World At War

07.12.13

The Not-Always-Greatest Generation

Tom Brokaw and others have championed an entire generation as heroes, but many were bigoted, criminal, and dishonest. David Margolick, author of Dreadful, on one soldier’s vividly honest writing about the behavior and crimes of American GIs during World War II.

They flooded the beleaguered city with their Palmolive soap, clothes, cigarettes, and clothes, all on the American taxpayers’ tab. They gorged themselves in their mess halls, tossing away mountains of food as starving locals looked on. They pushed old ladies off the sidewalks and bought young girls for packs of chewing gum. Their very posture—the way they loitered and leaned and lolled about—was insolent. That the people whose country they occupied had only recently been their enemies was “taken as a license for Americans to defecate all over them."

So wrote John Horne Burns, first in letters sent from wartime Naples, where he served in army intelligence, and then, once World War II ended, in his novel about his experience in the war. Eroded by over-simplification and sentimentality, naivete and jingoism, his real time perspective on GIs abroad is rarely heard these days but is, in an era of American hegemony, more vital than ever. He is the antidote to Tom Brokaw, and if not the debunker of “The Greatest Generation” at least its conscience.

The American soldiers in Europe and the Pacific were unbelievably brave. Tens of thousands of them made the ultimate sacrifice. Collectively, they helped save Western civilization. But 16 million Americans served in the Second World War, and they were a varied bunch. Lots were heroic, but many weren’t. 

Burns served in North Africa and Italy, but like the vast majority of soldiers, was never on the front lines. So he saw something very different: as he put it, “the effects of war after the wedge has gone through and left nothing but splinters and pain.” And he saw it through a different set of eyes: those of a gay soldier, and at a time when, officially at least, gay soldiers like him did not exist. Burns is the anti-Brokaw, but with one distinct advantage: he was there. And he wasn’t writing to sell books. He was simply writing home.

Burns took nothing away from those who’d seen combat. If anything, he believed the horrors they faced were cynically understated by government officials and a compliant press to protect American sensibilities and protect domestic morale. But the soldiers Burns encountered out of harm’s way were of a very different sort. They were, as he told his mother, “having the times of their lives out of it.” And that was especially true in newly liberated Naples, which Burns reached in July 1944, and where he remained until the fighting stopped the following spring.

Unlike Burns, who’d studied Italian at Harvard and loved the culture, his fellow GIs were, as he described them, contemptuous of everything and everyone they saw—convinced, as he put it, that “every Italian woman is to be had and that every gentle and dignified Italian is to be called Paesano, preferably in a shout.” Burns’s American officers were “thuggy people with jeeps and mistresses for the first time in their lives,” cheating on their unsuspecting wives back home, shacking up in “villas which a catastrophe outside themselves has hurled into their paunchy laps.” And Burns’s rank-and-file soldiers were lushes and predators. “By 2300 everybody abroad is drunk, and they tear around in a last minute search for someone to sleep with—sex, color, or nationality being irrelevant,” he wrote of Neapolitan nights. Not surprisingly, so many members of the Greatest Generation ended up with venereal diseases that a ward in the local military hospital had to be aside for them. This Burns well knew, because he came down with syphilis himself.           

Bigotry was something to which Burns, a “mick” and a “queer” to boot, was particularly sensitive, and he saw it directed not just at the locals, but at fellow GIs. Japanese-American infantrymen—whose unit was one of the most highly decorated in the war—were, he wrote disgustedly, “still suspected of spying for Tojo.” In one letter, he describes watching a white officer, miffed that a black woman singer in town with the USO had taken “his” place at a bar, utterly humiliated a black soldier in the troupe. “There is a frightful commentary on modern life to see a small black man in a smart US officer’s uniform standing beside a Tom Collins and bawling,” he wrote. “The expressions on the faces of the Italian waiters showed that they saw little difference between this and an SS trooper clubbing a Jew. We have glass windows in our own house, I fear.”

Burns’s experiences crystallized in The Gallery, published in 1947. While many of its individual characters are admirable (and many of them are gay), his GIs are, en masse, coarse, bigoted, self-pitying, exploitative, inarticulate, dishonest, stupid. The portrayals are no doubt overdone: his bitterness toward them tapped into his broader revulsion for mainstream American, and particularly straight, culture, the culture of his ostensible “betters,” the culture that kept him in the closet. But, remarkably, few challenged what he wrote. There were no protests from the American Legion or the Veterans of Foreign Wars, or howls from indignant Congressmen. Partly, it was because people were exhausted by war. But partly, too, millions of people had either witnessed from afar or experienced first-hand what the war had done to American soldiers, and recognized that Burns had tapped into something true.

His GIs are, en masse, coarse, bigoted, self-pitying, exploitative, inarticulate, dishonest, stupid.

Thus, those who’d written the greatest novels of first Great War quickly praised Burns for getting the second one right. “If Americans can still write in this sort of exultation of pity and disgust of the foul spots in the last few years of our history then perhaps there is still hope that we can recover our manhood as a nation,” wrote John Dos Passos. Ernest Hemingway, characteristically, was more succinct. “Damned good book,” he called it. The few critics focusing on Burns’s jaundiced views did so to defend them. “Recruiting officers will not like some of the chapters and ideas in The Gallery, nor will professional glamorizers of America care for the pictures of the GIs in Italy,” wrote William McFee in the New York Sun. “The high command will agree that this is nothing but the truth, however. We have to make armies out of the material available. Kipling reported the dearth of plaster saints in the British Army long ago.”

But we’ve regressed since then, and plaster saints abound. It does our World War II veterans—including my late father—no honor to canonize them, for it only turns them into tools for those who would now deploy American soldiers profligately, without regard to what war does both to them and to the alien people they encounter far, far from home. Drunk and disillusioned, Burns died young, long before My Lai and Abu Ghraib, but they’d probably not have surprised him; he’d spotted the tendencies producing such things 70 years earlier. Anyone reading Brokaw should keep Burns nearby.