By William Wharton
William Morrow. 263pp. $23.99
Shrapnel wounds haphazardly—it can glance off the surface or lodge deep in the body. In William Wharton’s World War II memoir, it becomes a metaphor for the impact of the war on a young soldier and for the ordinary psychic shocks that can maim a person: “the general shrapnel of the human condition.”
In a series of 30 episodes, “Shrapnel” describes Wharton’s progress from basic training in Fort Benning, Ga., to combat in France and Germany and a distinctly inglorious aftermath. Throughout, Wharton’s resistance to authority, and his conviction that the Army is insane, reckless, incompetent or all three, subvert any heroic expectations. The “good war” is just like any other: chaotic, dull and soul-shakingly traumatic by turns.
William Wharton was the pen name of Albert William du Aime (1925-2008), the author of three memoirs and eight novels, including “Birdy” (1978), a Pulitzer Prize finalist that was adapted into a 1984 film. Born in Philadelphia in 1925, he joined the Army out of high school and then, after the war, married, had four children, and worked variously as a teacher, painter, handyman and author.
The war, he writes in “Shrapnel,” convinced him at the age of 19 that he never again wanted to hold power or authority over another person. In a long section titled “D-3,” Wharton is offered a mission—as though it’s a privilege—parachuting behind enemy lines in preparation for the Normandy landings. “This all sounds like a very poor movie,” he thinks, but the promise of a Silver Star and the obligation to appear fearless—”the great male double bind”—make refusal impossible. He is tipped out of a plane in pitch darkness, sets up camp in the root-hollow of a fallen tree and waits. Nothing happens. Eventually, with his rations running low, he is discovered by Canadian troops and delivered back to his regiment. The whole mission has been pointless, and there is “no mention of my silver star.”
Wharton and his fellow troops have only the vaguest notion what this war against the “Krauts” is about. There are occasional exceptions, such as a hapless yet determined Jewish recruit and a German-born, Jewish-American soldier, Kurt Franklin, whose family has been killed by the Nazis. Franklin is matter-of-fact about his desire for revenge but also about the anti-Semitism he has encountered in the Army. He enlists the blond, blue-eyed Wharton to help him interrogate Germans, including forcing two SS officers to dig and lie down in makeshift graves. One finally breaks down “as they start sprinkling dirt on his face.” Although he recognizes Franklin’s need for revenge, it’s too much for Wharton: “I feel like a Nazi myself.”
The book’s final section, “Massacre,” is introduced simply as “a very sad story.” Wharton’s patrol rounds up 10 surrendering Germans—”a raggedy, loose, sad-looking bunch.” Fatigued, he relinquishes command to one of his men and leaves, but when the patrol reappears they have no prisoners. His replacement claims to have shot them trying to escape, but the true story is one of torture, revenge and shallow graves. It was kept out of the public record by a special court-martial, which may also have indirectly kept this memoir from publication in the U.S. for many years.
Wharton’s writing is plain and declarative and resolutely free of wider reference. Military slang obtrudes, a special code for a special moral universe: KP, OD, SNAFU. The memoir’s power lies in Wharton’s refusal to make the mental and moral adjustments necessary to normalize war. The officer giving him his absurd parachute mission tells him that the radio he is carrying is the most important thing about it: “I look at him to see if he’s kidding. He isn’t.”
For Wharton, militarism in itself—even heroic American militarism—is continuous with the abandonment of humanity that enabled Hitler’s regime. When “goofy southern crackers” in his unit discover that black troops were billeted in a building just before them and hurl their mattresses into a courtyard to burn them, they are not redeemed because they are fighting Nazis. “I don’t have much confidence in my fellow human beings even sixty years later,” Wharton writes. His memoir forces us deeply to question our own.
—Ms. Scutts teaches writing at New York University’s Gallatin School.