Two instructors and 14 students took a literary tour of duty through our bloody century.
By Peter Nichols
Sidebar | War in Words: Required Reading
Early in this century, Leon Trotsky commented, “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.” He would know. A leader of Russia’s 1917 October Revolution and a war commissar who devised military policies that led to the defeat of the anti-Communist White Army in the Russian civil war of 1918-20, Trotsky was eventually exiled by Stalin, then hunted down and murdered. His remark casts war as a kind of baleful intelligence that turns a predatory eye upon the complacent who presume to live as though peace will continue indefinitely.
Dr. Michael Ryan and Dr. Daniel Traister, rare-book librarians at Van Pelt-Dietrich Library, reciprocate war’s interest. In the spring semester they co- taught a general honors seminar on Experiences of War in the Twentieth Century. Trotsky’s quote stands at the head of the course syllabus, which characterizes the seminar not as a history of war but as a “retrospective tour of the ways in which ordinary, and not-so-ordinary, men and women have dealt with war, and the ways in which war has dealt with them.” Together with the instructors, 14 undergraduates read and discussed poems, memoirs and novels that offered firsthand accounts of the First and Second World Wars and the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam, mostly from the perspective of American infantrymen (see box). The group met in a seminar room on the library’s sixth floor.
In one of the class readings, novelist James Jones creates a striking metaphor that lays out the absolute divide separating war and civilized life. The Thin Red Line tells the story of C-for-Charlie Company, which lands on Guadalcanal in the second wave of attackers. The initial assault force had already pushed the Japanese defenders off the beach, so Charlie Company had not yet been plunged into war. Approaching a jungle, they move skittishly along its edge, bending down at points trying to peer through the dense “wall of green leaves.” Peering at the “meaty green leaves,” one of the characters, Big Queen, “felt that you might almost expect one of them to bite back at you if you shoved it.” Once the group steps through, they are dismayed by “the suddenness and completeness of the shutting off.” The “enormity” that stood before them “was more than they had bargained for. Whatever else you could call this teeming verdure you certainly could not call it civilized. And as civilized men, it made them fearful.”
Poking around inside the jungle, the group of innocents soon discovers the remnants of an earlier battle: a torn and bloody shirt from an American soldier, which the narrator calls the “death flag,” and a mass grave from which the leg of a Japanese soldier protrudes. In search of souvenirs, Big Queen seizes the leg and hauls the corpse from its grave. With the exhumation also comes the vile stench of death, an almost palpable presence that compels the group to flee immediately, “jettisoning their dignity and everything else.” In this symbolic encounter with death, “[n]o man who was sane and at liberty to leave was going to stay around.” Later, these and other characters and individuals the class studied would not be free to run away and are forever scarred by their sojourn in the domain of death. Private Joker, the grimly cavalier narrator of Gustav Hasford’s Vietnam novel, The Short-Timers, teaches that Marines “live by the law of the jungle, which is that more Marines go in than come out.”
In Experiences of War, Ryan and Traister lead an intellectual reconnaissance through the wall of leaves–at least to the degree possible for those dwelling in what the German author Ernst Jünger, in his World War I memoir, The Storm of Steel, calls “the dominion of comfort.” The students go as spectators, and though they all come out, some are not quite the same as when they went in. “I literally had to catch my breath and put the book aside,” says one student of a reading assignment. Freshman Ji Young Park reports weeping as she read All Quiet on the Western Front. “This course really gave me something to think about that four years of high-school history failed to do: the personal experiences of war.”
The particular and individual perspective paints a starker picture of war’s meaning than does the broad, single-sweep brush stroke of historical overview. Jones portrays Charlie Company’s first killing when Private Bead goes off alone to relieve himself. Squatting with pants down around his ankles, he spots a Japanese soldier moving through the trees who suddenly turns and charges with the bayonet on the end of his rifle extended. Bead manages to elude the bayonet and bring down the enemy soldier. Sobbing and wailing in a “wild animal scream,” Bead claws, kicks and chokes him; then grabs the rifle, thrusts the bayonet into his chest and finally fires the weapon point blank when he can’t pull it out. When the beaten soldier continues to thrash weakly, Bead drives the rifle butt into the man’s face again and again “until all the face and most of the head were mingled with the muddy ground. Then he threw the rifle from him and fell down on his hands and knees and began to vomit.”
