Contributor: C. Peter Chen
Review Date: 1 Jan 2006
Donald Bennett was but a young recent West Point graduate when the opening acts of WW2 began around the globe. Initially thought destined for Philippines, he entered the war at Casablanca and commanded M-7 artillery teams all the way into the heart of Germany. Honor Untarnished was published in 2003, detailing his experiences in the Second World War. This book was one of those rather random selections; seeing it sitting on the sale racks at a local bookstore right before going on a long road trip, I knew I needed a light reading to pass the time, so I just could not resist picking it up.
Immediately I realized that Donald Bennett, a career soldier of the United States whose career pinnacled as a four-star general, was an idealistic product of the American military. However, unlike memoirs that were politically-charged (such as Dwight Eisenhower's Crusade in Europe that I reviewed two months ago), Honor Untarnished had no such intentions. While reflecting his idealistic views that the Americans were in Europe to save the conquered from German imperialism and anti-Semitism, he also readily pointed out the conducts of the American soldiers that did not always become publicized: soliciting prostitutes in North Africa, taking clothing and souvenirs from the dead (both friend and foe alike), just to name a few. Despite his idealistic views, his politically-neutral accounts of the war brought new insights of what the war was like on the frontlines, perhaps a bit like Stephen Ambrose's works.
Going through the book, I also noticed the retired professional soldier could be a cowboy-philosopher of sorts. The passage below illustrates this notion:
Bennett made an intentional point, in many occasions throughout his book, that wars should not be glorified. He used terrifying visuals to describe the horrors of war. He also noted that little things that he saw and fractions of time that he experienced on the frontlines still haunt him in his nightmares. For example, while most Americans enjoyed the relaxing warm fall evenings with the slight aroma of burning leaves in the air, these evenings haunted him for they reminded him too much of the smell of the burning towns of a devastated Europe, the smell of burning bodies, the smell of his dead comrades.
Lastly, I must point out that a memorable passage found in the second half of the book would probably stay with me for a long time. It provided me yet another reason to see him as a cowboy-philosopher. "I do wonder at times where does all the sound of war eventually go", he wrote after noting the details of another artillery barrage against the opposing Germans. "Are there molecules still subtly vibrating from the salvos I fired nearly sixty years ago?"
Honor Untarnished is a book worth reading for its detailed accounts of the war in North Africa and Europe as a frontlines officer, especially for how these accounted events affected him as a veteran of WW2. It may shed new insight to the reader about famous battles such as Normandy just as well as forgotten ones like Kasserine Pass.
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James Forrestal, Secretary of the Navy, 23 Feb 1945