Sunday, January 04, 2009

When the war is a war of ideals

One reason that Michael Shaara’s Killer Angels (New York: David McKay, 1974) is among the best fiction of the past forty years is that it was written to reclaim and reconceive the American war novel. Within a few years of the Second World War, John Horne Burns’s Gallery, Vance Bourjaily’s End of My Life, Irwin Shaw’s Young Lions, and Mailer’s Naked and the Dead had established an orthodoxy. The war novel was to narrate combat and army life at the platoon level, and at that level, as a reviewer said about a reprint of The Gallery, the grunts were “disillusioned with what they had to go through for their country.” Novels of the Vietnam war like Going After Cacciato (in which a platoon is sent after a deserter) or Dog Soldiers (which suggests by its title that an ex-G.I. is merely extending his tour by running heroin) diddled with the formula, but did nothing to change it. The battle scenes may be hallucinatory, but the grunts still die as cattle, and what else needs to be said about war?

A veteran of Korea and later a policeman, Shaara approached the battle of Gettysburg with a different set of convictions and a different armature of methods. The Killer Angels narrates the battle from multiple perspectives on both sides, but except for the opening chapter, which relates what is observed by a southern spy, the centers of consciousness are all officers—Robert E. Lee, James Longstreet, and Lewis Armistead from the Confederacy; John Buford and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain from the Union. The difference in vantage is like becoming a parent. Rather than viewed from the bottom, where the battlefield is confusion and the war aims obscure or absurd, Gettysburg becomes a conflict of strategies and philosophies—a continuation of policy rather than an uninterrupted anarchy. Nor is the attitude a gruff fatalism as urged on his men by General Savage in Twelve O’Clock High:

I don’t have a lot of patience with this what-are-we-fighting-for stuff. We’re in a war, a shooting war. We’ve got to fight. And some of us have got to die. I’m not trying to tell you not to be afraid. Fear is normal. But stop worrying about it and about yourselves. Stop making plans. Forget about going home. Consider yourselves already dead. Once you accept that idea, it won't be so tough.This is just the grunt’s attitude, elevated and given dignity and courage.

Shaara’s officers have a more thoughtful attitude, and when called upon to address their men, they strike a more thoughtful note. Chamberlain has been sent some mutineers, one hundred and twenty men from a regiment that has been disbanded, and he is authorized to shoot any man who refuses to do his duty. Like him, they are from Maine, and he knows he cannot shoot them; if he does he will never be able to go home. He must talk them into fighting, but what can he say? “A man who has been shot at is a new realist,” he reflects, “and what do you say to a realist when the war is a war of ideals?” You teach him the language of idealism:This is a different kind of army. If you look at history you’ll see men fight for pay, or women, or some kind of loot. They fight for land, or because a king makes them, or just because they like killing. But we’re here for something new. . . . We’re an army going out to set other men free.But these are not empty and high-minded words. Chamberlain bends down and scratches the dirt. He continues:This is free ground. All the way from here to the Pacific Ocean. No man has to bow. No man was born to royalty. Here we judge you by what you do, not by what your father was. Here you can be something. Here’s a place to build a home. It isn’t the land—there’s always more land. It’s the idea that we all have value, you and me, we’re worth something more than the dirt. I never saw dirt I’d die for, but I’m not asking you to come join us and fight for dirt. What we’re all fighting for, in the end, is each other.Shaara was drawn to the project of writing The Killer Angels by “the words of the men themselves, their letters and other documents.” He did not merely transcribe nineteenth-century writing, though, because it was a “naïve and sentimental time, and men spoke in windy phrases.” He wrote the novel, in part, to revive the language of idealism, to give it currency again, to make it plausible and persuasive to “the modern ear.”

The idealism was not exactly his. Shaara was the native of a different century. But unlike other American war novelists, he understood that ideals can be just as concrete as the names of villages and the numbers of roads and can give to war a terrible beauty. Here is Longstreet, witnessing the end of the battle:A few guns were still firing a long way off; heartbroken men would not let it end. But the fire was dying; the guns ended like sparks. Suddenly it was still, enormously still, a long pause in the air, a waiting, a fall. And then there was a different silence. Men began to turn to look out across the smoldering field. The wind had died; there was no motion anywhere but the slow smoke drifting and far off one tiny flame of a burning tree. The men stood immobile across the field. The knowledge began to pass among them, passing without words, that it was over.Shaara believed that some causes were worth fighting and dying for, and he admired the men who believed in the causes for which they risked their lives even when he did not admire the cause. Small wonder that The Killer Angels was written to demonstrate that a war novel need not be a “trauma novel.” Smaller wonder that there has been no other novel like it in the past forty years.


marly youmans said...

Have you read Howard Bahr?

D. G. Myers said...

No, I haven’t. Tell me more, Marly.

marly said...

Howard is a beloved penpal of mine, so I am prejudiced, but you might start with "The Year of Jubilo" or "The Black Flower." I met him after he gave my editor a blurb for "The Wolf Pit," and since he said was eager to do so because he had loved "Catherwood," he won my heart right away! The great thing about Howard and stories set in the past is that one never has the feeling that contemporary people are dressed up in costume, and he has so much detailed knowledge that historical "bits" fall into the story in a natural way.

Let me see if I can find the account of a day with Howard... I really cherish this memory. Hang on--

Drat, I seem to have been reluctant to talk about it in full. Positively secretive. Well, it was precious.
Skim down till you find Howard, rain, and a chicken.

He has taught for quite a while now, but at one point he was curator of Rowan Oak. He also was a train man. (His most recent book is all about that world.) And he served in Vietnam. He is altogether an interesting character and good friend, and this reminds me that I owe him a letter.