Bead is ashamed to tell his buddies about the “hysterical, graceless killing” and the “shameful botched-up job.” It was not an exemplary killing for a citizen from the home of the brave: John Wayne would have done it better. When the dead soldier is discovered, the men admire Bead and convince him that the killing was justified. It is, after all, war. Essentially, they interpret the experience for him, and he eventually adopts that meaning, even if he does so doubtfully at first. “[H]e was fitting the killing of the Japanese man into the playing of a role; a role without anything, no reality, of himself or anything else. It hadn’t been like that at all.” Later in the story, Captain Stein calls the reconstruction of lived experience into an acceptable and coherent narrative “the great conspiracy of history”–the kind of “augmentation” that veterans use to tidy up their war stories. Bead’s first and best expression of that unspeakable experience was to vomit. In the novel’s final sentence, after probing like a connoisseur of pain the nuances of Charlie Company’s experiences on Guadalcanal, the narrator states: “One day one of their number would write a book about all this, but none of them would believe it, because none of them would remember it that way.” They had already “made sense” of the war.
As a history major at Stanford, Michael Ryan enrolled in an independent study with a required reading list of writers like Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831) who make sense of war by looking at battle strategy and military theory. The course was supposed to acquaint seniors with the rigors of historical research. Ryan found the subject matter flat and boring, which was ironic because he took the course in 1967, when television had brought the Vietnam War into everyone’s living room–not to mention that as a college senior his draft deferment was about to run out. He remembers sitting alone in his room and trembling at the prospect of going off to war. He enlisted in the Marines but ended up in a stateside desk job.
When he was a kid, Ryan “lived on” movies made between 1942 and 1955 that extolled the nobility of war. “The TV was filled with all those World War II propaganda films plus the we’re-the-victor films that were done right after the war. I was raised on that stuff, and basically a good part of my world view for a long time, if not to this minute, has been shaped by a kind of thoughtless immersion in that culture.” His father was a Seabee with the Marines in the Pacific during World War II but has remained silent about the experience. “It was fine to watch John Wayne and all that,” Ryan recalls, “but in my Irish Catholic environment, these experiences were not considered worth talking about.”
Reading The Great War and Modern Memory, by emeritus English professor Paul Fussell, opened Ryan’s eyes to how war gets represented as an enticing and intoxicating experience. “My interest in teaching this course grew out of an essentially thoughtless legacy of growing up on this stuff, along with the shock of the Vietnam War and the inability of the academy to connect with those experiences. I think it’s important for students, for society, to talk about war as a lived experience. Instead,” he notes in a hushed conspiratorial tone, “we avoid it; we obfuscate it; we euphemize it. I thought, growing up in L.A. in the 1950s, that this is it: I’m just going to see war on the TV screen. You might think it’s off on the distant horizon, but at some point war is going to bite you.”
Ryan, who went on to earn a doctorate in history from New York University after his tour of duty, specializes in the intellectual history of the early modern period and has taught at Stanford and the University of Chicago as well as Penn. With a Ph.D. in English literature, Dan Traister offers a complementary view on the seminar’s subject matter. An English-language literature bibliographer for Penn’s main library and curator for research services in the rare book and manuscript library on the sixth floor, he teaches frequently on book- and library-related subjects, and at Penn he has taught courses on Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Renaissance drama, popular fiction and westerns. He has twice taught a course called Nuclear Fictions, which looks at factual and fictional narratives on the development and use of the atomic bomb.
Traister was the kind of kid who, as a third-grader, discussed the flawed policies of Eisenhower and Dulles with his friends on the way to play stick ball in their Bronx neighborhood. He remembers his “clichéd Jewish middle-class New York household” as one convulsed with frequent and vigorous political arguments.
A child veteran of the Cold War, his political precocity convinced him that he lived in “bull’s eye central.” In his earliest nightmares, Traister watched from his apartment window as chunky, Buck Rogers-like missiles descended on him in slow motion through ineffectual cannon fire. And it wasn’t just the anti-aircraft battery positioned to the south of his building that led him to make doodles of mushroom clouds while keeping an eye on the ticking doomsday clock that adorned The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. When he was a second grader in PS 95, around the outbreak of the Korean War, school authorities distributed dog tags to the students. The principal arranged for one of the older children, who had survived the Allied bombing of German cities, to explain the value of wearing dog tags–to help parents identify their bodies in the post-nuclear rubble. “It scared the living pee out of me,” he exclaims. “Psychologically, I think this was an extremely witty thing to do with second-graders.” Traister is fond of the kind of irony that comes down with both feet.
Together, Ryan and Traister don’t so much lead a class discussion as throw out thoughts and impressions. Sometimes their remarks appear to be a continuation across the seminar table of a conversation left off at their day jobs. The students either jump in or take the discussion in their own direction. One student called their informal pedagogy a “synergistic, tag-team teaching style.”
