November 11, 2009

Hear, and Understand, the Veterans Themselves: "Shotvarfet"

[An Addendum will now be found at the conclusion of this article.]

From a review of Jackson Lears's, Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877-1920:
The book’s title — a play on D. W. Griffith’s 1915 film “The Birth of a Nation” — suggests two of Lears’s greatest revisionist concerns: the lasting influence of Civil War violence and “the rising significance of race.” Beginning in the 1870s, he argues, Americans attempted to stitch their country back together around a “militarist fantasy” of Anglo-Saxon supremacy. Yet rather than bringing the hoped-for personal and national redemption, their efforts produced tragedy. According to Lears, the same cultural logic that justified lynching in the American South and the conquest of American Indians in the West eventually led to war in Cuba, the Philippines and Europe — and, a century later, to our own mess in Iraq.

Lears is hardly the first scholar to address these themes. But he is among the most far-reaching, seeking to redefine an era known for its reformist energies as a time when militarism and racism all too often triumphed over more pacific, democratic ideals. Like any good synthesis, “Rebirth of a Nation” dutifully covers the major trends of the age: the rise of industrial capitalism, the expansion of American empire, the tightening chokehold of Jim Crow. What brings new life to this material is the book’s emphasis on how Americans’ “inner lives” came to shape their outer worlds. Events that appear to be struggles for conquest and plunder turn out, in Lears’s view, to be animated by a personal search for meaning. “The rise of total war between the Civil War and World War I was rooted in longings for release from bourgeois normality into a realm of heroic struggle,” he writes. “This was the desperate anxiety, the yearning for rebirth, that lay behind official ideologies of romantic nationalism, imperial progress and civilizing mission — and that led to the trenches of the Western Front.”


Lears’s “poster boy” for this aggressive new masculinity is Teddy Roosevelt, whose blend of boosterism, progressivism and unabashed imperialism captured both its high ideals and serious dangers. Like so many reformers, Roosevelt sought to remake American society along more ­equitable and democratic lines. At the same time, he believed that Anglo-Saxon men possessed a God-given right to dominate the world. In both cases, Lears suggests, Roosevelt’s politics were the product of a profound internal struggle. “There must be control,” Roosevelt wrote in the 1890s. “There must be mastery, somewhere, and if there is no self-control and self-mastery, the control and the mastery will ultimately be imposed from without.” He was writing to Rudyard Kipling about the problem of governing “dark-hued” peoples, but he might as well have been writing about his own psyche.
On the same themes, see my essay, "Searching for Order, Meaning and Miracles, as the World Cracks Apart." That article discusses a number of related issues (and includes an examination of the grievous intellectual and moral crimes of Frank Rich), and it also offers several excerpts from the work of the indispensable Paul Fussell.

Here is the concluding passage of Lears's, Rebirth of a Nation:
In The Ghost Road, Pat Barker's great novel of World War I, the protagonist Billy Prior echoes Hemingway's Frederick Henry in asserting that after years of mass death, only the names of places had any meaning left: "Mons, Loos, the Somme, Arras, Verdun, Ypres." But then he looks around at the "linked shadows" of himself and his men and remembers "another group of words that still mean something. Little words that rip through sentences unregarded: us, them, we, they, here, there. These are the words of power, and long after we're gone, they'll lie about in the language, like the unexploded grenades in these fields, and any one of them'll take your hand off."

Prior dies in the last week of the Great War, but Barker has one unexploded grenade left. From the memoirs of the neurologist W.H.R. Rivers she fashions a scene of a soldier dying at Craiglockhart Hospital, an idealistic young officer named Hallett.
The whole left side of his face drooped. The exposed eye was sunk deep in his skull, open, though he didn't seem to be fully conscious. His hair had been shaved off, preparatory to whatever operation had left the horseshoe-shaped scar, now healing ironically well, above the suppurating wound left by the rifle bullet. The hernia cerebri pulsated, looking like some strange submarine form of life, the mouth of a sea anemone perhaps. The whole of the left side of the body was useless. Even when he was conscious enough to speak, the drooping of the mouth and the damage to the lower jaw made his speech impossible to follow. This, more than anything else, horrified his family. You saw them straining to understand, but they couldn't grasp a word he said. His voice came in a whisper because he lacked the strength to project it. He seemed to be whispering now.
"Shotvarfet," Hallett seems to say. "Shotvarfet." Finally Rivers realizes what he is saying: "It's not worth it." The cry spreads across the ward. "A buzz of protest not against the cry, but in support of it, a wordless murmur from damaged brains and drooping mouths. 'Shotvarfet, Shotvarfet.'" The cry goes on and on, until in the end the mangled words fade into silence, and Hallett dies.

