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.