Traister says “the students get two for the price of one.” They are also a contrast in style and personality. Traister is fleshy, with full lips; Ryan is almost gaunt. Traister is bald and wears pull-over sweaters with an open-collar shirt; Ryan usually sports a tie and blazer, and keeps his hair neatly parted and his beard manicured. Traister guffaws; Ryan’s face wrinkles in a tight smile. Traister uses blunt irony; Ryan is direct and scholarly in his soft expression. In a summer course they co-taught at the University of Virginia Rare Book School, one of the students wrote on an evaluation form that it was hard to decide whether the instructors reminded them of Boswell and Johnson or Laurel and Hardy.
Responding to their promptings, the class usually embarked on discussions that struggled with ways to bring individuals’ war experiences together with the war’s larger, overarching aims–the end for which war, in Clausewitz’s view, serves as a means. “War and patriotism are intertwined,” argued one student. “In World War II patriotism unified this country and spurred it to new heights as we helped defeat two evil empires.” When evaluating such claims in light of a continuous dose of personal war narratives, though, the conversation usually toppled into an “unbridgable gap” that opened between the two perspectives.
“There is no way out of that one,” says Ryan. “No matter how just you may have thought those war aims to be, they are still at odds with the fundamental experience of the guys on the ground.” It’s like Bead’s attempt to understand his killing of the Japanese soldier: any explanation that invokes noble objectives like “stopping aggression” or “defending freedom” is essentially untrue to the immediate experience. It’s merely a John Wayne role “without anything, no reality, of himself or anything else.” The conundrum remains.
The opening up of those reflective spaces and the pause before closing on some opinion are outcomes Ryan and Traister aim for with their teaching. In the session that delved into the novel Black Rain, two students locked in a tense debate over the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. The exchange recapitulated, and went no further in resolving, the argument that pits a calculus of American and Japanese lives “saved” against the claim that mass killing of civilians is always intrinsically pernicious. “If we had the resolutions to these problems, we wouldn’t be sitting here teaching this course. What makes these issues important for kids to think about is precisely that they are extraordinarily difficult–and serious,” Traister observes.
Many of the students came to the seminar suspecting vaguely that they wanted to know something more about war. The only American war they had known–the one known as Desert Storm, in the Persian Gulf–took place when they were too young to understand it or the events that led up to it. As a whole, they don’t believe a war will be fought on U.S. territory in their lifetime, nor do they expect to be drafted into a big ground war, although most will admit to a fear of being nuked. But “there’s not really any point in worrying about it,” they say almost immediately and go on to dismiss that prospect as “a reality we all have to live with.” The irony in those words seems to go unheard.
“For young people,” Traister contends, “war is abstract, ancient history. They really don’t believe–and I bet they still don’t believe this week when we’re in the business of dropping bombs [on Yugoslavia]–that this is ever going to happen to them.” The subject of Kosovo–the latest conflict in the region where the Great War got its start–hardly came up for discussion.
It was in the trenches of the Great War, “the war to end all wars,” that the century’s disillusionment was born. The main character in Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms sustains a serious leg injury when an exploding shell smashes his dugout. “Tell me exactly what happened,” a friend who wants to procure a medal tells him. “Did you do any heroic act?” “No,” responds the protagonist, “I was blown up while we were eating cheese.” The inglorious and darkly comic remark deflates the reader’s sense of what conventional pomposities like “wounded in the line of duty” really mean. Such senseless happenings were multiplied daily along 400 miles of trenches and over four years of war.
Even Jünger, the proud aristocrat and staunch believer in chivalric virtues, understood how “the soul of scientific war” had rendered them obsolete. He writes in The Storm of Steel that “a battle was no longer an episode that spent itself in blood and fire; it was a condition of things that dug itself in remorselessly week after week and even month after month … Death lay in ambush for each one in every shell-hole, merciless, and making one merciless in turn.”
Marine E.B. Sledge tells one of the course’s most grueling tales. In his World War II memoir, With the Old Breed, the author writes of being locked in close combat with the Japanese on Peleliu and Okinawa. In the worst of the fighting, during a long stalemate on Okinawa’s Half Moon Hill, the Marines were unable to leave their waterlogged foxholes. The dead remained where they fell, and thick hordes of flies hovered over them. In some cases, pools of fat, writhing maggots were all that remained of a corpse that had sunken into the mire. “[T]he ever-present smell of death saturated my nostrils,” he writes. “It was there with every breath I took.”
