Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Veterans’ books

The literary attitude toward the military was fixed for all time by Rudyard Kipling’s famous line from “Tommy,” originally published in Barrack Room Ballads in 1892: “making mock o’ uniforms that guard you while you sleep.” Gratitude was replaced by a sophisticated disdain long before a horse-faced candidate for the presidency, himself a veteran who had launched his career by slandering other veterans, warned that the alternative to doing well in school is getting stuck in a war zone. In Edward Dmytryk’s 1954 film The Caine Mutiny, the defense attorney Barney Greenwald (played memorably by José Ferrer) puts paid to this attitude of preening superiority:

When I was studying law, and Mr. Keefer here was writing his stories, and you, Willie, were tearing up the playing fields of dear old Princeton, who was standing guard over this fat, dumb, happy country of ours, eh? Not us. Oh, no! We knew you couldn’t make any money in the service. So who did the dirty work for us? Queeg did!To hear Ferrer sneer the word knew is to be shamed out of condescension toward career military men. Queeg is such a career man, one of “these birds we call regulars,” as Herman Wouk puts in the stage play, “these stuffy stupid Prussians. . . .” Of course, most of them were not as sad as Queeg—“a lot of them sharper boys than any of us, don’t kid yourself, you can’t be good in the Army or Navy unless you’re goddam good. Though maybe not up on Proust ’n’ Finnegans Wake, ’n’ all.”[1]

Barrack Room Ballads and The Caine Mutiny are specimens of midcult, however. The highbrow attitude has not been affected by them. And a good part of the problem is that several of the greatest novels from the ’twenties, the remarkable decade that redefined American writing, are veteran’ books—disillusioned veterans’ books. The locus classicus is The Sun Also Rises (1926), in which “that dirty war” has left Jake Barnes without the equipment to be a full man. The Great Gatsby was also a novel about a veteran. Nick Carraway explains that he “participated in that delayed Teutonic migration known as the Great War. I enjoyed the counter-raid so thoroughly that I came back restless,” he adds.

Between those two attitudes—a lifelong maiming and an uneasiness with civilian life—most American veterans’ books can be arrayed.

The veterans of the Second World War wrote principally about their combat experiences. Only rarely do the novelists who came of age during the war cast a veteran in the role of protagonist—Bellow’s Eugene Henderson, Styron’s Cass Kinsolving. Perhaps the best-known novel about the veterans of the postwar period is Sloan Wilson’s Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955) in which a paratrooper who killed seventeen enemy soldiers in the European theater returns home to land a job as a P.R. man for a Fortune 500 company.

The other novels about returning vets have all been forgotten. The best of them were probably The Tom-Walker (1947) by Mari Sandoz, better known for her books about the Plains Indians, and That Winter (1948) by Merle Miller, better known for Plain Speaking (1974), his oral biography of President Truman. Sandoz tells the story of three veterans from the same family—veterans of the Civil War, the Great War, and World War II. When her veterans fail to readjust to civilian life, the failure is not theirs. The purpose of The Tom-Walker is to criticize a society that has forgotten the virtues implicit in military service—a surprising point of view for a writer from the Left.

Miller’s purpose is similar: to show that the home front was worse than the veterans had left it. Three veterans share a New York apartment during the winter of 1945–’46. Together they experience just about every problem faced by their generation of soldiers in returning to civilian life. One is a son of wealth who drinks himself to suicide; another is a Jew who struggles to pass as a Gentile before the encounter with antisemitism propels him back to his father’s faith; the third is a writer manqué who, over the course of the winter, discovers his literary purpose.

Although Miller may seem to have placed himself firmly in the Hemingway-sourced tradition of disillusioned veterans’ fiction, he belongs to a different mood. As the critic Malcolm Cowley astutely noticed, the novels to come out of the Second World War did not achieve the same historical effect as fiction written in the aftermath of the Great War. “They mark no such break with the standards of the generation that preceded them.” The veterans who produced them “are disillusioned,” Cowley wrote, “but not so much by the war itself as by our failure in victory to achieve our war aims. They complain about the lack of democracy in the Army, about the conduct of our occupying forces and about the general contrast between our ideals and our performance.”[2] The veterans of the Second World War who doubled as novelists were—with the notable exception of Gore Vidal—better men than the Great War novelists, but lesser writers.

