combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 03 Number 02 Spring ©Apr 2005

Pass in Review
an inspection of the literature

A book may be as great a thing as a battle.
Benjamin Disraeli, Earl of Beaconsfield

A common thread running through these three books is Time. Time and its opposite, Eternity. As far as we know, there has never been a period in history when mankind was without strife. Despite our longing to return to Eden, to a mythical golden age of peace and harmony, the idea is precisely that: a myth, using the word in the dual sense of an untruth or lie, but also as a timeless image that connotes a profound human yearning.

The books treat this theme — and it is an enormous one — in opposing ways. The Great War demonstrates just how precariously perched is civilization. One mistake, one slip at a critical juncture, and humanity may slide into the abyss. Men at War weaves backward and forward in time and depicts attributes of all warriors: courage, honor, self-sacrifice, prowess, and grace under pressure, as well as their opposites. The stories range as far back as the Trojan War and shoot forward to tank fighting in Libya. To the White Sea is pure elemental myth. The novel presents a war of one, one soldier pitted against an implacable enemy and his own brutish instincts. His relentless quest to reach paradise symbolizes the eternal struggle of man to prevail over a savage universe.

What is it about human nature, we may ask, that causes a creature who sculpts, paints, and gently cradles his newborn infant, to butcher his neighbors, exterminate their young, and demolish all their works? For an explanation we read Carl Jung and Saint Augustine; for a dramatic portrayal we read these authors.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! For the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain,
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
by Matthew Arnold

The Great War
by Suzanne Everett; Dorset Press [254pp, $35.00] (©1982)

World War One, the Great War, the War to End All Wars, the War to Make the World Safe for Democracy, has been a subject of eminent literature since its beginning. Novels like All Quiet on the Western Front and A Farewell to Arms, as well as reams of wartime poetry, deplored its senselessness. How could humanity visit such slaughter upon itself? That generation, the Lost Generation, was emotionally maimed by the experience and frustrated in its effort to comprehend the incomprehensible and record the unrecordable. Even the most immense powers of description shrank before the task, as many writers freely admitted.

To a large extent, though, words have described the denuded, shucked, shell-pocked moonscapes of the great battlefields, with their mud and blood-filled trenches and congealed, oozing heaps of mangled corpses, as the Abomination of Desolation, Dante's Hell, Tartarus and Gehenna. But only ghouls and necromancers would possess a language rich enough to conjure up metaphors truly reflective of the horror and magnitude of the carnage. And they have remained silent.

It has been said that one man's death in war is a tragedy while a million deaths are only a statistic. Yet the casualty figures of the First World War would stupefy a statistician: Dead, 5,538,000. Wounded, 21, 220,000. MIA and POW, 7,750,000. Grand total, 37,508,000. These numbers do not include untold civilian casualties, nor do they include three million Armenians murdered by the Ottoman Turks in the century's first genocide.

This compendium, an oversized coffee table book, contains a panoply of over four hundred vintage photographs, paintings, posters and maps, both black-and-white and color, and chronicles the struggle in almost novelistic fashion. Historian Susanne Everett — wife of military historian John Keegan (The Face of Battle, A History of Warfare), whose introduction analyzes the prewar European ethos — details dynastic rivalries, Balkan powder kegs, the terrorist assassination of the Austrian Archduke that made the lamps go out all over Europe', theaters of operation, strategies and tactics; she profiles the commanders, explains the armaments, the technical innovations, and all the important encounters of the armies, navies, and air forces.

Everett also details the reasons for the war. They are not as different as one might suppose from causes of conflict in our own time, in Sarajevo (again) or Gaza, Teheran or Baghdad, Chechnya or Pyongyang: geopolitical competition, ethnic hatreds, nationalism, the drive for hegemony and WMDs, and the perverse human desire for bloodletting after periods of peace and prosperity.

And oceans of blood quickly became the war's dominant characteristic. By 1914, the arms maker's art had transcended the warrior's, and a stagnation of the battlefield — trench warfare — developed as nineteenth- century tactics met twentieth-century firepower. Countries were nevertheless willing to absorb punishment and take massive casualties, convinced God was on their side and that Victory lurked just around the corner. And there was much stupidity, demonstrated early on by Winston Churchill, then England's First Lord of the Admiralty.

His imbecilic invasion plan and the amphibious landings at Gallipoli, gateway to Constantinople and a communications bridge to the Russian ally, on a narrow peninsula swept by Turkish guns, resulted in a major disaster when penned-up ANZAC troops were butchered in the thousands. The fiasco cost Churchill his Cabinet post.

