ed. Sam Dunn

Frankly, I hated the slew of ‘greatest generation’ books and movies and stuff that came out in the late nineties in America. It struck me as a convulsive reaction on the part of baby boomers seeming to suddenly realize that ‘hey, you know, fighting in World War II must have been a huge sacrifice! thanks dad/mom/entity!’ Studs Terkel must have been shaking his head at it all given the tone it all took. I don’t know, perhaps because I was born in 1971 and was raised in a military (but thankfully not a jingoistic) family it always struck me as correct and right to acknowledge what had happened, not to suddenly make a big deal out of it because it was hip (hell, angels were ‘hip’ in 1993 I seem to recall, did they all get refitted with camoflauge gear a few years later?). I didn’t need Saving Private Ryan to tell me that war is not only hell but pretty damned gruesome. (Nor did I need to assume that Matt Damon needed saving at all, but that’s another matter.)

This book to my mind serves as a much more telling — and moving — counterweight. Written by survivors of the Rainbow Division who were the first American troops into Dachau right near the end of the European part of the war, it has the tone not of mythmaking huzzahs but of struggles, beauty and cruelty and reflections on what the scarring can mean for all. There is justifiable pride in the tone taken that this was what needed to be done — to cease the horrors at that camp and at many others — but there is bald, strong acknowledgement, in the reports made by men at the time, in the reminiscences from veterans nearly fifty years on, on the impact caused by seeing bodies piled up in train carts, by the skeletal figures awaiting them in the camps, by the outpouring of joy caused by their arrival. You sense the horror in their words as they each tell of their impressions of the day, certain actions and memories viewed in different points of view, the memories of camp survivors of the day and so forth. Above all else, you sense a shift from either disbelief or ignorance to blunt realization — and how young men found themselves questioning so much of the world after that moment.

You also get a sense of the need to document, preserve and argue — the bitterest words, the most powerful, are directed not merely against a vanguished force but those Holocaust deniers who came in later years. The sense of outrage that comes through on the page is restrained at points, but palpable. If anything, the book exists to say: “We saw it. We can never forget it. Our words here will stand as testimony to it after we are dead.”

Sometimes the writing is clumsy, sometimes it is repetitive. But it is never less than compelling. I am glad it exists.