There were a lot of them. But except for Oakley Hall’s Corpus of Joe Bailey (1953), which at least gave a start to the author of Warlock (1958), the other veterans’ novels at their best would provide material for an interesting literary history, if scholars were still interested in writing such things: James Warner Bellah, Ward 20 (1946), about wounded veterans in an army hospital; James Benson Noble, The Long November (1946), in which a private in the Canadian army, who longed for the smell of burning leaves while in combat, returns home to find it different than he remembered, but better perhaps than it was before the tyrants were defeated; Frank Fenton, What Way My Journey Lies (1946), about a veteran’s return to a Los Angeles that he can barely comprehend; Russell La Due, No More with Me (1947), winner of a Hopwood Award, about a Marine veteran whose girl jilts him, who goes on a bender, encounters social inequality and racial intolerance, but doesn’t abandon his ideals; Mitchell Wilson, The Kimballs (1947), in which a veteran returns to the town of his youth to battle a tyrant of a different kind; Monte Sohn, The Flesh and Mary Duncan (1948), in which a veteran must overcome his war-induced psychosis to live a normal civilian life; Fritz Peters, The World Next Door (1949), in which a veteran goes mad, believing that he is the second coming of Jesus Christ, and must be admitted to an insane asylum that makes the mental hospital in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest seem like a resort hotel; and Frederick Boyden, The Hospital (1951), about the rehabilitation of wounded veterans who require plastic surgery.

By the time of the Vietnam War, military service was no longer a universal experience. The literary disdain had become the general attitude, at least among the sensitive young men of my generation. My own disdain is directed at myself: that I was a coward who burned his draft card, not out of idealistic conviction, but out of stark terror at the very thought of combat. As Dan Senor and Saul Singer document in their new book Start-Up Nation, the state of Israel draws upon the confidence, discipline, and expertise that is developed in young Israelis by compulsory service in the Israel Defense Forces. More and more, when friends ask where their children should go to college, I recommend that they enlist in the Armed Services instead. But the U.S. has not yet learned to tap the talent developed by the military in the same way that Israel has.

And one thing standing in the way is the literary disdain. The novels about Vietnam veterans are nearly unanimous in expressing it. The psychologically damaged Vietnam vet of, say, Richard Ford’s Ultimate Good Luck or Robert Olen Butler’s Alleys of Eden (both published in 1981), has become a stock figure in American fiction. He even shows up as the unhinged stalker in The Human Stain (2000); Roth need do little more than describe Faunia’s ex-husband Les as a Vietnam veteran (“One day he’s door gunning in Vietnam, seeing choppers explode, in midair seeing his buddies explode, down so low he smells skin cooking, hears the cries, sees whole villages going up in flames, and the next day he’s back in the Berkshires”) to establish that the man is dangerous and mad. The soldier who becomes an adult in the army—who learns the responsibilities of adulthood, defined by the U.S. Army as loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage—has disappeared from American literature.

But not from American life. Today we Americans honor the men and women who have guarded us while we slept. We do not honor them often enough, especially if we spend our lives among American books.

[1] Herman Wouk, The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial: A Drama in Two Acts (New York: Samuel French, 1954), pp. 93–94. The screenplay for Dmytryk’s film was written by Hollywood veteran Stanley Roberts with unspecified “additional dialogue” by Michael Blankfort. Greenwald’s speech was heavily revised, and improved, for the film version.

[2] Malcolm Cowley, “Two Wars—and Two Generations,” New York Times Book Review (July 25, 1948): 1, 20.


Anonymous said...

The soldier who becomes an adult in the army—who learns the responsibilities of adulthood—has disappeared from American literature.

Why not write this novel yourself? Come on, you had the benefit of being taught by likes of Carver and now you dare to shirk from the duty to write fiction?

D. G. Myers said...

Writing fiction is a duty now?

Anonymous said...

Yes, I am afraid it is - for you. You had the honor, the privilege and the gift of studying with Carver and other great writers. Do you propose to tell me that you can just walk away from all that? I posit that those who are entrusted by the universe with privileges and special opportunities have a duty to the universe to fight the good fight and make use of what they receive. You owe the universe at least one novel.

D. G. Myers said...

Naw, I discharge my responsibilities through writing criticism.

Anonymous said...

Then I am afraid I will have to consider it as fiction.

Guy Pursey said...

A thought-provoking post, as always, that adds much to the ideal reading list I've never felt brave enough to sit down and write.

Literary disdain may still be strong but it's interesting to note that even those who have been against certain recent wars are always careful to express their support for the troops. This always seemed troubling and contradictory to me. While wishing for their safety, does not one also risk wishing for their success?

I wonder if this literary disdain you mention — which, even if not strictly implied in your post I would imagine you seeing as a product of "the Left" — is the outlet for such contradictory feelings. I'm not sure I can explain much more than that at the present moment but perhaps you see what I mean, if anything.