Disasters in this war seemed to be the norm rather than the exception. In France, the fortress of Verdun was the scene of a heavy German assault designed to lure the French into a battle of exhaustion. The opening bombardment, 100,000 shells fired from 225 batteries that included 305 and 420mm howitzers, was unlike anything ever before seen in warfare. Whole forests were uprooted and French forward positions pulverized. The French fell in with the German plan and began feeding divisions into the fortress like sausage through the grinder. Furious combat erupted all along the trench line; men slaughtered each other at close range with machine guns, flamethrowers, and deadly new poison gases which the masks were unable to filter. Predictably, the sides grew weary and the fighting waned into stalemate. The French won by retaining control of the fortress, their battle-cry the famous: They Shall Not Pass. The price they paid to deny the passage: 275,000 dead.

Despite the losses, neither Command was prepared to change strategy. Marshal Joffre's plan for a mammoth offensive on the Somme was as simple and unsophisticated as the German one at Verdun — bleed the enemy white and then break his lines.

A stupendous, week-long artillery barrage preceded the infantry attack, the Allied guns firing 1,500,000 rounds onto enemy positions. British troops were flippantly informed they would not need rifles when going over the top, since nothing could possibly remain of the German army but concussed, shattered remnants. Unbeknownst to Joffre, the Germans were well-protected in deep redoubts, and greeted the onrushing British with a storm of steel. Massed counter battery-fire opened and hundreds of machine guns commenced hosing down the advancing infantry. The Brits lost 60,000 dead on the first day, the greatest military debacle in their long history. Shocked into realizing they could not achieve a breakthrough, the Allies contented themselves with attritting the enemy over the next six weeks. For the gain of a ten-mile strip of no man's land, they averaged four thousand casualties per day on the Somme.

The Germans were not spared either. At Ypres they lost 135,000 men, a third of them student volunteers, in what was termed the Kindermorde, or Slaughter of the Innocents. At Champagne, eight thousand British, attacking to the strains of a brass band, were cut down in the first five minutes. Muddy, bloody Passchendaele cost the Allies a quarter-million dead and the Germans nearly as many. It is worth noting that all this hellishness came before the big Ludendorff offensives of 1918, the breaking of the armies, and the arrival on the scene of the American Expeditionary Force.

On the Eastern Front the suffering was equally appalling, culminating in mass desertions, Russian defeat, the overthrow and murder of the Tsar and his family, Lenin, and a peace treaty enabling Germany to transfer manpower to the West for the grand finale.

Gargantuan losses occurred as well on the Austro-Italian front, 600,000 casualties by 1917. There was fighting in Palestine and Arabia, where T.E. Lawrence led the Arab Revolt against the Turks. And there was fighting even in Africa, when British forces led by former Boer leader Jan Smuts attacked the German colonies in the east.

While not a History text per se, The Great War is nonetheless a meticulous record of the main combat operations, especially on the Western Front where the issue was decided. The book also contains some fascinating tidbits of trivia: an unexploded French mine detonated by lightning in 1956 left a crater the size of a football field; in Russia, combat units forced doctors to issue unfit-for-duty certificates; the sultry German spy Mata Hari, who wangled Allied secrets through use of her (considerable) sexual charms, disdained a blindfold at her execution and blew kisses to the firing squad.

Something this book does not do, unfortunately, is examine the consequences of the war. They were more far-reaching and momentous even than those of World War Two, its bastard child. The configuration of today's world is largely a result of the events of 1914-1918, the most significant being the Bolshevik Revolution. But others were also of great significance. For the first time, war became democratized, total; henceforth civilians could die en masse along with the soldiers. Ideology and the fine art of propaganda matured so that people of all nations could now be incited into frenzies of hatred against other countries and cultures.

By destroying the old monarchies and creating weak, artificial nations in Central and Eastern Europe, whose ethnicities still detest one another, the peace treaties, those brainstorms of the Allies wherein hatred and vengeance formed a new amalgam, produced power vacuums into which Red and Brown monsters swiftly crawled. The map of Eurasia today is a photograph of a puzzle pieced together by Hitler, Stalin, and their progenitors: the victors of 1918.

Small wonder, then, that from the wreck and slaughter of World War One, attitudes of secularism, hedonism, and nihilism took root in the blood-soaked Western soil, and show little sign of abatement. History was changed in 1914, changed utterly, and a terrible ugliness was born. The Great War is a Medusan Mirror in which the modern world may behold its own hideous features.

