Tuesday, April 3, 2012

G.I.: The American Soldier in World War II by Lee Kennett

Lee Kennett, who died last year, was a history professor at Georgia and a noted historian. He wrote books about French and American military history, from the Revolutionary War to World War II. I read this book because we are in the seventieth anniversary years of World War II, a major event that appears to be passing from our view, as those people whose lives were impacted by the war are now aging significantly.

While this is a book of “straight” history, and not likely to be in the public eye as much as a historical novel, I found it immensely readable. Kennett describes how the United States had to quickly assemble an army after Pearl Harbor. Some early recruits had to share a gun for target practice and others were put to clearing swamps to build their training camps. But by the time the American soldier went marching into North Africa, Europe, and went flying into the Pacific, the quality and quantity of his outfitting and supplies were duly noted by both the Allied and Axis’ armies.

Kennett covers all the bases, from the first drafting of men through their induction, training and deployment. He does not try to defend times when the U.S. Army failed to meet its objectives. An example of this was how Italy, occupied by the U.S. after the war, became a breeding ground for profiteering and organized crime. In America, the local draft boards decided who were to be called up, and complaints didn't usually change their rulings. Kennett reports that the Hispanic and African-American men were given less exemptions than white recruits, probably a function of the more segregated society of that time.

U.S. Army soldiers in Europe had different experiences than those who were fighting the Japanese, and Kennett details for us the essential bleakness of those stationed in the Pacific. They had to fight in a jungle, facing an enemy that allegedly tortured and killed captured soldiers. Interestingly enough, Kennett tells us that documentation on the Japanese Army side also records their soldiers feeling alienated and spooked by the jungle, with its wild animals and pestilent diseases. Many soldiers in the Pacific were not felled by the enemy, but by disease.

Although the book reiterates how varied the G.I. soldier really was, Kennett still manages to make some solid generalizations about Americans in the Army that make a lot of sense. You can almost picture these young men (and women) being so friendly and open that children just flocked to them wherever they went, and how they got the reputation from the other Allies for not having much patience - always wanting to “get moving”. Another thing Kennett shows us, is that for all the hype and propaganda put out by our government, the American soldier didn’t have any enthusiasm for talking about patriotism. In his view, he was just “doing his job”. Kennett has left us with a pertinent portrait of Americans participating in World War II, one that we can use to remind ourselves of what the war meant for them and how they went out to meet it.

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