The appalling nightmare world that Sledge portrays is almost too terrible to comprehend. He reports watching a fellow Marine using a Kabar knife to extract the gold teeth from the mouth of a wounded Japanese soldier. Frustrated in the attempt, the Marine sliced through the prisoner’s cheeks to create better access and then continued to gouge and pry, unfazed by the man’s weak thrashing and gurgling.
Sledge asserts that “[w]e come from a nation and a culture that values life and the individual”–an ethos with no survival value where killing rules. The noble purposes for which men fight become swallowed up in the pitiless and unyielding necessities of war, and those who must kill and die on opposing sides become the same, as each individual struggles to remain alive.
In his memoir, Doing Battle, Paul Fussell casts his personal journey through the wall of green leaves as a loss of innocence. “I was privately rather exhilarated by this new turn of events,” he writes about the declaration of war, “for I knew that I could come to no harm. I was too rich, too well looked after, too well groomed, too fortunate in every way to be damaged.” The breath-taking naiveté of “Boy Fussell” was summarily stripped away when he awoke in a French forest after being introduced to the front line during the night. Dawn revealed that he had slept amid dozens of dead German soldiers. “My boyish illusions, largely intact to that moment of awakening, fell away all at once, and suddenly I knew that I was not and would never be in a world that was reasonable or just.” Where Sledge’s prose is vividly transparent and wide open to unadulterated horror, Fussell passes his experience through a “protective screen of irony.” He writes, “At this sight, I couldn’t do what I wanted, go off by myself and cry. I had to pretend to be, if not actually gratified, at least undisturbed by this spectacle of our side victorious. Such murders, after all, were precisely what my platoon and I were here for.” Here, the abstraction victory is not captured by the celebratory Life-magazine image of a white uniformed sailor planting a deep kiss on the lips of a young woman; it meant two “dead children, rigged out as soldiers” whose brains extrude through bullet holes in their foreheads and through their nostrils.
“I entered the war when I was nineteen,” Fussell writes, “and I have been in it ever since.” A scholar of 18th-century British literature, he states that “[t]he eighteenth century taught me how to appreciate satire, and the twentieth century taught me to perceive that it is worthy of it.” The bitter lessons of war, he argues, cannot be gotten from a film, a library or a classroom. Most of the course’s combat veterans make the same claim and feel an intense alienation, almost a hatred, of civilians who have not been scarred by and, therefore, do not really understand war.
Yet they also try to give expression to their experience, however inexpressible, and even if the attempts do not measure up to the reality, the experience of being immersed in these writings is a sobering, if not a harrowing, one. “I think you need to stare horror in the face to really understand war,” says Constantin Friedman, a junior studying the history and sociology of science. “This course is an antidote to the whitewashed … conception of war most people have.”
Traister points out that some Penn students will likely be in positions of making important decisions that affect people’s lives. “Even though you may eventually have to give a simple answer in order to do something,” he says, “before arriving at the simple answer, you need to think as carefully and as hard as you can through the complexities.” Matt Nimtz, a junior studying finance in the Wharton School, admits that one of the “simplistic and generalized opinions I had coming into this course was that war is bad but usually necessary. Now I see that war is not bad, but terrible–and maybe not worth fighting under most circumstances.”
Ryan makes the observation that “this whole tormented literature has about it the anxiety of the person in a dream, yelling but emitting no sounds.” On Half Moon Hill, Sledge sometimes found himself “slipping,” particularly in the impenetrable night that engulfed him after the star shells burned out. He had to know the position and posture of every corpse inhabiting that deathscape to detect infiltrating Japanese who would freeze among the dead when illuminating shells lit up the sleepless nights. Sledge’s foxhole looked down one side of the ridge where the body of a dead Marine sat in a partly flooded crater with its back toward the enemy positions: “His head was cocked, and his helmet rested against the side of the crater so that his face, or what remained of it, looked straight up at me. His knees were flexed and spread apart. Across his thighs, still clutched in his skeletal hands, was a rusting BAR [rifle].” Whenever Sledge looked down toward the Japanese positions, “that half-gone face leered up at me with a sardonic grin. It was as though he was mocking our pitiful efforts to hang on to life … Or maybe he was mocking the folly of war itself.”
Sledge relates a dream, or a hallucination, he had one fitful night while the dark oscillated between an absolutely black gloom and the unnatural glare of star shells illuminating the death-littered warscape–along with its stark shadows. Wavering between wakefulness and sleep, on the boundary between the real and the unreal, between life and death, he watched as the partly decomposed Marines sprawled about him slowly rose up and stalked aimlessly with stooped shoulders and dragging feet. Their lips moved “as though trying to tell me something,” he recalls. “I struggled to hear what they were saying.” He never succeeded. He did, though, in his imagination, hear a message from the “grisly visage” that gazed back at him from the foot of Half Moon Hill: “It is over for us who are dead, but you must struggle, and will carry the memories all your life. People back home will wonder why you can’t forget.”