      The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman; Random House (©1962):
      Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the crucial first month of World War One.

Men at War
ed & intro by Ernest M. Hemingway; Bramhall House [1072pp, $22.00] (©1942; 1975, 1997)

Norman Mailer once remarked that a writer is but a general who sends his troops across fields of paper. In Men at War we are treated by some of the world's finest authors to eighty-two of the very best literary campaigns: we see Joshua's Army of Jehovah massacring all in the city of Jericho; Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie holed up like rats in a crumbling Texas mission; Caesar under assault by maniacal Celts in the south of England; Bonaparte wringing his hands in confusion over the muddle of the battle of Borodino.

Subtitled The Best War Stories of All Time, Hemingways's introduction alone is worth the price of admission. Published in 1942 during the darkest days of the Second World War and reissued several times since, its purpose, he states, is to "show how all men from the earliest times have fought and died. So when you have read it you will know that there are no worse things to be gone through than men have been through before." War-ravaged as today's world is, this book is as relevant and interesting as it was sixty-three years ago and as it will be sixty years, or six hundred years, from now.

The stories are arranged in sections, each under the heading, War Is, and then with a definition: Part of the Intercourse of the Human Race, The Province of Danger, Of Suffering, Of Uncertainty, Of Chance, Of Friction, Of Resolution, and last, Fought by Human Beings.

Take T.E. Lawrence, of Arabia, in a piece called Torture, excerpted from his Seven Pillars of Wisdom. The story demonstrates the suffering as well as the chance factor inherent in war. Disguised as a Bedouin, Lawrence enters the town of Deraa on a spy mission. There, his light skin catches the eye of the Turkish Bey, who has him brought to his bedroom for a sexual encounter. When Lawrence rebuffs the advance and knees him in the groin, the Bey orders him flogged with a cat-o-nine-tails. With a courage born of ignorance, Lawrence determines not to cry out and to count the blows. He does not yet know that the pain will not be felt upon the skin and muscles; it explodes inside the head. Half dead and blubbering incoherently, Lawrence in an unexpected piece of good fortune finally manages to escape.

Then there is that heroic spectacle of the Persian War of 430 B.C., 300 Spartans holding the narrows against 10,000 Immortals, elite enemy troops, in The Pass of Thermopylae. Spartan valor provides the outmanned Greek army time to withdraw. Victimized by treachery, the King, Leonidas, and his men celebrate their own funeral rites the night before the last battle in order to die properly on the morrow. They make a tomb with the epitaph: Bear this message to the Spartans, that we lie here obedient to their laws. Before their fall, they slay five thousand Immortals.

For bravery and esprit, no soldiers anywhere can surpass the Americans of the First Battalion, 308th Infantry Regiment, in The Lost Battalion. The tip of the spear in the Argonne Forest offensive of 1918, the unit is cut off and surrounded by Germans, shelled by their own artillery, with no communications save for one last obstinate carrier pigeon, out of food and water, and low on ammunition. The Germans taunt them in English, "Americans, order your coffins!" A German-speaking doughboy, laughing, delivers the riposte: "You bunch of stink experts!" At the end of their endurance but fighting like lions, they are saved by a relief force that locates them by the smell of gangrene and corpses. They eat, drink, and go back to the battle, refusing to abandon their comrades.

The above sampling will provide some idea of the flavor of Men at War. Of special significance is Hemingway's inclusion of Stephen Crane's American Civil War novel, The Red Badge of Courage, in its entirety, the only selection of such length in the book. Considered by many to be the quintessential American war story, it is astonishing that the author had no personal experience of war. Born six years after Appomattox, he captured like no other the psychic and emotional truths of the common soldier, the soaring elation, confusion, and blood-curdling terror of combat, and for this reason his novel resonates, timeless.

Then too, a powerful affinity exists between Hemingway and Crane, a striking confluence of the themes of courage, cowardice, and grace under pressure. Even their styles and idiom seem to converge, as shown by the following two passages:

"It rained. The procession of weary soldiers became a bedraggled train, despondent and muttering, marching with churning effort in a trough of liquid brown mud under a low, wretched sky."

"The troops were muddy and wet in their capes; their rifles were wet and under their capes the two leather cartridge-boxes on the front of the belts ... bulged forward so that the men, passing on the road, marched as though they were six months gone with child."

