Article — From the January 1982 issue
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Article — From the January 1982 issue
Over the past few years I find I’ve written a great deal about war, which is odd because I’m supposed to be a professor of English literature. And I find I’ve given the Second World War a uniformly bad press, rejecting all attempts to depict it as a sensible proceeding or to mitigate its cruelty and swinishness. I have rubbed readers’ noses in some very noisome materials—corpses, maddened dogs, deserters and looters, pain, Auschwitz, weeping, scandal, cowardice, mistakes and defeats, sadism, hangings, horrible wounds, fear and panic. Whenever I deliver this unhappy view of the war, especially when I try to pass it through a protective screen of irony, I hear from outraged readers. Speaking of some ironic aesthetic observations I once made on a photograph of a mangled sailor on his ruined gunmount, for example, a woman from Brooklyn found me “callous,” and accused me of an “overwhelming deficiency in human compassion.” Another reader, who I suspect has had as little empirical contact with the actualities of war face to face as the correspondent from Brooklyn, found the same essay “black and monstrous” and concluded that the magazine publishing it (Harper’s, actually) “disgraced itself.”
How did I pick up this dark, ironical, flip view of the war? Why do I enjoy exhibiting it? The answer is that I contracted it in the infantry. Even when I write professionally about Walt Whitman or Samuel Johnson, about the theory of comparative literature or the problems facing the literary biographer, the voice that’s audible is that of the pissed-off infantryman, disguised as a literary and cultural commentator. He is embittered that the Air Corps had beds to sleep in, that Patton’s Third Army got all the credit, that noncombatants of the Medical Administrative and Quartermaster Corps wore the same battle stars as he, that soon after the war the “enemy” he had labored to destroy had been rearmed by his own government and positioned to oppose one of his old allies. “We broke our ass for nothin’,” says Sergeant Croft in The Naked and the Dead. These are this speaker’s residual complaints while he is affecting to be annoyed primarily by someone’s bad writing or slipshod logic or lazy editing or pretentious ideas. As Louis Simpson says, “The war made me a foot-soldier for the rest of my life,” and after any war foot soldiers are touchy.
My war is virtually synonymous with my life. I entered the war when I was nineteen, and I have been in it ever since. Melville’s Ishmael says that a whale ship was his Yale College and his Harvard. An infantry division was mine, the 103rd, whose dispirited personnel wore a colorful green-and-yellow cactus on their left shoulders. These hillbillies and Okies, dropouts and used-car salesmen and petty criminals were my teachers and friends.
How did an upper-middle-class young gentleman find himself in so unseemly a place? Why wasn’t he in the Navy, at least, or in the OSS or Air Corps administration or editing Stars and Stripes or being a general’s aide? The answer is comic: at the age of twenty I found myself leading forty riflemen over the Vosges Mountains and watching them being torn apart by German artillery and machine guns because when I was sixteen, in junior college, I was fat and flabby, with feminine tits and a big behind. For years the thing I’d hated most about school was gym, for there I was obliged to strip and shower communally. Thus I chose to join the ROTC (infantry, as it happened) because that was a way to get out of gym, which meant you never had to take off your clothes and invite—indeed, compel—ridicule. You rationalized by noting that this was 1939 and that a little “military training” might not, in the long run, be wasted. Besides, if you worked up to be a cadet officer, you got to wear a Sam Browne belt, from which depended a nifty saber.
When I went on to college, it was natural to continue my technique for not exposing my naked person, and luckily my college had an infantry ROTC unit, where I was welcomed as something of an experienced hand. This was in 1941. When the war began for the United States, college students were solicited by various “programs” of the Navy and Marine Corps and Coast Guard with plans for transforming them into officers. But people enrolled in the ROTC unit were felt to have committed themselves already. They had opted for the infantry, most of them all unaware, and that’s where they were going to stay. Thus, while shrewder friends were enrolling in Navy V-1 or signing up for the pacific exercises of the Naval Japanese Language Program or the Air Corps Meteorological Program, I signed up for the Infantry Enlisted Reserve Corps, an act guaranteeing me one extra semester in college before I was called. After basic training, advancement to officer training was promised, and that seemed a desirable thing, even if the crossed rifles on the collar did seem to betoken some hard physical exertion and discomfort—marching, sleeping outdoors, that sort of thing. But it would help “build you up,” and besides, officers, even in the infantry, got to wear those wonderful pink trousers and receive constant salutes.
