May 27, 2013

In the True Spirit of the Day

I see that a few superlative twitterers have remembered one of my earlier Memorial Day pieces: "No, I Do Not Support 'The Troops.'" I thank these noble twitterers for their valiant service in swatting down the deadly propaganda and nauseating sentimentality that inundates us on occasions such as today.

I immodestly admit that I am proud of that essay, but I confess that my own favorite among my Memorial Day articles is this one: "Against Annihilation of the Spirit: Let Us All Become Cowards." In significant part, that is because I am wild about the film that I discuss in that piece, The Americanization of Emily. The film offers one the most intelligent and piercing screenplays ever offered on the subject of war; it is also wonderfully funny, and occasionally very moving -- but its emotion is hard-won and genuine, and never sentimental in the least. It was written by Paddy Chayefsky; as I explained in one article, I think Emily is far more subversive than Network (much as I adore the latter). In Emily, Chayefsky attacks the myths and lies to be found at the heart of the glorification of war, which also, and not at all coincidentally, are the myths and lies that undergird especially gaudy and cheap versions of "Americanism."

It is a passionately anti-war film. Emily was released in 1964. I watched it again several months ago; it must have been the eighth or ninth viewing for me. It gets better every time. In terms of the distance we have traveled in the half century since its initial release, it is impossible to imagine a major studio making a film as profoundly antiwar today. And it should be remembered that Emily was released less than 20 years after the end of World War II. Moreover, the centerpiece of the film is various idiocies and lunatic behavior associated with the D-Day invasion. Hollywood -- and all the marvelous liberals who inhabit it -- would never touch subject matter of that kind today. Instead, we are offered films like Argo and Zero Dark Thirty, which glorify the CIA, the military, the increasingly murderous State, and bloody assassination. We now enjoy not only the military-industrial-congressional complex, but the military-media-Hollywood complex, as well. We have steadily grown coarser, more militantly anti-intellectual, and far more bloody and vicious. We bathe ourselves in the blood of our victims, all the while proclaiming how "civilized" we are and how different from our enemies, who are, of course, unforgivably barbaric. When we bathe in blood, we are goddamned saints. (I plan to write about Argo and ZDT at some point soon, but I have to wait for my gorge to subside.)

To counter the mawkish sentiment offered by almost everyone today, and all the statements concerning the "nobility" of war and of our warriors, I offer you a few excerpts from "Let Us All Become Cowards." These passages are from Paul Fussell's Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War. They offer descriptions of a kind you are not likely to hear from many other sources:
What annoyed the troops and augmented their sardonic, contemptuous attitude toward those who viewed them from afar was in large part this public innocence about the bizarre damage suffered by the human body in modern war. The troops could not contemplate without anger the lack of public knowledge of the Graves Registration form used by the U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps with its space for indicating: "Members Missing." You would expect front-line soldiers to be struck and hurt by bullets and shell fragments, but such is the popular insulation from the facts that you would not expect them to be hurt, sometimes killed, by being struck by parts of their friends' bodies violently detached. If you asked a wounded soldier or marine what hit him, you'd hardly be ready for the answer, "My buddy's head," or his sergeant's heel or his hand, or a Japanese leg, complete with shoe and puttees, or the West Point ring on his captain's severed hand. What drove the troops to fury was the complacent, unimaginative innocence of their home fronts and rear echelons about such experiences as the following, repeated in essence tens of thousands of times. Captain Peter Royle, a British artillery forward observer, was moving up a hill in a night attack in North Africa. "I was following about twenty paces behind," he says,
when there was a blinding flash a few yards in front of me. I had no idea what it was and fell flat on my face. I found out soon enough: a number of infantry were carrying mines strapped to the small of their backs, and either a rifle or machine gun bullet had struck one, which had exploded, blowing the man into three pieces -- two legs and head and chest. His inside was strewn on the hillside and I crawled into it in the darkness....
Sometimes damage to the body was well beyond endurance, for those perceiving as well as those damaged. Once in the Normandy battles a British major accompanied a stretcher party searching for a wounded man earlier parties had missed. "Sure enough," he says,
we found a poor little chap with both legs blown off above the knees, moaning softly and, I remember, he was saying, "Oh dear! Oh dear!" The stretcher-bearer shook his head and, I thought, looked pointedly at my revolver.
And there's an indication of what can be found on the ground after an air crash in one soldier's memories of a morning after an artillery exchange in North Africa. Neil McCallum and his friend "S." come upon the body of a man who had been lying on his back when a shell, landing at his feet, eviscerated him.
"Good God," said S., shocked, "here's one of his fingers." S. stubbed with his toe on the ground some feet from the corpse. There is more horror in a severed digit than in a man dying: it savors of mutilation. "Christ," went on S. in a very low voice, "look, it's not his finger."
Fussell also writes about the war memoirs of Eugene B. Sledge:
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.
On second thought, and in the event you don't read the earlier essay, here are some observations from Charlie Madison, Chayefsky's protagonist:
War isn’t hell at all. It’s man at his best; the highest morality he's capable of … it’s not war that’s insane, you see. It’s the morality of it. It’s not greed or ambition that makes war: it’s goodness. Wars are always fought for the best of reasons: for liberation or manifest destiny. Always against tyranny and always in the interest of humanity. So far this war, we’ve managed to butcher some ten million humans in the interest of humanity. Next war it seems we’ll have to destroy all of man in order to preserve his damn dignity. It’s not war that’s unnatural to us – it’s virtue. As long as valor remains a virtue, we shall have soldiers. So, I preach cowardice. Through cowardice, we shall all be saved. ...

I don’t trust people who make bitter reflections about war. ... It’s always the generals with the bloodiest records who are the first to shout what a Hell it is. And it’s always the widows who lead the Memorial Day parades … we shall never end wars ... by blaming it on ministers and generals or warmongering imperialists or all the other banal bogies. It’s the rest of us who build statues to those generals and name boulevards after those ministers; the rest of us who make heroes of our dead and shrines of our battlefields. We wear our widows’ weeds like nuns and perpetuate war by exalting its sacrifices. My brother died at Anzio – an everyday soldier’s death, no special heroism involved. They buried what pieces they found of him. But my mother insists he died a brave death and pretends to be very proud. ...

[Y]ou see, now my other brother can’t wait to reach enlistment age. That’ll be in September. May be ministers and generals who blunder us into wars, but the least the rest of us can do is to resist honoring the institution. What has my mother got for pretending bravery was admirable? She’s under constant sedation and terrified she may wake up one morning and find her last son has run off to be brave.
Glorify all that, motherfuckers.