Soldiering For Freedom:
A GI’s Account of World War II
By Herman J. Obermayer
(Texas A&M University Press, 324 pages, $32.95)
That war is terrible is often observed, and a search for “what it all means” makes its way to the battlefield. Clarity is obscured not simply because of the bullets flying, but because of a fog of war attributable to large bureaucracies and lumbering states seeking out self-interested gains. A long tradition of military memoirs, from Ulysses S. Grant to General Patton eschew such vanity, and instead pursue the narrative of battle, valuing experience over sentiment.
In Soldiering for Freedom, journalist Herman J. Obermayer provides letters he wrote to his family during his service in the European theater of World War II. The task provides a temptation to expand, over-state, over-glorify, which the older veteran persistently dodges. In that sense, Obermayer doesn’t glorify the period. Every chapter is prefaced with an introduction summarizing the letters showing the war as far murkier than popular portrayals, the role of the French more insidious, and the Allied effort more muddled. Indeed, by showing his audience what they were not permitted to see over 50 years ago, and by tossing aside the caricature of untouchable, venerable WWII soldiers, the author more than clearly shows what made the war, and America, distinctive — duty.
Notes Obermayer in his introduction, “American troops entered German cities as conquerors, not liberators,” and accordingly, GI’s were instructed not to believe “there are any good Germans … people have the governments they want and deserve.” He might as well add that this is why the Vichy government was acceptable to the French. He later describes French relations with Allied forces as troublesome.
That the French under Allied occupation looked straight through American soldiers is hardly a surprise. French ingratitude to American intervention has long been a popular anecdote. Yet little has been made of French detraction during the war itself, something Obermayer uses as a refrain in early chapters. The Germans had fitted French farms with new farming technologies and improved roads. By contrast the Allies provided “liberation” in the form of bothersome soldiers who took up space in important buildings, and bombs that destroyed important historical landmarks like the Rouen Cathedral. The French “admired the authoritarian system that made them more productive, better farmers. We Americans, on the other hand, ruined their fields with spilled gasoline.” Freedom in and of itself was hardly a commodity to the French.
Their dalliance as a frontier of the Third Reich so rudely interrupted, “Nazi sympathizers and French saboteurs” frequently disrupted petroleum pipelines feeding the front lines. Assigned as a medic to a team that patrolled the lines for the express purpose of preventing such intrusions, Obermayer writes of bearing witness to the loss of “tens of thousands” of gallons, much of which wound up peddled on the black market, while manpower was diverted to repair the damage. Few historians note the importance of fuel movements during the conflict; even fewer refer to sabotage as a critical problem in France. “War correspondents considered supply services stories dull,” the author offers, also admitting that censorship may have played a role in the overall reluctance of the American government to have its recently liberated “friend” look like it wasn’t thankful for the effort.
Such restrictions on what was allowed or not allowed, worthy or unworthy, to print is perhaps Obermayer’s most important contribution to the historical record. Whereas such obstacles were either censored or unworthy of reporting in the early 1940s, today they are reported with a severity and dramatic flair, told as though this poorly armored vehicle, this roadside bomb, or this random shooting, was reason number one-hundred-and-whatever in a long line of terrible events that reveal how America is mired in defeat and has yet to realize it. Today, warfare is waged in the presses, when years ago, America had the good sense to stop it before it got to the printer.
AN EDITED COLLECTION of letters invites the possibility of two authors, the younger and the older. No such thing exists here. Though a well-read and insightful young man, he does not appear as a man coming to terms with war, the big bad world, sex, love, seeking, as is popular today, to find the deeper, hidden meaning of life. This collection depicts an adult who refuses to wallow in the self-pity and wistful spirit that has seeped into the Kultursmog as represented in films such as The Thin Red Line, or Jarhead. Obermayer presents what his audience has always known: World War II had Americans doing their duty as they felt they should.
By giving up the more dramatic character development, Obermayer is able to level straight criticism in the moment on any subject without discerning it as unimportant. In one letter: “The coffee really tastes like hell”; In another, “if you take into consideration the Army’s usual approach to men’s sex relationships, this punishment was much too severe”; Yet another, “Goerring may be a dope fiend, but he definitely doesn’t give the impression of being a fool.” These are not the observations of a highfalutin memoirist, but a young man thinking on the ground. Sharing his thoughts with his family, and in turn, with us, he paints a clearer picture of the life of an American soldier abroad.
That Obermayer is himself a journalist is absolutely clear, not simply because he tells us, but because his collection is so meticulously edited, so thoroughly explained, that his letters anticipate his calling: writing and editing newspapers, and later, assisting countries emerging from Communism in establishing a successful press. In those circumstances, such a sense of propriety would be the best example to follow.
J. Peter Freire is a Journalism Fellow at The American Spectator under a grant from the Collegiate Network.