Tuesday, May 08, 2018

Roman à clef (War is Hell, part 5)

One of my less successful reading list additions for "War is Hell" was a collection of poetry by those who fought in World War I - primarily British - named for for one of the more famous poems, Anthem for Doomed Youth.

I say it was less successful because many of the poems weren't very good, and reading a lot of indifferent poetry together is pretty annoying. That was mainly a presentation issue, because arranged differently and focusing more on the authors, it could have been a completely different experience. I wholeheartedly agree that the soldiers expressing themselves was important, and that it's worth appreciating that.

For my prose reading, with accounts of these young men, who are no longer young, and some are no longer living, there was something that bothered me, and that is going to be hard to explain correctly.

First of all, even as Audie Murphy's To Hell and Back is considered a memoir, there is some fictionalization, including names and details changed. Ken Babbs' Who Shot the Water Buffalo and Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front are specifically novels, but they are novels inspired by experiences.

In All Quiet, everyone dies. Okay, that's an exaggeration. One man merely gets such a strong reminder of home in some blossoming cherry trees that he starts to walk home, is court-martialed for desertion, and never heard from again. The school teacher who pushed his students to enlist is still alive. The drill instructor who berated and abused the new recruits is still alive. I guess Tjaden lives, because he is in the sequel. Still, the impression that you get is that they all successively die. His classmates who signed up with him die. The young recruit he is so helpful to dies within hours of being aided and comforted. The men he meets and grows to rely on while in the field die.  When Kat dies especially - because he was so good at surviving and making things better - how can you expect anyone to make it out alive? Finally the narrator dies.

In To Hell and Back it felt like only one character besides the narrator lived, Kerrigan. He was only out of danger because he got an injury severe enough to send him home. Kerrigan was credited with a poem in the book that Murphy wrote himself. Was there something that could never be healed?

Those are just impressions. I did not diagram all of the characters and double-check who makes it to the end. I know that even with a high casualty rate, some people live. I also know that when your write, things come out that may not be deliberate but represent real feelings and thoughts. I worry about soldiers coming back with a feeling that everyone was lost. I worry about them having survivor's guilt, or just an overabundance of grief.

The death rate is much lower in Who Shot the Water Buffalo, Ken Babbs' Vietnam-era novel. They were helicopter pilots, which had its own dangers, but it was probably realistic for them to have fewer fatalities than the infantry. There was still something that bothered me at the end.

There are two main characters, fast friends who go through everything together. It is natural to associate the narrator with the author, but personality-wise, his wilder, taller friend seems a lot more like Merry Prankster Babbs, and that character disappears. There are rumors about the wild adventures he is having, but those feel like an inability to accept a death. Did he lose himself? Was he trying to keep someone alive?

In many ways, those are better questions for the authors to figure out. On the other hand, the issue of young people being sent to fight and die, but the ones who live coming back bearing scars both visible and invisible, that is a question for society. That is something we need to be looking at all the time. Not just for the ones who are out there now, or could be sent out there, but for the ones who are back.

There was one more book I haven't mentioned yet, The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien. O'Brien has written multiple books and given many talks - he was one of those interviewed for The Vietnam War. Maybe he didn't need to kill everyone off in one novel. Sometimes he writes about his interactions with other living members of his unit.

There was one story that required profanity to tell right, which sometimes got him some complaints.  O'Brien writes...

If you don't care for obscenity, you don't care for the truth; if you don't care for the truth, watch how you vote. Send guys to war, they come home talking dirty.

That's a part of the price, but not the worst part. More on that later.

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