Military Sympathies, 75 Years After Battle of the Bulge

This week begins the 75th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge, when Hitler tried to split the advancing Allied line in the Ardennes and re-take the port of Antwerp. It was his last major counteroffensive.

The 75th anniversary of European Theater events really got going on June 6th of this year, for D-Day, and will end May 8th, on VE Day, Nazi Germany’s unconditional surrender in 1945. The anniversaries are a reminder, across months and geography, of the brutal sacrifices made to defeat fascism.

The fascists themselves never went away, of course. I remember when neo-Nazis hung out in Skokie long enough to be mocked by the Blues Brothers, though my relatives and acquaintances who fought in that war were not laughing. And the fascists are still around, even after Charlottesville, like roaches under the baseboards.

Yesterday’s news brought word that somebody (evidently a Public Affairs Officer) at the US XVIII Airborne Corps wrote a “fanboy” piece about SS officer Joachim Peiper, with a glamorizing, colorized photo of him in the Facebook post. Tenth Mountain and DoD reposted it.

Peiper, infamously, was behind the Malmedy Massacre of December 17, 1944, in which 84 American prisoners of war were machine-gunned in a field in Belgium, for which Peiper was tried for war crimes in 1946. The photo at the top of this piece is the aftermath.

After an outcry, XVIII Airborne pulled the post down, but not before everybody from my Uncle Paul to General Anthony McAuliffe spun in their graves. (McAuliffe was, famously, the acting commander of the 101stAirborne Division, XVIII Airborne Corps, who told the Germans demanding his surrender in the Battle of the Bulge, “Nuts.”)

A friend of mine who is retired after a long army career chalked it up to “Crap PAOs with no idea of history or decorum.” I think he is probably right. Some PAO had an urge to write creatively, and it went bad. (The alternative would mean that a soldier with an official platform felt emboldened to show admiration for the fascist who slaughtered US troops.)

Similarly, I think a different friend is right that the West Point and Annapolis Cadets who flashed controversial finger-signs during the Army-Navy game were near-kids who did not understand the problems they were creating. But while my friend thinks they were playing the adolescent “look at this game,” I do not. There has been too much attention paid to the “white power” sign of late—whether it meant that originally or not—to say they flashed it for any other reason. It would be like saying you did not know the middle finger was inappropriate. Having been a young soldier myself, I know it is the type of thing those under a deeply authoritarian system will do because they think it is funny to jostle authority. Épater les bourgeois. The service academies say they are looking into it.

Even before that incident, veterans were grousing in social media groups about supposedly being stripped of the benign “ok” sign. (It looks completely different.) Are we supposed to give that up too, because of snowflakes? they said. Today, after the news coverage, comments were even angrier, and some guy used the opportunity to share a meme with pornographic comments about 16-year old Greta Thunberg. Others approved, as if to assert they could say anything they liked.

I have been worrying about our military and veterans in an unstable time, and thinking about Ernest Hemingway. As a correspondent for Collier’s he sporadically joined the Allied push from Normandy to Paris, to the Hürtgen Forest, and to the Battle of the Bulge. He became close friends with (then) Colonel “Buck” Lanham, a West Point grad who distinguished himself by leading the 22d Infantry Regiment through those battles.

Hemingway loved action. He loved to kill. He was good at it. He took part in the fighting many times, including commanding maquis, irregular Free French forces, briefly. In his letters he claims to have killed at least 122 Germans, including a teenage boy his younger son’s age. He boasts of interrogating “a very snotty SS kraut,” and when the man taunted him, Hemingway “shot him three times in the belly fast and then, when he went down on his knees, shot him on the topside so his brains came out of his mouth or I guess it was his nose,” so the next captive would talk. As Carlos Baker says, “Although it sounded dirty to say so, he was very happy in this war.”

Hemingway was ordered to appear before a US military tribunal for violating the conditions of being a journalist, and perhaps the Geneva Convention. He talked his way out of it (but seems to have felt queasy at his own dissembling). If he had been captured fighting, he might have been executed as a spy or war criminal instead. Can you imagine the reaction if a German journalist had done this to American troops? Instead, in 1947 he was awarded a Bronze Star, which can be given to civilians, for moving “freely under fire in combat areas in order to obtain an accurate picture of conditions. Through his talent of expression, Mr. Hemingway enabled readers to obtain a vivid picture of the difficulties and triumphs of the front-line soldier and his organization in combat.”

Hemingway admired worthy adversaries, and even identified with the enemy in certain ways—discipline, toughness, and capability. He spoke European languages and admired the culture. He loved the story of how, when his eldest son, John (or Jack, or Bumby), was wounded and captured with the OSS, it turned out his captor had known the Hemingways in Schruns, Austria, where they went skiing between the wars, when Bumby was an infant. The Nazi immediately sent Bumby off for medical care.

Recently I wrote an essay for The Common Reader about, in part, white reconciliationist sympathies, especially among veterans. Are we now in a period (“very fine people on both sides”) when elements in our military and government will identify more deeply with those who always have opposed our democracy—and do so in part because they are both “white”?

The National Archives says “Hemingway dated his own antifascism to 1924.” He proved an effective combatant against fascist armies, and often stood for what was right in his work. But he could also betray values we might hope to claim as American. We must remember the two can go together.

In a letter to Buck Lanham, dated April 2, 1945, Hemingway writes: “So long Buck. Have to stop this letter somewhere. Wish could see you. When Mary [his soon-to-be fourth wife] comes down here [Cuba] we can let her kill a Boogie instead of a Kraut. Tell her it’s a very dark Kraut from somewhere in the Schartzwald—get him now before he gets away. (It will be the Butler.)”

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.