The first is from Red Badge; the second, from Farewell to Arms. Eerie similarities extend even to the names of the protagonists: Henry Fleming from the former, Frederick Henry from the latter. And yet each author and each work is classic and original.

Also with a strong connection to Hemingway is one other work of note, the Ambrose Bierce tale, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. In this, a Confederate soldier, about to be hanged as a spy, escapes the gallows when the rope around his neck breaks, and he makes his way home. As he exults in the comfort and safety of his family, the noose suddenly snaps and jolts him from his reverie and into the arms of death. This psychological-flashback technique, unremarkable today, was something new and clever at the time, and Hemingway modeled the structure of his most famous short story, The Snows of Kilimanjaro, after the Bierce piece.

Certainly the writing throughout is of extraordinary variety and quality, except for a work by Rudyard Kipling that is unreadable due to excessive use of dialect, and reaches into the stratosphere with writers like Tolstoy, Stendhal, Faulkner, C.S. Forester, Caesar, Livy, Virgil, Victor Hugo, Winston Churchill, and James Hilton. Men at War is unique; the only book of its kind in English. Clearly a collection of equal size should be compiled with works written between 1942 and the present. Many literary generals ranging over a myriad of paper fields could be included. But that is a campaign to be fought in a different theater.

      A History of Warfare by John Keegan; Alfred A. Knopf (©1993):
      Sweeping, magisterial work by today's foremost military historian.

To the White Sea, a Novel
by James Dickey; Houghton Mifflin [275pp, $27.95] (©1993)

"A vast silence reigned over the land. The land itself was a desolation, lifeless, without movement, so lone and cold that the spirit of it was not even that of sadness. There was a hint in it of laughter, but of laughter more terrible than any sadness — a laughter that was mirthless as the smile of the Sphinx, a laughter cold as the frost and partaking of the grimness of infallibility."
by Jack London

To the White Sea is a brutal, lyrical odyssey of an American's trek across World War Two Japan from Honshu to the snowy wastes of Hokkaido, the northernmost island. Compared to Jack London, master of the primeval tale, James Dickey, the author of Deliverance, is even more primitive, if that is possible. For while London described the ferocity he found in the struggle of man and beast to survive in the northern wild, Dickey's narrator is striving to become an animal in the wasteland.

Everything in this story told by Muldrow, a mythological Anthropos or Primordial Man as Dickey constructs him, is of his senses: the blue-gray hue of a winter sky; the stench of sewage; the rumble of bombed buildings collapsing in sections; the wail of panicked Tokyo crowds lumbering through charred streets like a cattle-herd.

But in order for the narrator to reach the ice of the North, the fire in Tokyo must first light the way. On the night of March 9, 1945, Muldrow, tail gunner on a B-29 Superfortress, takes off from Tinian Island along with three- hundred and fifty bombers. The day before, a Colonel has detailed what is in store for the people of Japan:

"We are going to bring it to him. Fire. Up yonder. Up yonder to the north. North and fire. We're going to put him in it. We're going to put fire all around him. We're going to put it over him and underneath him. We're going to bring it down on him and on to him. We're going to put it in his eyes and up his asshole, in his wife's twat and in his baby's diaper. We're going to put it in his pockets, where he can't get rid of it. White phosphorous, that'll hold on. We're going to put it in his dreams. Tokyo is going to remember us."

This raid is the climax of a three-month firebombing campaign designed by Air Force General Curtis LeMay to end the war by burning the Japanese nation to a cinder. Loaded to the gills with incendiaries, the Superforts conduct the most devastating raid of all, worse even than what will come to Hiroshima in August, obliterating 16 square residential miles in Tokyo and killing 85,000 civilians. Built essentially of teakwood and bamboo, floods of fire roll, roil, and gush through the buildings, streets, and infrastructure of Japan in an all-consuming torrent. At ground zero the temperature rockets to 1800 degrees. Canals boil over, metals melt, and human beings burst spontaneously into flames.

Muldrow parachutes onto the edge of this inferno when his ship is blasted by flak, and lands near the Tokyo docks where he holes up in the cockpit of a crane and then in a sewer pipe. He plans to weave his way out of the city in the pandemonium and make for the countryside where avoiding people is easier, and then move north like a migrating caribou.

Equipped only with his G.I. emergency kit containing a tiny map, knife, fish hooks, twine, flints, a compass and flashlight, he is nonetheless uniquely suited to survive. Raised by his father on Alaska's Brooks Range, he has learned to stalk game, traverse glaciers, navigate through ice lakes in kayak and snowshoes, stay warm, make shelter, and keep camouflaged like the snowshoe hare. Of his prowess he says, "I could outthink any animal or bird that lived in the cold, by thinking more like he did than he could do."

