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Taught to Kill: An American Boy's War from the Ardennes to Berlin

Author: John B. Babcock; Publisher: Potomac Books Inc. (May 2005)

Reviewed By: Jim Zabek

Since my wife gave me a Kindle Fire for Christmas last year I've noticed my reading habits have evolved. I still love a good physical book but there are times when an ebook scratches the right itch. Ebooks tend to be cheaper than physical ones and they're available instantly. Often I'll find my evenings filled with reading a physical book until I'm ready for bed, then will head upstairs and read an ebook to finish off the evening. The Fire provides its own light, and can be set so the background is black and text is white. This gives off reasonably little light, doesn't wake anyone besides the dog, and, aside from when it pulls email, is completely silent. I can also do a quick check of the weather or the news rather conveniently.


Some of my favorite books to read on my Fire are first-hand accounts written by guys who survived the Second World War. The perspective of a private, corporal, or sergeant is no less valid than that of a historian or general, but sometimes the perspective leads to insights available nowhere else.


Taught to Kill is one man's story written immediately after the end of the war in Europe. Immediately following its end Sergeant Babcock used his rank to appropriate a German typewriter and a solitary room. Therein he secluded himself for five days and wrote in what I can only imagine was a gonzo-style of journalistic frenzy every memory he had of the war. These pages then lay dormant for decades before he finally pulled them out, reread and organized them into a memoir, and published them.


Soldiers were not supposed to keep diaries of their activities, for fear that, if captured, they could reveal too much information. Taught to Kill wasn't written as a diary, but is the next best thing: a recollection immediately following the end of the war. It reads as freshly as if it had been written yesterday; the story of a soldier at war is always somehow timeless. Babcock is able to convey the terror, noise, and confusion in an intensely personal and unpretentious manner. We don't see heroes. We see men struggling to survive a lethal lottery.


Each page is a story of very human proportions. There are very few people he knew who seemed larger than life, but the few there are Babcock endevors to place into context. At every story Babcock tries to share each experience with the reader in a way to make him feel as if he were there. In the introduction he explains how he pondered how to share his experience as a 23 year old. One of his paragraphs asked a question that statled him as he read it again decades later: "What will I say when people ask me what an artillery barrage is really like?" He confesses that even among his peers of the day none could satisfactorily recreate it amongst themselves. Despite the inability of words to convey the experience, as a reader I felt he succeeded. Never having suffered through an enemy barrage myself, I still felt as though I had a good understanding - as good as it could be without being there, and an appreciation that I would never be.


Taught to Kill is the finest memior of "being there" that I have yet found. Perhaps because it was written as a kind of brain dump immediately after the war and left to ferment for several decades, it has the perfect blend of immediacy and perspective. Written by a young man, published by an old one, it as must-read for anyone interested in the perspective of a soldier in battle.

Discuss it in our forums!


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