I was also surprised you didn't mention Catch 22. And while Henderson got a nod, it would've been interesting to see how you might hang The Dangling Man over this piece. Feelings of anticipation about war surely contribute as much towards our collective disdain or respect for military men and women as the experience of veterans.

R/T said...

Barney Greenwald's assessment about the dichotomy between civilians (including those who grudgingly serve in the military) and military careerists seems especially apt in our post-Vietnam, post-Cold War, post-Gulf War American culture. Of course, my perspective may be skewed and unique; I joined the Navy in 1966 (staying a step ahead of the lottery draft) and continued (off and on with "broken service") until I retired in 1994, and then I went on to teach in the English department of a southern state university. I am not familiar with very many of the titles you mention in your thoughtful posting, but I am (I think) acutely aware of Greenwald's observation as it applies now to life in the 21st century. Most Americans want men and women to do the "dirty work" in the military, but few Americans will step up to the challenge themselves. That kind of tension between those two categories of Americans is the fallow but fertile field that deserves to be cultivated by an American novelist. For the time being, we wait for the novelist who can offer readers the much needed novel. If current trends are correct, though, readers are unlikely to have anything soon except for tortured, liberal excoriations of the American military. If you doubt that prediction, please give more careful attention to media responses to the military during the past twenty years.

jim prentiss said...

Everyday I regret not serving this country of ours!

Guy Pursey said...


'Most Americans want men and women to do the "dirty work" in the military, but few Americans will step up to the challenge themselves.'

Most in the Western- or first-world want someone to do the "dirty work" whatever that might be, military or not, and few seem willing to step up to the challenge themselves. That seems to be the nature of our globalised, industrialised world now. I don't think it'd be too controversial to say that the tension you refer to exists in every facet of our lives.

The military aspect is just one field among many that should be cultivated by novelists, all over.

Anonymous said...

How about a list of novels that deal with adult children returning home to live with their parents? Recently the NYT had a story about this trend.

Anonymous said...

You want to serve your country, D.G., write a novel. You, too, jim prentiss. I am your drill sergeant- I want to see those fingers dancing on that keyboard, soldier! Now drop and give me 40 pages!

Jonathan said...

Kipling famously adjusted his views on war after the death of his son. Yet his poetry that reflects this change does not betray a "sophisticated disdain" for the soldiers or the fallen, but rather for the Generals and the society at large ("...because their fathers lied").

Furthermore, "To children ardent for some desperate glory," critiques not the soldier, but the civilian ignorant of war's reality.

Finally, for another returned veteran in American Literature, I nominate Bix in "The Moviegoer". While not central to the novel, his service in Korea is important.

Lincoln Hunter said...

I know this post is about fiction but a number of statements call forth the need to admit books of history or memoirs.
No novel has shaped my view of war but the following have: With The Old Breed by E. B. Sledge, Goodbye, Darkness by Willaim Manchester, and Wartime:Understanding and Behavior in the Second World WAr by Paul Fussell.
Major General Smedley Butler's thoughts about his military service are enlightening also.

Guy Pursey said...

Thanks for the recommendations, Lincoln (if I may). I've been meaning to check out the Paul Fussell book you mention for a while — his Poetic Meter and Poetic Form is excellent. I will look into the others at some point too!

Anonymous said...

This business about stepping up and doing the dirty work is fascinating to me.
Many, many years ago I was lucky enough (though I didn’t think so at the time) to have spent three years in the U.S. Army. Now I live in a community of farmers fifteen minutes away from a large state university where my wife is a member of the faculty. And, to top it all off, my daughter is an Army officer -- who has already deployed once and is preparing to do so again -- and will probably make a career of the service.
What’s really interesting is that the folks who get their hands dirty – the soldiers and the farmers – are much more interesting people than the academics I know.
Of course, they have the advantage of dealing every day with things that are both tangible and essential to an infinitely greater extent than do the college folks.
But more than that, almost all of the military are much better read than almost any of my wife’s colleagues and both the soldiers and the farmers are vastly better able to deal with situations that involve dozens, and often hundreds, of constantly changing variables.
The one area in which the academics have the edge is in their ability to regurgitate, with conviction, what they’ve heard on NPR and, occasionally, what they’ve read in the Times and the New Yorker.

Guy Pursey said...

I envy the last commenter's lifestyle. The contrast mentioned is interesting. I work in a University but am not an academic - the worst of both worlds?

Grun-tu-molani (to show that I too am a competent regurgitator).