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Jeffrey Shaffer Headshot

War Stories All Americans Should Read

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Attention everyone who wants to know what war is really like for the troops in the front lines: you now have several excellent opportunities to learn about the incredible horror and nightmarish consequences of mortal combat.

Three new books that deserve the widest possible readership are The Things They Cannot Say by Kevin Sites, The Guns At Last Light by Rick Atkinson and Bringing Mulligan Home by Dale Maharidge. The authors present a massive amount of information that will probably upset a lot of Americans, especially people like former Illinois Congressman Joe Walsh.

During his (losing) campaign last year against Tammy Duckworth, who lost both legs while serving in Iraq, Walsh complained that Duckworth was talking too much about her military service and astoundingly claimed that "Our true heroes, it's the last thing in the world they talk about."

One big reason combat vets are often reluctant to talk is that we, the general public, have a long tradition of turning away or quickly changing the subject. This bad habit may finally be ending now that we've entered an era of massive information sharing.

Kevin Sites is well known for his reporting from Iraq and numerous other war zones and helped pioneer real time, uncensored journalism that can reach a huge audience. In many ways the fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq turned into a narrative battle as the US government and new-media journalists presented very different perspectives.

The Americans who fought and suffered have their own narrative and Sites lets us hear the grim details in The Things They Cannot Say. Anyone remember those great photos of US special forces troops galloping on horseback during the first days of the Afghan intervention? There was lots of sloganeering about "kicking butt" and "cleaning up the town" and unfortunately war is never that simple.

Journalists who give us the unpleasant truth about war always run the risk of being called unpatriotic and even treasonous. Their critics often invoke World War II as an example of "everyone pulling together" and reporters supporting our troops instead of looking for things that didn't go right.

In fact, as Rick Atkinson shows in The Guns At Last Light, there was a whole lot that didn't go right on the battlefields of World War II. But most people on the home front never heard about those problems because the number of reporters was relatively small and military censorship was strict and relentless.

After the Normandy landings the western front turned into a brutal mess for soldiers in the front lines. There was terrible terrain, lousy weather, supply shortages, bad leadership, and of course the Germans up ahead firing rifles, machine guns, mortars, tanks and artillery.

With 16 million Americans in uniform, the scale of carnage is hard to image now. During an operation code-named 'Queen' in November of 1944 near Aachen, US forces suffered 38,000 battle casualties in three weeks. In addition to deaths and serious wounds, huge numbers of soldiers were falling victim to "combat exhaustion," also known as "shell shock."

One fact I suspect most Americans have never heard about is that during World War II the US Army hospitalized 929,000 men for "neuropsychiatric" reasons. This aspect of combat has always been hard for vets to talk about because the notion of "cracking up" is often equated with "losing your nerve" or simply being a coward.

The subject of battle stress also gets full and honest treatment in Bringing Mulligan Home. Dale Maharidge saw the after-effects of World War II firsthand. His father fought on Okinawa with Company L, 3rd Battalion, 22nd Marines, 6th Marine Division and carried the psychic damage with him permanently.

After his father died, Maharidge set out to find other members of Company L, and many of them responded by speaking about their experiences for the first time. A lot of what they said is extremely disturbing but the Pacific Theater was a hellish place for those who fought in it. On Okinawa the Japanese Army wasn't taking prisoners and our side responded in kind. Civilians were also shot. Battle tactics were often frontal assaults against entrenched positions and the results were murderous.

One of the marines Maharidge interviewed described the day he'd simply had enough. He got up from his foxhole while Japanese artillery shells were falling everywhere, started walking to the rear, and somehow made it to an aid station without being hit.

Many of the men who appear in Bringing Mulligan Home died before the book was finished. But their stories, and all stories from the front lines, should not and must not be dismissed as some sort of character flaw or lack of patriotic spirit.

After reading these books my first thought was, "Nobody should have to go through this kind of hideous experience ever again." I wonder if that notion will ever be more than just wishful thinking.