It was such imagery of future grandeur that, in spring 1943, sustained me through eighteen weeks of basic training in hundred-degree heat at dreary Camp Roberts, California, where, to toughen us—it was said—water was forbidden from 8:00 A.M. to 5:00 P.M. (“water discipline,” this was called). Within a few weeks I’d lost all my flab and with it the whole ironic “reason” I found myself there at all. It was abundantly clear already that “infantry” had been a big mistake: it was not just stupid and boring and bloody, it was athletic, and thus not at all for me. But supported by vanity and pride I somehow managed to march thirty-five miles and tumble through the obstacle course, and a few months later I found myself at the Infantry School, Fort Benning, Georgia, where, training to become an officer, I went through virtually the same thing over again.
As a second lieutenant of infantry I “graduated” in the spring of 1944 and was assigned to the 103rd Division at Camp Howze, Texas, the local equivalent of Camp Roberts, only worse: Roberts had white-painted two-story clapboard barracks, Howze, one-story tarpaper shacks. But the heat was the same, and the boredom, and the local whore culture, and the hillbilly songs:
Who’s that gal with the red dress on?Some folks call her Dinah.She stole my heart away,Down in Carolina.
The 103rd Division had never been overseas, and all the time I was putting my rifle platoon through its futile exercises we were being prepared for the invasion of southern France, which followed the landings in Normandy. Of course we didn’t know this, and assumed from the training (“water discipline” again) that we were destined for the South Pacific. There were some exercises involving towed gliders that seemed to portend nothing but self-immolation, we were so inept with these devices. In October 1944, we were all conveyed by troop transports to Marseilles.
It was my first experience of abroad, and my lifelong affair with France dates from the moment I first experienced such un-American phenomena as: formal manners and a respect for the language; a well-founded skepticism; the pollarded plane trees on the Avenue R. Schumann; the red wine and real bread; the pissoirs in the streets; the international traffic signs and the visual public language hinting at a special French understanding of things—Hôtel de Ville, Défense d’afficher; the smell of Turkish tobacco when one has been brought up on Virginia and burley. An intimation of what we might be opposing was supplied by the aluminum Vichy coinage. On one side, a fasces and État Francais. No more Republic. On the other, Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité replaced by Travail (as in Arbeit Macht Frei), Famille, and Patrie (as in Vaterland). But before we had time to contemplate all this, we were moving rapidly northeast. After a truck ride up the Rhone valley, still pleasant with girls and flowers and wine, our civilized period came to an abrupt end. On the night of November 11 (nice irony there) we were introduced into the line at St. Dié, in Alsace.
We were in “combat.” I find the word embarrassing, carrying as it does false chivalric overtones (as in “single combat”). But synonyms are worse: “fighting” is not accurate, because much of the time you are being shelled, which is not fighting but suffering; “battle” is too high and remote; “in action” is a euphemism suited more to dire telegrams than description. “Combat” will have to do, and my first hours of it I recall daily, even now. They fueled, and they still fuel, my view of things.
