Saturday, September 30, 2006

It Takes a Tough Guy to Not Be a Tough Guy

David Kenyon Webster wrote one of the best war memoirs I've ever read (Parachute Infantry) after his experience as one of the 506th PIR of the 101st Airborne "Band of Brothers" memorialized in Stephen Ambrose's book of the same name (and a subsequent HBO miniseries). If you saw the miniseries, Webster is the guy who can't forgive himself for uttering a bad movie cliche when he gets wounded in Holland ("They got me!") and who, upon his return from the replacement depot after the Bulge, gets the cold shoulder from his buddies because they think he took his time getting back to the unit (in fairness, he probably did exactly what he was told, but compared to people like Joe Toye, who escaped from a hospital to join his comrades, he may have been thought of as less than enthusiastic about war, which is perfectly sane). What Webster's book doesn't have that others often do is first-person heroism; he's as candid as any soldier I've ever read about his fears, doubts and moments of weakness. Here's an excerpt from the moments before he takes his first combat jump into Normandy:

The muscle and fiber melted from my legs. It was all I could do to remain upright and not dissolve into a gibbering, gutless blob of fear. Too weak to stand, I clung to my static line with both hands. I felt like crying, screaming, killing myself.

What Webster's book does have that others often don't is literary skill, almost poetry, with which he describes what is to be done with a dying German soldier across a river from Webster's platoon in Germany late in the war:

We tiptoed back down the forest path through the bare, black, dripping trees, and stopped behind a two-foot mound that ran along the river's edge. The rope that the patrol had used was still in position. The wounded German lay out of sight on his back near the other end, wwhich was tied to a concrete telephone pole about fifteen yards from us.

He must have heard us coming. For a few moments he held his breath and stopped groaning and gasping and wheezing, evidently hoping that we would not notice him. But he couldn't stay quiet long, and soon the ghastly, sucking wheezes commenced again, loud as ever.

Poor bastard, I thought, listening to him. He's trying to hide from us. He's dying, and he knows we want to kill him. What a fate: to gasp your life out all alone in the mud of a dirty little creek, helpless to hold off the slow death that is inside of you and the quicker death that is walking up on you on the other side of the water. A death without love, a death without hope. God, who invented war?

But if he gets back alive, I may be dead.

"O.K.," Marsh whispered, "let's throw 'em."

We pulled the pins on our hand grenades and arched them across the river at the sound of the wheezing. One of the grenades exploded, the other was a dud. There was no change in the breathing noises. We went into the house, got two more grenades, and tried again, without success. The German continued to moan and wheeze.

"The hell with it," Marsh said. "Let him die. They won't come after him."

We gave up and went to bed.

What a fine microcosm of war: terrifying, awful, pointless, sad, wasteful, but ultimately indistinguishable from any other activity in that people are driven by simple needs and desires. Hunger, fatigue and physical discomfort can trump the seemingly inconquerable drive to survive if the danger is small enough and the rewards of ignoring it are great enough.

Webster survived the war but disappeared from his boat in 1961 while studying sharks. Which is a shame, because I'd love to be able to talk to him.

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