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Understanding World War 2 Combat Infantrymen In the European Theater

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Understanding World War 2 Combat Infantrymen In the European Theater

Testing the Sufficiency of Army Research Branch Surveys and Infantry Combatant Recollections Against the Insights of Credible War Correspondents, Combat Photographers, and Army Cartoonists
  • by Peter Karsten
    • Merriam Press World War 2 History
      • Second Edition 2020
      • 142 6x9-inch pages
      • 57 photos, illustrations and charts
Most scholarship on the American role in the European Theater of Operations (ETO) during World War II has addressed the “large” issues of strategy, campaign outcomes, command leadership, and logistical support.  Other, generally more recent research efforts have provided insights into the experiences of the individual combatants.  In this work the author offers a better grasp of these latter efforts, utilizing evidence that has been underutilized.
     In today’s world of combat, with “embedded” media and virtually instant TV and Twitter reporting, the world of the World War II infantrymen may appear terribly different and distant. And in many ways it was. In World War II the media was not as “controlled” as in the war in Iraq. Was that better, as Gay Talese has maintained?  Karsten leaves that for others to ponder. What he asks here is whether the media (journalists, broadcasters, combat photographers, cartoonists and artists) in the ETO during World War II significantly improved our understanding of the world of the American infantryman there.     
     Unlike those at the Corps, the Division, or even the Battalion level, infantry company commanders, platoon leaders, and their men had a line of sight on the battlefield that was limited, in the best of circumstances, to little more than a few miles (in a valley on a clear day) but was generally less than a thousand yards. And what one saw rarely contained vital information about the enemy. As one signal officer put it, “the most striking feature of the battlefield is its emptiness.”  The objects that killed and wounded — artillery and mortar fragments, bullets — were invisible to the infantryman before he was hit by them, and, as accredited Army war correspondent Andy Rooney put it, “a soldier fighting a war knows every intimate detail of the hundred yards around him but that’s about all he does know.”  
     The infantryman’s grasp of what was happening beyond that line of sight was limited, despite such signals as the battalion HQ provided. But he had a keen appreciation of what was happening within it. Lieutenant Paul Fussell, a platoon leader in the 410th Infantry, 103rd Division, described the difference between those who had served in combat as infantrymen and what he called the “feather merchants” in the rear echelon: “There is the accidental possession of a special empirical knowledge, a feeling of a mysterious shared ironic awareness … about pretension, publicly enunciated truths … and the pomp of authority. Those who fought know a secret about themselves … ”  
     What Karsten asks in this unique work is whether the media (journalists, broadcasters, combat photographers, cartoonists and artists) in the ETO during World War II significantly improved our understanding of the world of the American infantryman there.


Thoughtful, comprehensive, and provocative. Peter Karsten's research ranges from the world of the combat infantryman to the world of the war correspondent. He is particularly illuminating where those worlds collide.
—Rick Atkinson, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the trilogy: The Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-43; The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, and The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1943-45

Peter Karsten has written a long overdue study of GI infantrymen's attitudes in the war against Germany, matching frontline reporting with the U.S. Army's survey research. Bill Mauldin and Ernie Pyle were the most reliable observers of GI hardships and complaints about the Army. Karsten matches Mauldin's cartoons with the Research Bureau polling with convincing effect.
—Allan R. Millett, co-author, A War to Be Won: Fighting the Second World War

As Normandy veteran Paul Fussell once lamented, World War II has been Disneyfied and sanitized beyond recognition. Peter Karsten brings all his analytic skills to this analysis of the American GI. By getting as close to the soldiers themselves, Karsten gives us new insights into what they thought and how they reacted to the monumental events happening around them. This book will help us to better understand the real men rather than the Disney version. Karsten’s work will be of interest to scholars of the war as well as those interested in the biggest questions of war, soldiers, and the societies they serve.
—Michael S. Neiberg, author of The Blood of Free Men: The Liberation of Paris, 1944

  • Introduction: Challenges to Understanding the World of the World War II Infantryman
    • Sources of Answers to the Challenges
  • Chapter 1: Who “Got It?”: Who “Got it” Among the Many Accredited Journalists?
    • The Eight Who Failed to “Get It”
    • And Now the Three Who “Got It”
    • Which Photographers, Filmmakers, and Artists “Got it?”
    • Which Army Cartoonists “Got it?”
  • Chapter 2: Research Branch Findings Confirmed by the Words of the Infan-trymen Themselves and Those Observers Who “Got it”
    • Enemy Weapons
    • “Combat Fatigue”
    • Officer-Enlisted Relations
    • Replacement Depots
  • Chapter 3: “And Now for Something Completely Different”: Dogface Concerns Reported by Infantrymen Themselves as Well as the Credible On-the-Scene Observers That Were Not Detected by the Army Research Branch Surveys
    • Tank Behavior and “Friendly Fire"
    • Rear Echelon MPs and “Garret Troopers”
    • Cold, Mud, Rain, Trench-foot
    • Army Medics
    • Children in the Combat Zone
    • Conclusions
  • Bibliography
  • The Author

Karsten has certainly given us the down-to earth details of the infantrymen of WWII seen through his eyes collating/interpreting cartoonists and journalists from Margaret Bourke-White to Ernie Pyle and Bill Mauldin. There is no pretense here...not the buffoonish stereotypes or the banalities of a Forest Gump...this is what really happened, and the reader is drawn into the inequities as well as the horrors of war. An insightful and good read!
—M. Shaughnessy

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