Military non-fiction – first person accounts and what they’re not saying

I’ve read about 20% of They Were All Young Kids: The story of Lieutenant Jim Flowers and the first platoon, Company C, 712th Tank Battalion, on Hill 122 by Aaron Elson, and a few things leapt out at me.

First, this book is a compilation of first person accounts, mostly a transcript of interviews and it’s not quite as polished as, say, Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption.  And that lead me to a discussion about “Not all soldiers are authors” and “not many authors are soldiers” with my treasured spouse.  Oh! Logic! Hello, third grade. Let me Venn diagram this thing. Unbroken was written by an author who compiled many hours of questions/answers with witnesses and digging for information and you can see that process in the final product. This book was put together as a memoir of events by the author who was there and events narrated by other survivors surrounding an assault on hill 122 in Normandy during WWII.

Second, when recounting their experiences, soldiers don’t talk about the shooting of enemies so much.  Twenty, thirty years after this experience, they remember with clarity small odd events, conversations, and injuries.  And that’s the part they’re telling us.  The platoon leader, 2LT Flowers, for instance, is hit in one foot with shrapnel, crawls out of his tank, then gets shrapnel wounds in the other leg from an artillery barrage, and tourniquets that injury.  After a day lying in no man’s land and encounters with German Fallschirmjaeger troops, he makes it back to a field hospital, and is remembered decades later by a doctor who treated him because he was in really good shape for a guy who lost both legs.

It’s what they are not talking about that is interesting.  I understand that taking another life, in combat, is a huge deal, or should be. Most guys don’t want to talk about this. But to get the essence of that, in fiction writing, is that something that the writer needs to do?  I’m reminded of the scene in the Princess Bride where Count Rugen says to the Man in Black as he’s torturing him, “And remember, this is for posterity so be honest. How do you feel?” The absurdity of this person standing there with a clipboard recording the victim’s feelings about torture is kind of what I perceive the idea of delving into the personal experience of taking a life in combat.

Nevertheless, you bet your bottom dollar that if you don’t get those feelings written down correctly, someone with combat experience is going to call you on it, and probably give you a one star review and hate on you for a while.  After all, your character didn’t react like everyone else reacts when they deal with this.

Back to They were…

The third point, sort of subject to the second point, is that these soldiers all remembered in detail their injuries or the injuries that happened to others.  Those seem to be fair game for memoirs.  They don’t do it in a dishonorable way–some go out of their way to rain praise on all the soldiers they served with–but there is a considerable amount of detail on the personal experience of each soldier.  We hear what happened to him, how a hatch may have broken someone’s fingers, or the German medic who bandages a GI’s finger in the field, but didn’t have any water and turned his canteen upsidedown to demonstrate it, and so on.  The German medic was remembered by two different guys, and it struck me as odd that a German medic is helping allied personnel, in a sort of I’m-a-medic-and-you’re-injured-so-I-help-you kind of universal mankind helping each other.  Contrasted with the cause of the injury–the medic’s own people shooting at the allied soldiers–it seems to be… counterproductive, I guess?  You’re doing your best to kill the other side, and then when you’ve hurt a bunch of them, you’ve got your guys helping them.

I’m not trying to rag on the medic, it just struck me as strange and decently human, amidst the rest of the combat.

The fourth point is that in a book about war, there is little conflict in the writing.  That is, the way it’s written isn’t nail-biting what’s going to happen.  Perhaps that’s a product of intervening years and the mellowing of the people involved, so their accounts don’t have the gripping narrative, even though the events were quite horrific and there was people burning to death, tanks exploding, guys with terrible injuries and bullets flying, artillery exploding, and the hell that is war.  They talk about it, but it’s minimized and sanitized.

There is one conflict that we see: a tank commander sergeant, before the battle, claims that his tank threw a rod and can not move in reverse anymore, so the tank is sidelined for the battle. Forty years later, the platoon leader, at a reunion for the 712 Battalion, is angered by mention of the sergeant, and the veteran discussing it with him asks why.  The Pldr thought the sergeant didn’t honestly have a reverse problem and did it just to avoid the battle.  The veteran takes it on himself to correspond with some of the guys who know about the tank, and they vouch for the fact that the tank was really out of commission.  The veteran talks to the Pldr again and the sergeants memory is now vindicated: not a coward. Just a misunderstanding.