I'm thankful for a year of growing faith
Turning over a new leaf: Toxic Masculinity Tuesday

The limits of eye-witness accounts

A friend of mine's father served in the 12th Armored Division during WW II, rising from the ranks to be a lieutenant.  Remarkably, he's still alive, having passed his 100th birthday.

Apparently the tank destroyer battalion in his unit was what used to be called "colored," that is:  black enlisted men, white officers.  He took a dim view of them, and this extended to black people in general, since he regarded the tank destroyers as fundamentally cowardly, since they never stuck around during combat.

The term "tank destroyer" is somewhat misleading.  Americans may associate this with some of the heavily armored German or Soviet self-propelled artillery, which were nearly invulnerable to frontal bombardment. 

However, U.S. doctrine treated tank destroyers as highly mobile fire brigades, designed to race to threatened points and attack enemy vehicles by ambush.  Once discovered, they would pull out and move to a new firing position.  Their unofficial motto was "hide and hope."

Thus, the tank destroyers were only doing what American doctrine required of them.  I should clarify that my friend's father became an officer via battlefield promotion; he had no formal officer training, so he would not have known armored doctrine.  All he knew was what he saw on the field, and he rose to command by virtue of being alive more than any other quality.

This points to the limited value of eye-witness accounts.  They are hugely important, of course, since they represent actual human experiences.  However, they can also mislead if we place too much reliance on them.  Context is always needed.  The account of this particular veteran is invaluable not because it's analysis is correct (it isn't), but because it reflects not just how troops perceived the role of tank destroyers, but also black soldiers in general.

In both Walls of Men and Long Live Death, I used such first-person accounts as I could find, but I also had to include the context.  The stories of American volunteers in Spain are heavily influenced by Communist propaganda, which also shapes the context of their service.  The high overall casualties of the International Brigades has been cited as proof of their professionalism, courage and fighting spirit.  However, a closer review indicates that many deaths attributed to combat were actually extra-judicial executions for political offenses.

Similarly, the general point of view that Nationalist Armies fought poorly against the Japanese is simply untrue.  By the time the U.S. entered the war, China was cut off from foreign aid, and its armies had suffered terrible losses.  The cream of their forces had died, but not without inflicting considerable harm on the Japanese, who were content to wait on events.  Few first-person accounts of the fighting has reached us, which is why this largely unknown.

That's why these experiences are important, even if they are fallible.


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