This is another language of war, a language closer to ritual incantation than to reasoned discourse, not the sort of language you could use in political debate. Yet it has a political point. Amid the official language of war, then and now, it is worth recalling that darkened ward of broken men and their dark, insistent truth. They remind us that sometimes a pacifist stance is the least sentimental of all, the most thoroughly embedded in the viscera of experience.
Finally, here is an excerpt from Fussell's book, Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War, offered in my essay, "Against Annihilation of the Spirit: Let Us All Become Cowards":
But for Sledge the worst of all was a week-long stay in rain-soaked foxholes on a muddy ridge facing the Japanese, a site strewn with decomposing corpses turning various colors, nauseating with the stench of death, "an environment so degrading I believed we had been flung into hell's own cesspool." Because there were no latrines and because there was no moving in daylight, the men relieved themselves in their holes and flung the excrement out into the already foul mud. It was a latter-day Verdun, the Marine occupation of that ridge, where the artillery shellings uncovered scores of half-buried Marine and Japanese bodies, making the position "a stinking compost pile":
If a Marine slipped and slid down the back slope of the muddy ridge, he was apt to reach the bottom vomiting. I saw more than one man lose his footing and slip and slide all the way to the bottom only to stand up horror-stricken as he watched in disbelief while fat maggots tumbled out of his muddy dungaree pockets, cartridge belt, legging lacings, and the like....

We didn't talk about such things. They were too horrible and obscene even for hardened veterans. ... It is too preposterous to think that men could actually live and fight for days and nights on end under such terrible conditions and not be driven insane. ... To me the war was insanity.
And from the other side of the world the young British officer Neil McCallum issues a similar implicit warning against the self-delusive attempt to confer high moral meaning on these grievous struggles for survival. Far from rationalizing their actions as elements of a crusade, McCallum and his men, he says, "have ceased largely to think or believe at all":
Annihilation of the spirit. The game does not appear to be worth the candle. What is seen through the explosions is that this, no less than any other war, is not a moral war. Greek against Greek, against Persian, Roman against the world, cowboys against Indians, Catholics against Protestants, black men against white -- this is merely the current phase of an historical story. It is war, and to believe it is anything but a lot of people killing each other is to pretend it is something else, and to misread man's instinct to commit murder.
ADDENDUM: Perhaps I should include here the concluding paragraphs of my essay, "Against Annihilation of the Spirit: Let Us All Become Cowards":
So the myths prevail. Our wars are always noble, fought for the purest of motives. Our warriors are similarly noble, engaged in a high-minded crusade. They butcher and slaughter, and are butchered and slaughtered themselves, so that "civilization" might be preserved. Never mind that many of the warriors themselves would not agree. Never mind that the front-line soldiers know that war is insanity, and only insanity. Never mind the overwhelming, senseless, futile, endless horror of what actually happens in combat, and the details that never reach the public.

[Paddy] Chayefsky rejects the myths in their totality. He implores us to embrace cowardice. I beg you to follow his advice. You can be certain the cries for war will rise again, if not against Iran, then against North Korea, or in ten years' time against China, or against a country not now in the news, but which will fill the role required by the vast machinery of war. And when those cries overwhelm all facts and make reasonable argument impossible, and when they are amplified once again by an ever-compliant, always docile and obedient media, plead cowardice. If you value the sanctity of a single life, it is the only sane course to take, and the bravest.