American Soldiers

American Soldiers

Ground Combat
in the World Wars,
Korea, and Vietnam

by Peter S. Kindsvatter
University Press of Kansas,
432 pp.; $34.95

At 7:30 in the morning on July 1, 1916, British men arise from trenches across an 18-mile front carved from French soil near the meandering Somme River. Their objectives, the series of German defenses on the other side of No man's Land, have been under bombardment for a week. Surely any German still alive over there will be too shell-shocked to put up resistance.

These soldiers from England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Newfoundland, and Bermuda now making their way toward the dead and wounded enemy are well trained in the use of the bayonet. They don't know—they are now in the process of learning—that bayonets are nearly worthless for combat purposes in what will be called the Great War. Some 75 percent of wounds will be caused by artillery, as opposed to the .03 percent of wounds caused by bayonets. What these soldiers do know is that they are carrying heavy loads—between 55 and 70 pounds of materiel apiece: rations, an Enfield rifle, two gas helmets, 220 rounds of ammunition, two grenades, two empty sandbags, a spade, a pair of wire-cutters, a flare, a canteen, and other items.

What they are finding out as the seconds pass is that what they had been told, and what they believed, was false. Many Germans on the other side are alive; many German machine guns still work.

By noon, the British will have suffered nearly 60,000 casualties.

On my office wall hangs an enlarged photograph of some of these men just as they have emerged from their own trenches. One of them is already down; the fellow behind him appears to be looking to see if his comrade will get up. Following orders, he doesn't stop to lend assistance. He must keep moving.

I would give a lot to know what's happening in the minds of the men in that picture. They are dealing with the sort of cognitive dissonance many of America's troops have had to deal with since the war in Iraq was declared finished. The bombs keep blasting. The bullets keep flying. The hate, irrationality, and killing go on.

The literature on the mind and experience of men in combat is great and, on the whole, excellent. Among many other works, one might turn to John Keegan's The Face of Battle (1976), Eric Leed's No Man's Land: Combat and Identity in World War I (1979), Stephen Ambrose's D-Day (1994), Eric Bergerud's Touched with Fire: The Land War in the South Pacific (1996), and Gerald Linderman's The World Within War (1997). Denis Winter's Death's Men: Soldiers of the Great War (1978) is timeless. Martin Middlebrook's First Day of the Somme (1971) is among the finest books I've read.

Article continues below

The mind of the man in combat is, ultimately, uncapturable—partly because he has no mind: Veterans regularly say that, in a sense, one's brain shuts down during combat. One focuses only on specific tasks; there is no contemplation of big questions. But the warring mind's evasiveness makes it all the more alluring, and the books keep coming—e.g., Joanna Bourke, An Intimate History of Killing (1999); Ben Shephard, A War of Nerves (2001); and Peter Kindsvatter, American Soldiers: Ground Combat in the World Wars, Korea, and Vietnam.

Kindsvatter served in the U.S. Army for 21 years, so he knows how to handle bureaucracy. Not surprisingly, then, his prose has a stilted, bureaucratic feel. And he quotes more than he should; sometimes American Soldiers reads like a compendium of what everyone but Kindsvatter has had to say about combat. But as an introduction to the warrior's experience, it works.

The man on the point of combat "wants company, and preferably someone he knows," we read. But the experienced soldier will probably learn that it's best not to get too attached to anyone: "random death"—the unexpected sniper bullet, mine, or artillery shell—can take a friend at any time. Kindsvatter quotes one soldier who says, "On the first day of battle, the foot soldier probes new emotional depths. … [He concludes] that he is abandoned, alone, and uncared-for in the world." This is why packages, phone calls and letters from home (not only emails) are so important to soldiers.

Unexpectedly, it may also be why the warrior usually suppresses religious faith. It may be generally true that there are no atheists in foxholes (there are few real atheists anywhere); but the short space Kindsvatter devotes to the religious lives of combat soldiers (less than four pages) suggests that what the cliché about atheists in war implies—that soldiers in war turn to faith for solace and explanation—is, mostly, false.

My own interviews with World War II veterans bear this out. "I don't believe that the average soldier had a strong belief in God," says Ervin Taylor (Iwo Jima). "You shut down and do your job; faith doesn't seem important," says Quincy Adams (Italy). "There wasn't much religiosity in the crowd I hung out with," says Layden Stroud (Okinawa). "Faith didn't seem to fit," says Bennett Howell (POW in Germay). "Most soldiers didn't seem very concerned about religion," says Bill DeGroot (wounded at the Battle of the Bulge). With the exception of DeGroot, who says the war drew him closer to God, each of these men developed deep faith only long after their combat experience was over.

