In The Boys’ Crusade, Paul Fussell discusses the American invasion of Western Europe and identifies why it is recalled under the artificial mask of feel-good narrations. Fussell, who was a part of that invasion, describes it as a boys’ crusade because the war was fought by boys who had hardly graduated from high school. These young boys became the backbone of the American Army and battled valiantly against the mighty Germans during World War II. Along the way, however, lack of training, experience and equipment prompted them to commit many blunders.
During World War II, casualties were shockingly high owing to the overconfidence of Americans and a general sense of superiority in them. Many of the soldiers were severely injured and called for desperate replacements to be sent to war zones. To add to the woes, there was a shortage of soldiers in America. Thus, teenage boys were asked to participate in the war and the ones who signed up were thrown into war zones after an insufficient training of four months. As a result, they went into war with lack of training, clothing and equipment, compared to their German counterparts. What was more appalling for them was that they were led by officers who were as young as them. However, initially, the soldiers were required to possess only three qualities: a vision good enough to sense anti-human mines through small triggers, rat-like skills to collect little objects, such as leftover forks and knives, and most importantly, unusual luck to survive.
At such a tender age, the boys were made aware that there was a constant threat of death surrounding them. They would often walk hundreds of yards, treading on nothing but dead bodies of their fellow soldiers. The young soldiers would often criticize, whine and say spiteful things without hesitation, but when it came to fighting the war, they would hardly ever cry, even when injured. When they would receive food packages from home, their moods would instantly boost up. When seriously wounded, they would be sent to another unit and not be treated much better than the food from World War I was treated. The boys were surrounded by the general madness of war and they would often find themselves confused about whom to kill and whom to save. When they had to execute someone, they would shout: “Kill, kill” in their teenage voices.
To get through combat, the soldiers developed a strong sense of optimism. They would always remain hopeful that the war would end soon, and that if anyone was going to get killed, it would somehow not be them. Despite the adverse circumstances, they would commit mistakes but also had a shared capability to fuel courage. The boys also possessed a degree of dramatic flair and a flamboyant admiration for dark humor. They had the physical resilience to get through zero-degree of cold and had camping abilities that were similar to the ones prevalent among dwelling hunters and fish-seekers.
There was also a certain degree of envy among the troops, but in times of need, they would support each other as much as they could. The air warriors were clever enough and had adequate control over their emotions to not express their angst against those who had a comparatively safer battle on land. However, bringing down Nazi Germany was the mission of soldiers on ground and all of them knew that this required efforts that were going to be bloody. When one of the soldiers would get wounded and be brought for medical assistance, the other who would also be wounded, would get up and leave space for him. In short, the young boys grew up during the war.
The troops also made many errors along the way. In the book, Fussel narrates an incident when a soldier, in an argument with his senior, merely attempted to correct the use of the word ‘relevant’. As a result of this row, the senior ordered his soldiers to attack a superior German troop. The attack backfired and the senior was subsequently shot through the neck. Many of the soldiers were forced to play dead for several hours before they were rescued. Fussell also discusses the well-known Operation Cobra, during which aerial bombing that ended up killing hundreds of GIs was ordered on Nazi-defended French hedgerows. He cites the needless killings of allied armies and French civilians at the Falaise Gap. He talks about the infamous Great Slapton Sands disaster, where negligence resulted in a total of 749 American fatalities who were cleared into a mass grave. He also mentions the mismanagement of Hurtgen Forest Fight, during which an American General kept throwing teenage boys against the strong SS armies. In addition, Fussell enlightens us how medals are used to cover up acts of ignorance and cowardice during wars and how the units try to convert a failed attempt into a victorious one simply to keep the motivation high.
During the invasion, the young boys were often surrounded by death and body parts. It was no less than a nightmare of a journey for them, but in the end, it was worth every effort and brought about many positives. The young boys came back home as young men and the “reluctant draftees” became professional soldiers. The invasion gave them a sense of gratification and honor. The detection of concentration camps provided a strong moral message to them. They knew the enemy better than they had known when they laughed at the word “crusade”. They had witnessed deaths and were able to recognize that they had suffered for something more than just the demolition of military power of Germany, which was the sacredness of life itself.