This post is prompted by working with Ross Canton who is writing a Vietnam War memoir. Ross was a radio operator and a member of a mortar team til he was wounded the third or fourth time, dreadfully wounded, hospitalized, and finally sent home. In any case, we’ve both read the standard Vietnam books; I’ve read several World War One memoirs by British writers like Guy Chapman, Siegfried Sassoon, and Robert Graves. And I’ve read Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory in which Fussell argues that the writing that came out of World War One established a template for describing certain life experiences ever after. Certainly, I think it is very difficult for people to write about war without falling back on types and patterns set in the early 20th century.
The other day I noticed promotional material for the Tom Hanks/Steven Spielberg 10-part, $195 million, HBO miniseries called The Pacific. The series is based largely on the reminiscences of three soldiers, especially Robert Leckie’s Helmet for my Pillow and Eugene Sledge’s With the Old Breed. Both Sledge and Leckie were enlisted Marines (Chapman, Sassoon and Graves were all officers). The Sledge book is the best by far; Leckie gets boring with all his teenage hijinks and his endless nicknames,vague characterizations, etc. But Sledge is good and he is tough to read (like my student Ross Canton, he served with a mortar team). We have become so conscious of battlefield “atrocities”–in Vietnam, atrocities seemed to define a moment of excess inside the bizarre horror of the battlefield, excess within excess–that his matter-of-fact portrayal of the debasing experience of war and its effects is fascinating and awful. In the Leckie book there is a Marine named Souvenirs who goes around prying gold teeth out of the mouths of dead Japanese soldiers. In Sledge, you get the idea this was pretty common and at one point Sledge himself starts to think about it and is barely headed off by a gentler, smarter friend. One wonders what Spielberg will do with Sledge’s Marine lieutenant Mac, fresh from the States, who takes his carbine and shoots off the tip of a dead Japanese soldier’s penis for target practice. Or the Marine who casually shoots an elderly wounded Okinawan woman to death while Sledge is off trying to find a medic to help her. Sledge is also good on the smell of war–the heat, the rotting bodies, the blow flies, the diarrhea, the maggots. Sledge makes it clear that experiencing war is a constant struggle to compose one’s self in a world of, to us, unimaginable horror, cruelty, boredom, and exhaustion. One of his worst fears is that he will give in to fear. Many do.
The Vietnam war books I recall (and I haven’t read them for a while) might be better written, but there is a truthful naivete in Sledge’s book. And he never gets up on a moral high horse which makes me trust him. His sense of the human capacity for moral corruption is wise–I feel as if we have become more foolish about war, or the media has made us so. By contrast, there is a book called The Pacific, a companion to the TV series, which is just dreadful, thin, unpleasantly breezy, cliched, distant, and abstract. Here as an excerpt. With books like this veiling the experience of war, it is no wonder we are constantly surprised by what actually happens. At this point, one is reminded that writing well is a moral act. Think about it.
This is just a pre-thought. I haven’t studied the matter. There is a book or a paper to be written on war writing that includes things written between World War One and the Vietnam War and the wars beyond that.
Or just for starters think about the difference between the two photographs at the top of the post.
Ross Canton sent me via email this comment:
“Well I just went back to the archives and read the blog. You’re right I should have read and commented on it earlier. There is so much of this quasi-propaganda posing as war memoirs that just perpetuates the myth young man are being recruited on. I would like to read Sledge’s book. I’ll see if I can order it. I might want to do something on this for my critical lecture though I don’t know how to structure it. And when I go into the Barnes & Nobles and Borders there is so much of this dribble posing as Vietnam memoirs as well. I could say I’ve spent forty years trying to understand what happened to me in my own experience of war and being wounded. If it weren’t for the recent brain research and the discoveries of the last 10-15 years I might have never known. So much needless wreckage for so many around me and other veterans like myself. So many families destroyed by what they didn’t know and the lies that were perpetrated by the military and the government. And what do we say about Iraq and Afghanistan after nine years without barely a whimper or a bang from the masses who are kept uninformed.
There was a difference with the mortarmen of WWII and Vietnam. We humped our mortars and functioned as the weapons platoon of an infantry company which just meant we carried heavier weapons humping the jungle and rice paddies and drew more fire from the enemy during firefights because of it. I’m not sure if we were less or more safe than the mortarmen of WWII by the nature of our engagement and battles. The basic job of a mortarman is to run out during mortar, rocket, and artillery attacks and fire mortars back while everyone else is hunkering down inside bunkers or foxholes–sort of like the way the firemen ran into the World Trade towers–or any big fire–to put out the fire while everyone else is trying to escape. It takes unbelievable courage to do that. I did it until I was wounded a second time and then got the shakes the next time I tried to run into the fire, and froze in the doorway of the bunker. Once your nerves are shot you’re shot as a combat soldier. You think too much about the fire you’re running into and that’s a fear you might be able to swallow but never overcome. The difference between the two pictures is that the real Sledge is both angry and sad, a mixture of the killer and the mourner in his eyes. The actor looks slightly tired but optimistic, almost serene in his muddy tiredness. I’ve never seen anyone after a battle look that way. Most are smoking with the cigarette shaking in their hands. Most are just happy they’re survived the battle and sad for the buddies who did not.”
Ross, this is a world I’m unfamiliar with. So thanks for posting.