- Taught to Kill: An American Boy’s War from the Ardennes to Berlin
John Babcock's Taught to Kill: An American Boy's War from the Ardennes to Berlin traces a vivid and harrowing journey through the Second World War's European Theater. With unsentimental observations and crisp prose, Babcock's memoir immerses readers in the confusion and carnage of infantry combat. While the book does not attempt to break new ground, the exceptionally evocative writing separates Taught to Kill from the vast majority of similar memoirs, leaving readers with an insightful and unvarnished look at one man's war in Europe.
The arc of Babcock's story will be recognizable to readers familiar with the genre of World War II memoir. The author's experience begins in training camp, where hardened sergeants introduce him to the rigors of army life. Babcock eventually arrives in the crucible of combat, where battle extracts a heavy toll, physically and psychologically. Along the way Babcock touches on a variety of themes common to soldiers' memoirs: enlisted men's skepticism about officers' competence; the disconnect between front-line forces and support troops; the impossibility of predicting a soldier's behavior under fire from his appearance; and the terrifying isolation of the front-line infantrymen. None of these observations is new, but the quality of Babcock's prose offers the reader fresh insights even within the familiar framework. [End Page 608]
Many of those new insights stem from the author's close attention to detail. While the descriptions of battle are vivid and gripping, it is Babcock's inclusion of small, often unexpected elements of the front-line soldier's trials that makes Taught to Kill so surprising and engaging. The necessity of storing toilet paper in the helmet liner to prevent it from turning to sodden mush, for example, or the exquisite agony of carrying a machine-gun barrel slung across the shoulder—grating against the protruding collarbone with every step during a long march—these small and unanticipated details draw the reader into Babcock's wartime experience and lend the writing a depth that is all too uncommon in combat memoirs.
Babcock also offers a slightly different take on unit cohesion here; his careful depiction of the precise nature of camaraderie in battle goes beyond the simplistic "band of brothers" phenomenon. Taught to Kill describes a close-knit group united by their shared plight and mutual interdependence without emphasizing a universally familial brand of affection. What emerges is not just a powerful kind of friendship but a desperate (and sometimes antagonistic) group of soldiers, many nearly strangers, who cling to one another to maximize their chances of survival.
On the whole, Babcock's memoir is an unflinching and superbly written reflection on the individual soldier's experience in a battle. A laudable companion to traditional top-down history, Taught to Kill is as good as any World War II memoir, and better than all but a very few.