(To read the entire "War at its Worst” series, please click here.)
While researching another project, I came across a passage from Andy Rooney’s My War that absolutely took my breath away. Typing the passage into my computer only increased its power, nearly bringing tears to my eyes. I instantly knew it fit into my series of artistic depictions of “War At Its Worst”:
The history books say we allowed 50,000 Germans to escape at Falaise but no historian who saw the killing I saw that day would repeat the phrase I’ve seen in print: “We let the Germans escape.” It was the worst slaughter of the war, a massacre vastly more deadly for the German soldiers than D-Day was for ours.
The German soldiers in horse-drawn wagons, trucks, command cars, and a few tanks moved along the road in a straight line like clay ducks on a track in a carnival tent. As the slaughter started, big white flags started flying over their vehicles. Under ordinary circumstances the Germans would have been taken prisoner, but white flags on vehicles meant nothing at the 600 yards between them and the US troops up on the lip of the saucer. The white flags only seemed to make them better targets.
Horse-drawn artillery compounded the awfulness of the day. It is easier to get used to dead men than dead or wounded and dying horses. At one point a line of hundreds of horses was strafed by P-47s and they bolted, ran, bucked. Most of them were still hitched to wagons or field-artillery pieces. The live ones, still trapped in the harnesses, dragged the dead ones and dragged their wagons and guns and dragged dead and wounded German soldiers. Some soldiers who had not been hit were crushed or trapped by the actions of the crazed horses. There cannot have been many gorier days in history.
At one point as many as a dozen horses had bolted and ended up tangled together bleeding and dying in the Dire River, their blood coloring the water red. The wounded horses were unable to get themselves up the steep bank, and many were drowning in their traces. One US Infantryman, a humanitarian I’d guess you’d say, stood on the bank of the river shooting the wounded horses...
Some thoughts on the passage:
There was no choice. As my dad told me after I showed him the passage, you had to kill those German soldiers. Anyone who escaped would--probably--turn around and start fighting again. This moral justification only makes the passage more tragic.
We originally wanted to post this before Christmas. But it is too bloody and tragic; we didn’t want to put this up at the top of the website for four days before a joyous holiday weekend. My gut instinct was to write something “nice”, like Michael C’s post from last year before Thanksgiving, or something on Belleau Wood. This editorial decision reminds me of the warning from The Things They Carried, “If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie.”
I’m tired of trite depictions of German soldiers. This passage shows how morally simplistic films like Inglorious Basterds are, a simplified, easy world of heroes versus villains that doesn’t exist in real life. German soldiers were humans, not stock characters for an action movie. If you can read the above passage, and not empathize with the victims of this attack, well, I don’t know what to say.