'Citizen soldiers'- slogging across Europe

November 09, 1997|By Jeff Danziger | Jeff Danziger,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"Citizen Soldiers," by Stephen Ambrose. Simon & Schuster. 512 pages. $27.50. This is Ambrose's second book on the invasion of Europe by Allied troops, starting at the Normandy beaches. It is, in a way, a sequel to "D-Day: The Climatic Battle of World War II" (Simon & Schuster, 656 pages, $27.50), published in 1994. He probably has as complete a grasp of the hellish and fractious events of those days as anyone, which is no small accomplishment. The thousands of units, hundreds of divisions, thousands of aircraft and ships, and millions of men, all coming and going, fighting and retreating, advancing and giving up, are a narrative problem for any historian.

This time, Ambrose tries to distill, from hundreds of soldiers' recollections, something about the character of the American army, mostly draftees - that is, only reluctantly willing to fight because the task is thrust upon their country.

They are reluctantly brave, reluctantly heroic and surprisingly effective - even they are surprised. This book is designed to be read by people interested in the details of military glory. But, though it confers laurels on the individual soldier, the American army as a whole, and certainly the commanders, are excoriated for the risky haste with which fighting units were thrown together and for the shoddy intelligence used to determine where to throw them.

The main idea is that there was something laudable about the American soldier. Certainly the American soldiers, of whom my father was one, were thrown into the battle with the bare minimum of training. My father went from art student in New York to second lieutenant in the South Pacific in the proverbially wondrous 90 days. He said that he had no idea what he really should do until well into battle against the Japanese.

The Germans were far better trained and better equipped. They had been fighting for years. Most of the Americans had seen no fighting before being dumped on the beaches, a horrific place to learn. The soldiers Ambrose interviewed tasked the poor intelligence, the stupid planning, even the jackasses in the transport and quartermaster corps. But the American soldier seemed better able to fight because of a moral core lacking in Europeans in general.

This is comforting, though probably not objective history. If the book sounds sometimes, with its great reliance on recollection and anecdote, like 11 p.m. at the VFW, it's because history is reflected, even deflected, by a moral lens. A foggy one.

The invasion of France on D-Day, and everything that came immediately after, is such a huge canvas of human heroism and stupidity, that only by endless reading can you get a sense of conviction, confusion and carnage. Ambrose's book isn't the last word on the subject, but only because there will probably never be one.

Jeff Danziger served as an intelligence officer in Vietnam. He is the author of the novel "Rising Like the Tucson"(1992).

Pub Date: 11/09/97

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