The Wild is not his problem; the problem is getting there safely, through a rabid populace that will tear an American soldier to pieces. To illustrate the danger, Muldrow, skulking in the hills, witnesses a downed flier decapitated by a mob and the severed head kicked about like a soccer ball.

Guided by Polaris, he eventually manages to hop a train and lie hidden in the wood of a log-carrying freight car. Far from feeling fear or dread over his predicament, Muldrow is a happy man, reveling in his element. With the night train chugging forward under a full moon, he spins a fantasy of Alaska, imagining himself as a lynx standing atop a hill with others of his kind, then plunging into a herd of caribou and cutting out a calf while the frightened herd thunders off. Howling in his fantasy, he lets loose for real on the train — there is no one to hear him — throwing back his head and howling lustily at the star-studded sky, baying the moon. "What had me," he says, "was more than I was. I couldn't help myself and didn't want to."

With this scene we begin to glimpse the depth and power of the novel. For Muldrow is clearly in the grip of an archetype, an enduring primordial image of himself as a man-beast, simultaneously hunter and hunted, predator and prey. The motif of the man-beast, whether called a Werewolf, a Minotaur, a Yeti, or some other name, is common to all cultures in all times. And true time, as an American Buddhist monk whom he meets explains, is the time of the psyche which is eternal; the human psyche intrinsically possesses and passes on a race-memory that draws it back even to its own origins, to the world of pure instinct. "You are two people," the monk says. "One lives in the mechanical time of the clock. The other one watches what the first one does. He watches from the dream, when the spirit comes loose from the clock. The second self can go backward in time." The theme of de-evolution, of an atavistic descent into the unconscious, will reach full flower in the story's climax.

Despite capture and a savage beating by Japanese soldiers, Muldrow engineers a daring escape and at last arrives at the strait, where he steals a boat and rows across what he conceives of as a white sea, the heart of ice, to Hokkaido and the North of his dreams.

In a snow swept forest he tracks a herd of goat-like creatures and, after a vicious goring, Muldrow kills a bull. He then settles down in the snow and feasts with gusto on raw animal-flesh, hoping to ingest its manna, its spirit, man predatory and primitive as any brute that ever lived: "I started to eat, first off the hip and then up around the spine, bringing the blood in too, as much as I could get. Don't let anybody ever tell you blood is not good to drink .... They say about the wolverine that it will never be driven off a kill, that it'll die before it will leave what it's eating. I could believe it; I out-ate any wolverine."

In the Wild he meets and shares food with an ancient hunter. Fascinated by his knowledge, Muldrow remains with him and learns the ways of his hawks, inheriting them after the old man dies. When, in a symbolic conclusion Muldrow at long last achieves his heart's desire — the death of his human body — his soul begins to molt and he metamorphoses into a great-winged bird of prey.

Though at first glance this may seem silly, the climax was actually being prepared on the book's second page and the entire narrative bent was toward this end. Obviously for Dickey there is more honor among the animals of the world than among men. Much better, then, to be one of them. After all, it was not the caribou nor the hawks nor the bears that burned down Tokyo, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki. Man-made and technological, a forbidden fruit plucked from the tree of consciousness, fire here represents the worst attributes: cruelty, corruption, lust for domination, naked aggression, murderousness. Though beasts may be, in Jack London's phrase, red in tooth and claw, they live and die by natural selection and are without evil purpose, without malice, without sin. Those distinctions are reserved for man. Dickey contrasts animals hunting food in the pristine north of immutable cold to the human butchers down below, hauling the hellfire of war along behind them with both hands.

To the White Sea is a very fine novel, beautifully crafted, with the incidents arranged in perfect order and building admirable tension before exploding in a worthy finale. It is full of haunting, numinous imagery and possesses a splendid simplicity and economy of language in harmony with its elemental theme. This is unsurprising, coming as it does from the pen of a major American poet. If the plot strains credulity — how predictable that Muldrow proves to be an Alaskan survivalist (it would have been far more interesting had Dickey made him an accountant) — that is a small price to pay for the creation of a modern myth.

      The Rising Sun by John Toland; Random House (©1970):
      A history of the Pacific War, 1941-1945, from the Japanese point of view.

contributed by Christopher S. Baldwin