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Not comfortable bedtime reading!
on 11 September 2003
I picked this up and read it in what seemed like an hour, but it was a very uneasy experience. The simple matter of fact presentation belies the fact that this book is packed to bursting with physical and psychological terror, told through the eyes of a 19-year old American farm boy thrust into the vanguard of the Normandy Invasion in 1944.
The book covers the period from his induction into the new paratroop regiment to the end of his fighting in Normandy through injury. The initial phase of his training outlines the brutal training regime and vividly illustrates the "who cares?" attitude of all involved. (for example, when he breaks his leg in a training jump, he is left to crawl home on his own)and then the initial deployment to England for further training. The whole exercise is enjoyed by the young recruits as if it was a big outward bound course, and the ironic detachment of the young men is illustrated when they witness a German torpedo attack on their own ships - they cheer the Germans for their audacity as they watch the ships sinking.
The entire first half portrays the process whereby the young men are violently reduced to a point of blind obedience and conditioned responses - they pass their spare time playing dangerous practical jokes on each other, and going into town to have violent fights with rival regiments and the military police; failing that they fight with each other.
The last half of the book concerns the actual combat experience, and it is a visceral and graphic account of the horrors of war. Even so, the narrator's over-riding characterisation of himself and his friends always seems to be the desire to do a good job, and not let the side down, even to the detriment of their humanity.
Burgett's accounts of the actual order of battle are not particularly clear, but his descriptions of individual events are terrifyingly vivid. He particularly brings to life the sounds and smells of the battlefield as much as the sights. If you want to know what combat is like, read this. If you want to find out how soldiers function under such circumstances, read this. It will probably shake every stereotype you have been exposed to before.
It also stands as witness testimony to the criminal acts of war, and the inevitable consequences of forcing soldiers and civilians alike to share in such numbing violence and brutality as should be experienced in any number of lifetimes. Yep - this is war!