Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

GI Joe Could Be a Monster Too

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

GI Joe Could Be a Monster Too

Article excerpt


SHRAPNEL by William Wharton (The Friday Project/HarperCollins, [pounds sterling]12.99) WILLIAM WHARTON, the celebrated American author, had few reasons to be cheerful. His first novel, Birdy, about a psychiatric case who believes himself to be a bird, contained harrowing scenes of wartime destruction. As a US Army sergeant stationed in liberated Europe in 1945, Wharton had witnessed (and occasionally participated in) acts of blind violence, looting and drunkenness. Though Birdy was turned into a film by Alan Parker, Wharton remained a malcontent and stubbornly withdrawn personality. He died in 2008, a mystery to many of his admirers.

Shrapnel, Wharton's posthumously published war memoir, divulges a horrific episode from the past. In unsparing detail, Wharton describes a massacre of German prisoners that took place under his command in France at the war's end. The Germans were first tortured and shot in the legs, then dumped in shallow graves. To the T US soldiers who committed the crime, the PoWs were mere "Krauts" who deserved to die. Though Wharton was not directly responsible, he was implicated in the killings as the duty officer in charge. "The brutality of it all is sickening," he confesses now.

In Wharton's view, the allied troops who defeated Hitler were rarely as virtuous as the propaganda made them out to be. During the struggle to liberate Normandy in the summer of 1944, in which Wharton took part, US soldiers often behaved appallingly towards the local population. Americans saw themselves as "the great liberators"; in reality, Wharton writes, "we were worse than the Russians".

In French towns abandoned by the Germans, champagne cellars were looted and women gang-raped; Wharton stole what jewellery he could and concealed it in a German gas mask canister. Fifty years on, he reflects sorrowfully on his behaviour, though it was all too common at the time.

After the war, not surprisingly, the 19-year-old Wharton was in trauma and disturbed in a way that only combat veterans could understand. …

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