February 13, 2015

"The G.I. and the General" by Ernest Hemingway

The G.I. and the General
"Ernest Hemingway in uniform, wearing a helmet, and holding binoculars during World War II," 1944 (source)
From Collier's magazine, November 4, 1944, pp. 11, 46-47. (See Hemingway's other World War II essays here.)

(By cable from France). There were weary tank men and German machine guns and a guy who once sang with a good band—and there was a man who knew that "there should never be tired generals."

The wheat was ripe but there was no one there to cut it now, and tank tracks led through it to where the tanks lay pushed into the hedge that topped the ridge that looked across the wooded country to the hill we would have to take tomorrow. There was no one between us and the Germans in that wooded country and on the hill. We knew they had some infantry there and between fifteen and forty tanks. But the division had advanced so fast that the division on its left had not come up, and all this country that you looked across, seeing the friendly hills, the valleys, the farmhouses with their fields and orchards, and the gray-walled, slate-roofed buildings of the town with its sharp-pointing church tower, was all one open flank. All of it was deadly.

The division had not advanced beyond its objective. It had reached its objective, the high ground we were now on, exactly when it should have. It had been doing this for day after day after day after week after month now. No one remembered separate days any more, and history, being made each day, was never noticed but only merged into a great blur of tiredness and dust, of the smell of dead cattle, the smell of earth new-broken by TNT, the grinding sound of tanks and bulldozers, the sound of automatic-rifle and machine-gun tire, the interceptive, dry rattle of German machine-pistol fire, dry as a rattler rattling; and the quick, spurting tap of the German light machine-guns—and always waiting for others to come up.

It was merged in the memory of the fight up out of the deadly, low hedgerow country onto the heights and through the forest and on down into the plain, by and through the towns, some smashed, and some intact, and on up into the rolling farm and forest country where we were now.

History now was old K-ration boxes, empty foxholes, the drying leaves on the branches that were cut for camouflage. It was burned German vehicles, burned Sherman tanks, many burned German Panthers and some burned Tigers, German dead along the roads, in the hedges and in the orchards, German equipment scattered everywhere, German horses roaming the fields, and our own wounded and our dead passing back strapped two abreast on top of the evacuation jeeps. But mostly history was getting where we were to get on time and waiting there for others to come up.

Now on this clear summer afternoon we stood looking across the country where the division would fight tomorrow. It was one of the first days of the really good weather. The sky was high and blue, and ahead and to our left, our planes were working on the German tanks. Tiny and silver in the sun, the P-47s came in high in pairs of pairs and circled before peeling off to dive-bomb. As they went down, growing big-headed and husky-looking in the snarl of the dive you saw the flash and the smoke of the bombs and heard their heavy thud. Then the P-47s climbed and circled again to come down strafing, smoke streaming gray behind them as they dived ahead of the smoke their eight big .50s made as they hammered. There was a very bright flash in the trees of the wooded patch the planes were diving on, and then black smoke arose and the planes came down strafing again and again.

"They got a Jerry tank then," one of the tank men said.

"That's one of the b—s less."

"Can you see him with your glasses?" another helmeted tank man asked me.

I said, "The trees hide him from this side."'

"They would," the tank man said. "If we used cover like those damned Krauts, a lot more guys would get to Paris or Berlin or wherever it is we're going."

"Home," another man said. "That's all I care about going. That's where I'm going. All those other places will be off limits anyway. We're never going in no town."

"Take it easy," another soldier said. "Take it a day at a time."

"Say, correspondent," another soldier called. "One thing I can't understand. You tell me, will you? What are you doing here if you don't have to be here? Do you do it just for the money?"

"Sure," I said. "Big money. Lots of money."

"It don't make sense to me," he said seriously. "I understand anybody doing it that has to do it. But doing it for money don't make sense. There ain't the money in the world to pay me for doing it."

A German high-explosive shell with a time fuse cracked overhead and to our right, leaving a black puff of smoke in the air.

"Those lousy Krauts shot that stuff too high," the soldier who wouldn't do it for money said.

Just then the German artillery started shelling the hill on our left where one of the battalions of the first of the three infantry regiments in the division lay above the town. The side of the hill was jumping into the air in spurting dark fountains from the multiple bursts.

"They'll shoot on us next," one of the tank men said. "They've got good observation on us here."

