In soldiers’ words

Everyone has an opinion on war, whether you want to hear it or not. Ironically, what should be one of the loudest voices is often a voice that goes unspoken or unheard: the voice of the soldier. Robert E. Humphrey believes that the time to hear the soldier’s story is now. While the Sacramento State communications professor’s account of World War II’s 99th Division may not directly relate to the men and women in today’s armed forces, Humphrey’s depiction of the hardships of a soldier’s life is as relevant today as it was in the 1940s.

Formed in Mississippi late in 1942, the 99th Division was comprised largely of volunteers who were eager to serve their country, stop the Nazis or retaliate for the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Ten months later, the unit would ship out to Europe, where they would spend six months on the front lines in deplorable conditions, participating in one of the biggest conflicts of the war: the Battle of the Bulge.

Immediately, Humphrey makes it clear that he aims to collect the experiences of as many GIs as possible. Often he will list a dozen or more reactions to one single event to show the unity or divergences within the common soldier’s mind.

This is one of the greatest strengths and weaknesses of Humphrey’s research. A lot of interesting information is given, but because there are so many points of view (he interviewed more than 300 surviving members of the division) and the recount of the troop movements isn’t always in chronological order, it’s hard to see how the individual soldier relates to the larger picture. This is forgivable because the purpose of the book is to present the views of the average soldier. Still, it would have been nice if a handful of soldiers had their stories featured more prominently so the reader could form a connection with these men.

What’s truly fascinating is the ability of these men to live in hell and kill other men. Deprived of food and water, infantry men lived in holes dug into the freezing ground, with inadequate clothing that they often had to defecate in because leaving cover was a deadly option. They witnessed nightmarish deaths and wounds, graphically recounted. Those interviewed describe men crushed flat as pancakes by tanks, heads separated above the lower jaw, dismemberment and organs spilling from living corpses.

They were not just the victims, though. Actions taken by American GIs could be as deplorable as the enemy’s worst. Soldiers describe watching their fellows mercilessly slaughter Germans who were surrendering. One man told Humphrey it bothered him, but “‘not enough to say anything.’”

Many men describe that when a man lives as an animal for so long, it’s only natural they begin to behave like one. One black soldier remembers, “‘I had anger in me then, plenty of it, because of the way we was treated [in America and in the Army], and I was just fit for killing—anybody, I was just right for it.’” Yet for most soldiers maintaining a sense of humanity was essential to their survival.

Luckily, Once Upon a Time in War never directly asks questions of the reader or begs a comparison of the 99th to our current war. However, it’s impossible to hear the horrors and triumphs of these World War II soldiers without asking yourself if you could do what they did, or if there’s something in your life that you value so much that you would risk losing your life or your humanity to protect it. The book demonstrates that a good soldier may not articulate these questions, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have answers.