Article continues below

One reason for this practical deism is that chaplains, being noncombatants, rarely share the quotidian dangers of the warrior, so what they have to say can seem irrelevant. Kindsvatter quotes a Korean War veteran who said of chaplains:

They usually came around just before a major assault. I could see the fear in their faces. Man, they could barely wait to get … out of there. … After a short prayer from their Bible, usually the 27th Psalm, they would proceed to do just that, get … out of there. And we, the poor unfortunate combat infantrymen … would be sent to on our way to kill, maim, suffer, and die.

But this was not always, or even usually, the case; Kindsvatter notes that most combat memoirs speak well of chaplains. Saving Private Ryan's first battle scene accurately depicts a Catholic chaplain administering the last rites, under fire on Omaha Beach, to a dying soldier.

A greater reason faith isn't as prominent in the lives of combat troops as one might expect is the seeming incongruence between the idea of God as omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent and the randomness and obvious brutality of war. In one memoir, a veteran of World War I put it this way:

Just before we arrived at our jumping-off trench something happened which I can never forget. A young soldier of my own section was struck by a shell fragment square between the eyes. His cries haunt me now. "Mother of God! Mother of God!" he shrieked time and time again … In a flash of violent emotion I denied Her there and then. If She existed, why were we here? She didn't exist. There was no such thing. My strength was in my three to one odds [of surviving]. It was all chance.

Martin Middlebrook quotes another survivor of the Battle of the Somme: "From that moment all my religion died. All my teaching and beliefs in God had left me, never to return."

During the American Civil War, U.S. General Tecumseh Sherman commented while torching civilian population centers that "war is hell." He meant that figuratively and, in some sense, literally. Descriptions of combat habitually draw on the vocabulary and imagery of hell.

But Sherman may also have stumbled over a theological truth. Perhaps, in a way, war really is hell. War is what the world looks like when God allows people—or some people—the full freedom to do what they wish.

Article continues below

Of course, Kindsvatter has nothing to say about that. I wonder if our troops in Iraq would.

Preston Jones is a Books & Culture contributing editor. He teaches at John Brown University.

Related Elsewhere:

Other CT stories on war include:

Faith, Fear, War, Peace | Snapshots of the grim and 'happy' ministry of today's military chaplains. (Nov. 24, 2004)
Apocalypse Again and Again | The Bible doesn't tell us when to go to war but how to live in a war-ridden world. (April 16, 2003)
Faith and Fear on the Truman | How one Navy chaplain helps men and women face combat. (April 01, 2003)
Weapons of the Spirit | Regardless of their positions on Iraq, Christians have much they can do. (Feb. 25, 2003)
The Just - Chaplain Theory | The church need not divorce the military to remain a godly counterculture. (July 27, 2000)
Irreconcilable Differences | The church should divorce the military. (March 6, 2000)

Books & Culture Corner and Books & Culture's Book of the Week, from Christianity Today sister publication Books & Culture: A Christian Review (want a free trial issue?), appears regularly on Tuesdays at Christianity Today. Earlier editions include:

The Universal Language | If Latin died in our mouths, we'd just stop talking. (May 24, 2005)
At Home in the Dark | The first new book of poems in almost twenty years from Rod Jellema. (May 17, 2005)
"Taken Up in Glory" | The Ascension has been forgotten in many Protestant churches, jettisoning an essential part of the Christian story. (May 10, 2005)
Making Believe | Bedtime stories for grown-ups. (May 03, 2005)
Looking for God on the Holy Mountain | A journey to Mount Athos. (Apr. 25, 2005)
The Words of the Word | Two sharply contrasting perspectives on Bible translation. (April 19, 2005)
Divine Comedies | A report on Baylor's Art & Soul conference, version 2005. (April 12, 2005)
Unbelievable | Religion is really, really bad for you. (April 05, 2005)
This Land Is Whose Land? | An impassioned plea on behalf of the "caribou people" in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the land they have inhabited for nearly 20,000 years. (March 22, 2005)
All in Her Head | How a chronic pain sufferer found a little bit of strength in a lot of weakness. (March 15, 2005)
My Likeness, My Brother | A powerful autobiographical work from a prizewinning creator of comics in France. (March 08, 2005)
Looking for Yogi | The 2005 Spring Training preview. (March 01, 2005)