editing Stars and Stripes or being a general’s aide? The answer is comic: at the age of twenty I found myself leading forty riflemen over the Vosges Mountains and watching them being torn apart by German artillery and machine guns because when I was sixteen, in junior college, I was fat and flabby, with feminine tits and a big behind. For years the thing I’d hated most about school was gym, for there I was obliged to strip and shower communally. Thus I chose to join the ROTC (infantry, as it happened) because that was a way to get out of gym, which meant you never had to take off your clothes and invite—indeed, compel—ridicule. You rationalized by noting that this was 1939 and that a little “military training” might not, in the long run, be wasted. Besides, if you worked up to be a cadet officer, you got to wear a Sam Browne belt, from which depended a nifty saber.

When I went on to college, it was natural to continue my technique for not exposing my naked person, and luckily my college had an infantry ROTC unit, where I was welcomed as something of an experienced hand. This was in 1941. When the war began for the United States, college students were solicited by various “programs” of the Navy and Marine Corps and Coast Guard with plans for transforming them into officers. But people enrolled in the ROTC unit were felt to have committed themselves already. They had opted for the infantry, most of them all unaware, and that’s where they were going to stay. Thus, while shrewder friends were enrolling in Navy V-1 or signing up for the pacific exercises of the Naval Japanese Language Program or the Air Corps Meteorological Program, I signed up for the Infantry Enlisted Reserve Corps, an act guaranteeing me one extra semester in college before I was called. After basic training, advancement to officer training was promised, and that seemed a desirable thing, even if the crossed rifles on the collar did seem to betoken some hard physical exertion and discomfort—marching, sleeping outdoors, that sort of thing. But it would help “build you up,” and besides, officers, even in the infantry, got to wear those wonderful pink trousers and receive constant salutes.

It was such imagery of future grandeur that, in spring 1943, sustained me through eighteen weeks of basic training in hundred-degree heat at dreary Camp Roberts, California, where, to toughen us—it was said—water was forbidden from 8:00 A.M. to 5:00 P.M. (“water discipline,” this was called). Within a few weeks I’d lost all my flab and with it the whole ironic “reason” I found myself there at all. It was abundantly clear already that “infantry” had been a big mistake: it was not just stupid and boring and bloody, it was athletic, and thus not at all for me. But supported by vanity and pride I somehow managed to march thirty-five miles and tumble through the obstacle course, and a few months later I found myself at the Infantry School, Fort Benning, Georgia, where, training to become an officer, I went through virtually the same thing over again.

As a second lieutenant of infantry I “graduated” in the spring of 1944 and was assigned to the 103rd Division at Camp Howze, Texas, the local equivalent of Camp Roberts, only worse: Roberts had white-painted two-story clapboard barracks, Howze, one-story tarpaper shacks. But the heat was the same, and the boredom, and the local whore culture, and the hillbilly songs:

Who’s that gal with the red dress on?
Some folks call her Dinah.
She stole my heart away,
Down in Carolina.

The 103rd Division had never been overseas, and all the time I was putting my rifle platoon through its futile exercises we were being prepared for the invasion of southern France, which followed the landings in Normandy. Of course we didn’t know this, and assumed from the training (“water discipline” again) that we were destined for the South Pacific. There were some exercises involving towed gliders that seemed to portend nothing but self-immolation, we were so inept with these devices. In October 1944, we were all conveyed by troop transports to Marseilles.

was a contributing editor of <em>Harper's Magazine.</em>

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  • siestadrive

    This is one of the best, saddest, wisest things I have ever read.

  • Telly Halkias

    As a former soldier, and current journalist and college English instructor, I have always believed “My War” is one of the top 10 American essays of the 20th century. I refer to it, and Fussell, often in my own writing, and I require all my students read it. It is so well written, that one could call it lyrical and poetic.

  • Duncan Koebrich

    “In 1917, shocked by the Battle of the Somme and recovering from neurasthenia, Wilfred Owen was reading a life of Tennyson. He wrote his mother: ‘Tennyson, it seems, was always a great child. So should I have been, but for Baumont Hamel.’ So should I have been, but for St. Dié.”

    So should I have been, but for Sadr City.


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