Sunday, December 22, 2013

Invasion by Walter Dean Myers

Invasion tells the story of nineteen year old Josiah (Woody) Wedgewood, an infantryman who was part of the Normandy Invasion which took place on June 6, 1944, and heralded the beginning of the Allied drive to free Europe from Nazi tyranny.

Woody is part of the 29th Infantry set to land on Omaha Beach. Woody's battalion includes Sergeant Duncan, and mixture of Americans from different states and stations in life including Stagg, Gomez, Minkowitz, MacIntyre.

One day while waiting to get the go-ahead, Woody runs into a friend, Marcus Perry, from his hometown of Bedford, Virginia. Perry is part of a colored Transportation unit. Although they attend different high schools (Marcus goes to a colored school), they know each other from working at Johnson's Hardware. Woody attends Moneta High School and has a younger brother, Ezra.

For the past several weeks they have been training for the landing, practicing climbing in and out of boats. There have been several abandoned attempts to initiate the operation, but weather has delayed the start. The troops require two consecutive days of good weather. While waiting Woody and the other soldiers discuss what it will be like in Europe. They are certain that the Germans will simply surrender, that there will be no heavy fighting. They take Eisenhower's warning to the French to stay off the roads as a sign that he has much confidence in the troops and that the invasion will be short and sweet.

Duncan tells his soldiers, "I told you that....This is a mop-up operation! The Germans don't want to fight."

And even Woody says he is feeling good about the invasion.
"I was feeling good about the invasion. I had read about how the Nazis had moved across Europe, crushing people and carting some of them off to work camps. But like Sergeant Duncan had said, they had never gone up against anybody like the United States Army. I knew our guys in the 29th were ready..."
But nothing can prepare Woody and his fellow soldiers for what they experience at Omaha Beach.
"We have reached the sand. There are bodies every where. Men are dead or dying, their legs and arms are sometimes flung out, sometimes tucked under their lifeless bodies. Some are crying out."
He sees people that he joked with only hours earlier, now dying in the water.  Within hours many of the battalions have lost numerous men. Woody is in shock, having seen Sergeant Duncan die along with countless other men on the beach designated Omaha. Woody is almost killed, but the bullet meant to end his life instead shatters his rifle.

When Woody and the other American soldiers who have survived the landing get to Vierville-sur-Mer, they regroup and form a new unit, under the direction of Lieutenant Milton. The new unit consists of Gomez, Shumann, Burns, Stagg, Minkowitz, Friehofer, Petrocelli, Scotty, Lyman, McIntyre, and Kroll. They are told that their next big objective is St. Lo.

Under the direction of Milton, Woody's group attempt to move across the French countryside, moving from one hedgerow to the next. It is a deadly battle as each hedgerow hides German soldiers who pick off more and more American soldiers. What was supposed to be a quick "mop-up" operation turns into day after day of artillery fire, snipers and gunfire battles, where every foot of ground is accompanied by death and fear. As Woody watches the men he trained with, those he talked with about Paris die, he wonders if he will make it out alive.

Invasion is a well crafted story designed to present the true nature of war to young readers. Although war and battles are often glamorized by film and novels, the reality of war is much different as many veterans of the previous two world wars, the Korean and Vietnam conflicts and the more recent Middle Eastern wars in Iran, the Gulf War and Afghanistan can attest. Myers presents these views through the character of Woody.

Soldiers are prepared for war to act and not think, to kill when necessary. Often the enemy is demonized in order to make war more comfortable. Of course, sometimes war is inevitable, in order to remove a deadly regime such as the Nazis. There are some things worth fighting for, but the cost is often enormous.

Woody's view of the Germans quickly changes as the novel progresses. Instead of seeing the Germans as easy and willing to give up France and Europe, his view changes once on the ground and engaged in battle. Woody now sees them as a very determined foe, unpredictable and difficult to fight.
"I thought the Germans were a bunch of superhuman freaks who knew our every movement and a hundred ways of killing us."
Woody also begins to see the German soldiers as human beings after interrogating a captured German soldier named Helmut. Woody and Freihofer are ordered to find out if the young soldier is a spy. Friehofer tells Woody that in order to get himself home mentally and emotionally intact, he needs to thing of the Germans as the enemy rather than as fellow human beings. However, Woody can't help but think about Helmut's life on the family farm.

Woody comes face to face with the brutal reality of war and it changes him forever.
"On Tuesday, the sixth day of June, 1944, the world had stopped being what I thought it was." Woody has changed so much himself that six weeks after landing at Omaha Beach, when he meets up with Marcus Perry at St. Lo, Perry does not recognize him.

Woody also has a sense of futility about the war. When the Germans are defeated at St. Lo he recognizes the paradox of their victory; the town is leveled and St. Lo doesn't exist anymore and he wonders how they can call it a victory.

Invasion is a realistic portrayal of the D-Day Invasion undertaken by the Allies to retake Europe from the Nazi regime. My own father who passed away this January, landed on the beach at Normandy in June, 1944, several weeks after the initial invasion forces. Like Woody and his fellow soldiers, my father experienced a great deal of fear. The beaches were bombed constantly by the Germans and my father who was a signalman with the Canadian army took cover with his buddies in trenches covered with corrugated aluminum. Like Woody he too had no idea what he was going into, what war was about, or the reality of what fighting in Europe would mean. He signed up in 1939, at the age of nineteen, looking for adventure. He watched a fellow soldier simply walk off into a forest in France never to be seen again, likely suffering from PTSD. My father often told me he was glad he never killed anyone during the war, but he felt he would have done so if necessary. He once told me about having to guard a German prisoner of war and being terrified. And when he returned home to civilian life in 1946 after being part of the occupying army in Germany, he couldn't bring himself to walk on grass for months because of a fear of land mines.

Walter Dean Myers lost a brother, Sonny in the Vietnam War and also had to deal with his eldest son deploy to the Middle East during the Gulf War. Myers states in his Note at the end of the novel that "The basic truth about war is that it is unbelievably brutal and I want my readers to understand that."  Myers has definitely achieved this goal in Invasion. Well written, gritty, and filled with a realism about war that provokes both consideration of the nature of war and gratitude for those who have fought for the freedoms we enjoy today.

Book Details:
Invasion by Walter Dean Myers
New York: Scholastic Press    2013
212 pp.

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