In the course of researching dad’s story for the film I have read dozens of WWII veterans memoirs.
There are common threads to the way they tell their stories, a sense of irony and amazement being the strongest.
Reading The Soldier's Tale I found things I had begun to have an inkling of laid out with stunning clarity.
The author, Samual Hynes, was a Marine pilot during WWII.
The infantry has always been the ordinary, indistinguishable mass of armies, the place where they put you if you have no preference and no skills. … the most unromantic kind of soldiering.
The war stories those ordinary men tell, the stories of the walking war, are different in fundamental ways from the stories of the young men in machines, the long-haired boys. Infantrymen’s narratives are narrower in the range of vision, smaller in scale, more identified with groups than individuals more determined by the contingencies of battle, more concerned with survival than with action. For the majority of men who fought in the Second War, these are the stories that tell the common truths.
In some ways all infantry stories are the same… …they all say keep your head down, your rifle clean and do what you are told when it’s possible.
We who would fight the second war… could sing the sings of the first war: “Mademoiselle from Armentieres” and “tipperary” (…those songs were part of our childhood). They had heard the stories from the men who had been there, a father or an uncle or the man next door. They knew that men who were soldiers in modern wars came home again and reverted to being ordinary civilians. Soldiering was a temporary thing, a period you passed through, like high school. Any guy on the block could do it, should do it, would do it.
They served… with a conscious condition of civilianness, the sense of the soldiering self as a kind of imposter, out of place, unprepared, and ignorant of what is happening or is going to happen-not a real soldier. The awareness that such a man in uniform may be, probably will be, a comic figure at least some of the time.
These attitudes changed armies; they also changed the stories the soldiers of those armies told, gave them a civilian note of skepticism and made their war ironic in the telling.
… not so much bitterness or disillusionment as a wariness, a determination to be armed against heroics by irony.
A continuous astonishment and outrage at the way war is conducted, how it is planned behind the lines by the brass hats and carried out in confusion that is sometimes farcical and sometimes mortal.
Samuel Hynes, “The Soldier’s Tale”