"Lay down under the back of the tank there if they start to shoot," the big tank man who had told the other soldier to take it a day at a time said. "That's the best place to be."

"She looks sort of heavy," I told him. "Suppose you have to start backing out in a hurry?"

"I'll holler to you," he grinned. Our 105s opened up behind us in counter-battery fire, and the German shelling stopped. A Piper Cub was circling slowly overhead. Another was off to the right.

"They don't like to shoot when those Cubs are up," the big tank man said. "They spot the flashes, and then our artillery gives them hell or the planes go in after them." We stayed there a while but the German artillery only opened at intervals on the hill the battalion was holding. We were not attacking.

"Let's go back and see where the rest of the combat command has got to," I said.

"Okay," said Kimbrough, who drove the captured German motorcycle we rode on. "Let's go."

Equipped for Any Emergency

We said "So long" to the tank people and went back through the wheat field and got on the motorcycle, me on the back seat, and rode out into the dust of the road that the armor had churned into thick clouds of gray powder. The sidecar held a mixed lot of armament, photographic equipment, repair equipment, miscellaneous captured German bottled goods, live hand grenades, various automatic weapons, all belonging to Corporal (now Sergeant) John Kimbrough of Little Rock, Arkansas.

It could easily have served as a showcase for an advertisement of the well-armed guerrilla's dream, and I often wondered how Kim planned to deploy himself in the event we had to take other than evasive action on those rides through territory whose possession was in doubt. Versatile though he is and much as I respect his ability to improvise, yet I was sometimes appalled at the prospect of him managing more than three submachine guns, a variety of pistols, a carbine and, once, a German light machine gun, at a time, without dispersing his fire too much. But finally I decided he must be figuring on arming the countryside as we proceeded deeper into enemy territory. And, as it turned out, this worked out very well on one occasion and was worth one whole new stripe to my farseeing and, I then considered, slightly overarmed pal.

We headed back down the road to the town that we had taken that afternoon and I stopped in front of the cafe across from the church. The road was full of armor passing in their clanking, grinding howl; the noise of one tank dying off into the rising, retching, steel-tortured approach of the next. The tanks had their turrets open, and the crews returned perfunctorily the waves the boys of the village gave each vehicle. An old Frenchman in a black felt hat, a boiled shirt, a black tie, and a dusty black suit, with a bunch of flowers in his right hand, stood on the terrace of the church above the road and saluted each tank formally with the flowers.

"Who is the man by the church?" I asked the woman who owned the cafe, as we stood in the doorway to let the armor pass.

"He is a little crazy," she said. "But very patriotic. He has been there ever since you came through this morning. He has eaten no lunch. Twice his family have come for him, but he remains there."

"Did he salute the Germans, too?"

"Oh, no," madame said. "He is a man of extreme patriotism, but since several years, slightly touched, you know."

Pause for Refreshment

At a table, three soldiers were sitting with a carafe of cider, half full, and three glasses. "That slave driver," one of them who was unshaven, tall, thin, and limber with drink, was saying. "That dirty damn slave driver. Sixty miles back of the front and he'll kill every one of us."

"Who you talking about?" Kimbrough said to the soldier.

"That slave driver! That general!"

"How far did you say he was?" Kimbrough asked.

"Sixty miles if he's a damned inch. Sixty miles that we have died on. We're all dead. Don't he know it? Does he give a damn? That slave driver."

"Do you know how far he is back? He isn't three thousand yards back of here now," Kimbrough said. "Maybe he has gone up ahead. We passed him on the road a while back."

"Oh, you dope," the unshaven soldier said. "What the hell do you know about the war? That damn slave driver is sixty miles back if he is an inch. And look at me! I used to sing with good bands—good, good bands. And my wife is unfaithful to me. I don't have to prove it. She told me. And there's what I believe in, right over there."

He pointed across the road above the tanks where the middle-aged Frenchman was still lifting his flowers at each tank that passed. There was a priest in black, crossing the graveyard behind the church.

"Who you believe in? That Frenchman?" another G.I. asked.

"No, I don't believe in that Frenchman," the soldier who had sung with good bands said. "I believe in what the priest represents. I believe in the Church. And my wife is unfaithful to me not once but many times. I will not let her have a divorce because that is what I believe in. And that is why she would not sign the papers. And that is why I am not a bombardier. I went through Bombardier School and she would not sign the papers and right this minute now she is unfaithful to me."

