Lest We Forget
It is mid-December 2009. Whatever your religion or national origin, chances are good that if you are reading this that you are in the midst of celebrating your holidays. Indeed, most of us are also getting ready to ring out the old year and ring in the new; it is a happy time.
So for this book, I want to tell you the story through the photographs taken by brave and dedicated combat cameramen. They risked their lives countless times to get these photos and endured all manner of privation and suffering alongside their GI subjects. Many of these priceless images have languished in dusty archives, forgotten and slowly fading away, a fate similar to the very veterans captured within their frames. There are still a few aging survivors to be found here and there, but, sadly, one walk through a local cemetery will probably uncover many more. Let them be your connection, and cling to it in years ahead, lest this country shed their memory like it so often seems willing to do with its history. Let your eyes linger on these photographs until the details come into sharp relief. They will tell so much of the story.
And the images that Bruning assembled in this coffee table book, more than 500 of them culled from the official US archives and the author’s personal collection, will not soon leave anyone who sees them. Many of the photographs are horrific. Others are inspiring. All of them are gripping. An image of dead German soldiers in an open field following one of the many battles that made up the Battle of the Bulge, for example, shows us how cheap life can become in wartime, and yet how precious it is because it is so fleeting.
Other images demonstrate that even amidst the terrors of war, beauty can be found, as in this photo of a B-17 Flying Fortress returning from a mission and silhouetted by the setting sun.
Other photographs serve to remind us that even in nightmarish conditions people can still find the strength to smile and to hope.
The Battle of the Bulge: The Photographic History of an American Triumph, however, is much more than a photo essay. It is a stunning reminder of the strength of spirit in the warrior and a tribute to soldiers everywhere who have faced terrible odds and prevailed. Bruning is a professional military historian who, in the past two decades, has studied the Second World War, the Korean Conflict, and the current war in Iraq. He also served as an embedded historian with the Second Battalion, 162nd Infantry during Operation Southern Comfort, the relief operation in New Orleans that followed Hurricane Katrina. In his own words, he is not an unbiased historian:
I am an American, and I have spent the past three years with a unique association with an infantry battalion in my neck of the woods. I lived with these guys in the hell that was New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. I’ve slept beside them in frozen deserts. I’ve been slammed into walls and dumped into icy puddles by them as the leader of their opposing force (OPFOR) while they have prepared to return to battle once again. I see their commitment. I see their love of country and the devotion they have for their brothers-in-arms. I’ve also seen the petty infighting, the jostling for rank, the slackers, the braggarts, and the shirkers. I’ve seen the effect combat has on the human mind; it has led to suicide attempts, addiction, broken families, and shattered lives. Choosing the warrior life comes with a price that most of us will never fathom.
Bruning recognizes the continuity, the kinship, the fraternity that binds today’s soldiers to the soldiers who fought in the Bulge and cares passionately about the memory of the men who fought in the Bulge, just as he cares passionately about today’s soldiers. In that sense, he is unabashedly patriotic. That’s OK. Sometimes we just need to be proud of our past and let the memories and images of what has been speak for us. Wherever you are today, think about the Christmas that the soldiers on both sides faced during that winter of 1944. Both sides were doing their duty, as they were trained to do it, and both sides paid a horrible price in terms of lives lost and broken. As you approach your holidays, give thanks for those men and women who have given their all in wars past and in today’s wars because for them, the best gift that they could receive was the gift of living to the next day and the next.