James MacGregor Burns: The Naked Truth of Battle

Roundup: Talking About History

[Fresh from Williams College’s history program, the author entered World War II as a 24-year-old combat historian, earning four combat medals and a Bronze Star. He would go on to become a leading presidential historian, writing a two-volume biography of FDR, the second book of which won both the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award. He has also written notable books on John F. Kennedy and the subject of leadership.]

Early in July 1944, I joined American forces on the tiny island of Saipan in their latest onslaught, an operation resembling so many others as we cleared one Pacific island after another, each grim step moving us closer to Japan and final victory. The Allies would land fast and hard against desperate opposition, then often spending weeks rooting out an enemy who would not surrender.

Although I carried a carbine, no one expected me to use it. As a combat historian, my orders were to accompany the U.S. Army’s 27th Division as it pushed northward up the island’s west coast to observe as much action as possible, and to interview soldiers during and after the fighting. I was part of an experiment by the War Department, which a year earlier had established the Historical Branch under the Military Intelligence Division of the General Staff. The branch was tasked with preparing detailed operational narratives, along with theater and campaign histories, a popular account of the Second World War, and ultimately the official history of the war. A group of scholars, including the well-known historians Henry Steele Commager and James P. Baxter III, served as advisers.

Although this approach was new to Americans, Europeans had long set out to assemble scholarly accounts of combat. In Germany Hans Delbrück and Carl von Clausewitz had established a great tradition of military history. They fostered elaborate reports of Prussian campaigns—not to enlighten the people, but to provide a means of reaping the hard experience of war for the next violent encounter with an enemy. After the First World War, the Germans meticulously analyzed their records to understand just what had gone wrong.

The U.S. War Department had different motives: the historians were to inform the soldiers and the nation as a whole, as well as the high command. Their narratives were to be comprehensive, impartial, and sufficiently authoritative to form an important source for the studies of future historians. In the meantime, short histories of operations, later called the American Forces in Action series, were to be published for the men who took part.

It was soon discovered that the type of history desired could not be written from the archives alone, despite prodigious record keeping. The paperwork of one division for a single week would fill a filing cabinet. The trouble was simply that the records constituted truth in parade dress. “On the actual day of battle,” Gen. Sir Ian Hamilton once reflected, “naked truths may be picked up for the asking; by the following morning they have begun to get into their uniforms.” The messages, intelligence summaries, field orders, operations reports, and all the other records still left huge gaps in the story of the action; they were often meaningless or misleading on the most vital questions. As a result, officers and enlisted historians were assigned to the battlefronts to see for themselves and write the first drafts of history on the spot....

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