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Thursday, June 12, 2014

Review of Beardless Warriors by Richard Matheson

This book, follows a small platoon during two weeks in December, 1944, through the eyes of Ernest Hackermeyer, an 18-year-old replacement, just over the French border in Germany. “Hack” soon shows an aptitude, or at least a recklessness, with regard to fighting, and Cooley, the platoon sergeant, a much older man takes Hack under his wing, soon promoting him to assistant squad leader after the death of his other corporal. It’s not fun: cold, wet, moving back and forth, seeing little of the big picture, seemingly fighting for the same area over and over, having nothing to do but clean weapons.

"Wish I was a crab sometimes," he said. "Nice and warm down here. Lots of places for houses too." Finally he sighed. "Aw, you can't catch them," he said. He grimaced and drew in a quick breath. "Look like real crabs though," he said."

"What exciting comestible do you prepare, Hackermeyer?" "Huh?" "What's cooking?" "Pork and egg yolk." Guthrie blew out smoke. "Baby poo," he said. Hackermeyer didn't know what he meant until he opened the can.”

The intermittent shelling and its effect on the troops is vividly portrayed. 

"More shells exploded. Hackermeyer felt as if the deafening bursts would crush his skull in. Suddenly, he realized that the cotton had fallen from his right ear. He looked around for it, then gave up and jammed the end of a gloved finger into his ear instead. Overhead, the mortar shells screamed shrilly as they fluttered downward. Infrequently, one of them passed through the latticework of boughs and exploded on the ground. . . "Now he noticed the colorless slime that was dripping from the lacerated tree trunks. As if many men had blown their noses on them. Hackermeyer's gaze moved dumbly from tree to tree. He couldn't stop because he knew that he was looking at all that remained of Linstrom. His stomach started heaving as nausea bubbled in him. Abruptly he remembered what he'd said when Linstrom had asked how close the shells could come.”

Cooley, Hack’s sergeant, is much older -- and wiser -- than the recruits, fresh as replacements, and he has a son in Guadalcanal so he despairs every time another 18-year-old replacement joins the platoon. He sees Hack has a son-figure, but worries that Hack, after only a week at the front, has become manic for killing Germans. Hack, who had lost his father at a young age, wants nothing better than to please Cooley, a sees him as a father figure, but then when Cooley orders him to do something, takes it as a criticism and he despairs of being unable to please the sergeant.

"Nope." Cooley shook his head once more. "I'll tell you what you got to relate, and it ain't weapons to the ground. It's one guy to another guy. You got to teach a man what he can expect from his buddies in combat. If he knows that, it don't matter if the ground ain't worth anything or if his weapon don't even work. He'll still know what the score is." Cooley picked up his new hand. "How do you teach soldiers human nature? . . . He paused. "Look, Hack," he said. "I know I told you it's your job to kill Krauts. It is-and you're doing a hell of a job. But ... well, you got to watch out you don't get so-fired up about it you can't stop. It's a job, Hack, not a way of life, if you know what I mean." Cooley spat to one side. "Let's face it, son," he said. "When we kill, we ain't men, we're animals.”

Matheson, before he began writing science fiction, served as a replacement infantryman and fifteen years after the war wrote this to document his experiences. This was his first novel and some of the characters seem stereotypical, but they work as seen through the eyes of Hack. Cooley is perhaps a bit almost too good to be true, the omnipotent and omnipresent sergeant, but his character fits also. The true horror is that we older folks send off children to fight our battles. Probably one of the most authentic appearing books to come out of WW II. I Would rank it up with the [b:The Naked and the Dead|12467|The Naked and the Dead|Norman Mailer||2223651].
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