The students enrolled in Experiences of War glimpsed only a portion of a shadow of that experience. Like Ryan and Traister, some looked into those hollow sockets, black and bottomless, and felt war’s unblinking stare look back. “We may not like death,” jeered Private Joker, echoing Trotsky, “but death likes us.”
Peter Nichols CGS’93 is the editor and principal writer of PENN Arts & Sciences, the alumni publication of the School of Arts and Sciences. He has worked at the University since 1982.
War in Words
Required reading for General Honors 215, The Experiences of War in the Twentieth Century:
Mother Courage and Her Children, Bertolt Brecht. 1955. A deeply troubling play about the contradictions of war: why we need it, why we don’t; what it gives to us, what it takes from us; why we can’t live with it, why we can’t live without it. “Your brood should get fat off the war, but the poor war must ask nothing in return?”
War Poetry: An Introductory Reader, Simon Featherstone, ed. 1995. Anthology of poems and some prose as well as critical essays that examine a genre that bears witness to the 20th century’s two most devastating wars.
Doing Battle: The Making of a Skeptic, Paul Fussell. 1996. Memoir by a retired Penn professor: “Late in the afternoon of March 15, 1945, in a small woods in southeastern France, Boy Fussell was ill treated by members of the German Wehrmacht … How a young person so innocent was damaged this way and what happened as a result is the subject of this book.”
Good-Bye to All That, Robert Graves. 1929. After completing this somewhat farcical autobiography of his WWI experiences and his life before the trenches, this British novelist, poet, critic, translator and essayist departed for a life of “exisle” on Majorca, “resolved never to make England my home again.”
The Short-Timers, Gustav Hasford. 1979. “The truth can be ugly.” A grimly realistic–sometimes surrealistic–novel by a former combat correspondent in Vietnam that portrays American Marines from boot camp on Parris Island to the jungle battle for Khe Sanh.
Catch-22, Joseph Heller. 1961. About a WWII American bomber squadron, this best-selling novel never tires of asking the question: Are you crazy? At once hilarious and horrific, the book’s tortured logic reveals a “secret” in the entrails of a disemboweled crewman: “Man was matter” and hence, the plaything of forces and powers that hardly notice what they grind up.
A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway. 1929. A love story whose two protagonists live tenuously in the shadow of a third “character”–WWI. The author probes the failures and deceptions of language to express the truth of a world that “breaks everyone” and in the end reduces the narrator to silence.
Black Rain, Masuji Ibuse. 1969. The story of a young woman whose life is crippled physically and socially by the radioactive “black rain” that fell after the bombing of Hiroshima. The novel recounts the experiences of a family and a shattered city beneath the shadow of the mushroom cloud.
The Thin Red Line, James Jones. 1962. A veteran of Guadalcanal, the author creates a fictional account that follows the thoughts and actions of the men of C-for-Charlie Company in their first encounters with war. “Property. All for property.”
The Storm of Steel, Ernst Jünger. 1929. Wounded no fewer than seven times in WWI and awarded Germany’s highest medal for “ruthless bravery,” Jünger’s memoir insists on seeing war through a prism of aristocratic ideals and chivalric virtue. All the while industrialization and the science of killing have reduced war from a contest of courage and will to an efficient process of systematic slaughter.
The Book of Lights, Chaim Potok Gr’65 Hon’83. 1981. The Holocaust in Europe confronts the holocaust in Japan. Potok’s novel looks at the bomb’s Jewish scientist-creators through the lives of two rabbinical students who end up as chaplains in the Korean War. “[I]nvent the bomb, punish Germans, save American boys, end the war. A benevolent apocalypse.”
All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque. 1928. German ex-soldier composes a novel detailing the cruelty and stupidity of the Great War. It was not just British troops: all sides experienced the savage meaninglessness of trench warfare beneath a “network of arching shells.”
With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa, Eugene B. Sledge, Jr. 1981. Unflinching account of close combat with the Japanese in the island-hopping campaigns of the south Pacific. “It was unreal,” this U.S. Marine writes in this memoir of what it’s like to be “drawn into the vortex of a flaming abyss.”
The Return of the Soldier, Rebecca West. 1918. This deeply ironic novel presents a woman’s view of combat by observing its mind-shattering effects upon the men who endure it. West portrays a carefully structured world in which men are made fit for the trenches, aided by wives who help maintain the sterile, loveless, lifeless world of class and domesticity that the trenches reflect.