"He can sing, too," one of the G.I.s said to me. "I heard him sing the other night and he can sing all right."

"I cannot say I hate my wife," the soldier who had sung with good bands said. "If she is unfaithful to me now, this minute, while we are here and have just taken this town, I cannot say I hate her, although she has ruined my life and kept me from being a bombardier. But I hate the general. I hate that blackhearted slave driver."

"Let him cry," said one of the other G.I.s. "It makes him feel better."

"Listen," the third G.I. said. "He's got a domestic problem and he has his troubles. But let me tell you something. This is the first town I have ever been in. In the infantry we take them, and more often we by-pass them, and then when we come back they are off limits and full of MPs. So far there is not an MP in this town except the traffic at the corner. It isn't right, truly, that we never can go in a town."

"Later on—" I started to say. The soldier who had sung with many good bands cut in.

"There isn't going to be any later on," he said. "That slave driver will kill every one of us. All he is doing it for is to be famous and because he does not know that men are human."

"He hasn't any more to say about whether we are in the line than I have," Kimbrough said. "You don't know what a divisional general does, or that he gets his orders like you or I do."

"All right. You get us out of the line, then. If you know all that, then you get us out of the line. I want to go home. If I was at home maybe none of this would ever have happened. Maybe my wife would never have been unfaithful to me at all, ever. Anyway, I don't care about anything now. I do not care about anything at all."

"Why don't you shut up, then?" Kimbrough asked.

"I will shut up," the band singer said. "And I will not say what I think about that general who is killing me every day."

That night we got back to advanced Division Headquarters late. After leaving the G.I.s at the cafe in the newly taken town, we had followed the armor down to where it had been stalled by mines, a road block and antitank fire.

At Division someone said, "The general wants to see you."

"I'll wash up."

"No. Go over. He's been worrying about you."

I found him in the trailer, stretched out in an old gray woolen union suit. His face that was still handsome when he was rested was gray and drawn and endlessly tired. Only his eyes were alive and his kind, warm voice said, "I was worried about you. What made you so late?"

"We ran into some armor and I came back the long way around."

"Which way?"

I told him.

"Tell me what you saw today with the this and the that" (mentioning the names of the infantry units committed).

I told him.

"The people are very tired, Ernie," he said. "They ought to have a rest. Even one good night's rest would help. If they could have four days . . . just four days. But it's the same old story."

"You're tired yourself," I said. "Get some sleep. Don't let me keep you awake."

"There should never be tired generals," he said. "And especially there should never be sick generals. I'm not as tired as they are."

Just then the telephone rang, and he picked it up, answering with the code name for the G.O.C. of the division.

"Yes," he said. "Yes. How are you, Jim?. . . No. I have them bedded down for the night. I want them to get some sleep . . . No. I am attacking in the morning but I am not assaulting. I am going to by-pass it. I don't believe in attacking towns, you know. You ought to know that by now . . . No. I'll come in below there . . . Yes. That's right."

He slipped off the blanketed shelf bed and over to the huge wall map, still holding the telephone, and I watched his compact, belly-less body in the gray woolen underwear, remembering what a spit-and-polish general this had been before the division had been in action.

He went on talking into the telephone: "Jim? . . . Yes. The only trouble you have ahead of you really is that cloverleaf-shaped business. You'll have to work around that. Now you know there's been some talk of something . . . Yes. I understand. Now if this happens, and when you're up with me, you can have all my artillery if you need it . . . Yes. Absolutely . . . That's quite right . . . No. Of course, I mean it. I wouldn't say it otherwise . . . That's right . . . Good . . . Good night."

A Promise of Some Rest

He hung up. His face was gray-glazed with tiredness. "That was the division on our left. They've done very well but they had slow going through the forest. When they come up and pass us, we are supposed to have four days' rest. The infantry needs it very badly. I'm very happy that they will have it."

"You ought to get some sleep now," I said.
"I have to get to work now. Keep off those lonesome roads and watch yourself."
"Good night, sir," I said. "I'll be by early in the morning."

Everybody thought that the division was going to be pulled out for four days, and the next day there was much talk of showers, clubmobiles, beautiful Red Cross girls including Whitney Bourne, who had played in the movies in a picture called Crime Without Passion, and we were all deeply moved by the prospect, ignoring the year in which the picture had been made. But it didn't turn out that way. There was a big German counter-attack instead and, as I write this, the division is still in the line.