Everyone knows that a night relief is among the most difficult of infantry maneuvers. But we didn’t know it, and in our innocence we expected it to go according to plan. We and the company we were replacing were cleverly and severely shelled; it was as if the Germans a few hundred feet away could see us in the dark and through the thick pine growth. When the shelling finally stopped, at about midnight, we realized that although near the place we were supposed to be, until daylight we were hopelessly lost. The order came down to stop where we were, lie down among the trees, and get some sleep. We would finish the relief at first light. Scattered over several hundred yards, the 250 of us in F Company lay down in a darkness so thick we could see nothing at all. Despite the terror of our first shelling (and several people had been hit), we slept as soundly as babes. At dawn I awoke, and what I saw all around were numerous objects I’d miraculously not tripped over in the dark. These objects were dozens of dead German boys in greenish-gray uniforms, killed a day or two before by the company we were relieving. If darkness had hidden them from us, dawn disclosed them with open eyes and greenish-white faces like marble, still clutching their rifles and machine pistols in their seventeen-year-old hands, fixed where they had fallen. (For the first time I understood the German phrase for the war dead: die Gefallenen.) Michelangelo could have made something beautiful out of these forms, in the Dying Gaul tradition, and I was startled to find that at first, in a way I couldn’t understand, they struck me as beautiful. But after a moment, no feeling but shock and horror. My adolescent illusions, largely intact to that moment, fell away all at once, and I suddenly knew I was not and never would be in a world that was reasonable or just. The scene was less apocalyptic than shabbily ironic: it sorted so ill with modern popular assumptions about the idea of progress and attendant improvements in public health, social welfare, and social justice. To transform guiltless boys into cold marble after passing them through unbearable fear and humiliation and pain and contempt seemed to do them an interesting injustice. I decided to ponder these things. In 1917, shocked by the Battle of the Somme and recovering from neurasthenia, Wilfred Owen was reading a life of Tennyson. He wrote his mother: “Tennyson, it seems, was always a great child. So should I have been, but for Baumont Hamel.” So should I have been, but for St. Dié.
After that, one day was much like another: attack at dawn, run and fall and crawl and sweat and worry and shoot and be shot at and cower from mortar shells, always keeping up a jaunty carriage in front of one’s platoon; and at night, “consolidate” the objective, usually another hill, sometimes a small town, and plan the attack for the next morning. Before we knew it we’d lost half the company, and we all realized then that for us there would be no way out until the war ended but sickness, wounds, or oblivion. And the war would end only as we pressed our painful daily advance. Getting it over was our sole motive. Yes, we knew about the Jews. But our skins seemed to us more valuable at the time.
The word for the German defense all along was “clever,” a word that never could have been applied to our procedures. It was my first experience, to be repeated many times in later years, of the cunning ways of Europe versus the blunter ways of the New World. Although manned largely by tired thirty-year-old veterans (but sharp enough to have gotten out of Normandy alive), old men, and crazy youths, the German infantry was officered superbly, and their defense, which we experienced for many months, was disciplined and orderly. My people would have run, or at least “snaked off.” But the Germans didn’t, until the very end. Their uniforms were a scandal—rags and beat-up boots and unauthorized articles—but somehow they held together. Nazis or not, they did themselves credit. Lacking our lavish means, they compensated by patience and shrewdness. It was not until well after the war that I discovered that many times when they unaccountably located us hidden in deep woods and shelled us accurately, they had done so by inferring electronically the precise positions of the radios over which we innocently conversed.
As the war went on, the destruction of people became its sole means. I felt sorry for the Germans I saw killed in quantity everywhere—along the roads, in cellars, on rooftops—for many reasons. They were losing, for one thing, and their deaths meant nothing, though they had been persuaded that resistance might “win the war.” And they were so pitifully dressed and accoutered: that was touching. Boys with raggedy ad hoc uniforms and Panzerfausts and too few comrades. What were they doing? They were killing themselves; and for me, who couldn’t imagine being killed, for people my age voluntarily to get themselves killed caused my mouth to drop open.
Irony describes the emotion, whatever it is, occasioned by perceiving some great gulf, half-comic, half-tragic, between what one expects and what one finds. It’s not quite “disillusion,” but it’s adjacent to it. My experience in the war was ironic because my previous innocence had prepared me to encounter in it something like the same reasonableness that governed prewar life. This, after all, was the tone dominating the American relation to the war: talk of “the future,” allotments and bond purchases carefully sent home, hopeful fantasies of the “postwar world.” I assumed, in short, that everyone would behave according to the clear advantages offered by reason. I had assumed that in war, like chess, when you were beaten you “resigned”; that when outnumbered and outgunned you retreated; that when you were surrounded you surrendered. I found out differently, and with a vengeance. What I found was people obeying fatuous and murderous “orders” for no reason I could understand, killing themselves because someone “told them to,” prolonging the war when it was hopelessly lost because—because it was unreasonable to do so. It was my introduction to the shakiness of civilization. It was my first experience of the profoundly irrational element, and it made ridiculous all talk of plans and preparations for the future and goodwill and intelligent arrangements. Why did the red-haired young German machine-gunner firing at us in the woods not go on living—marrying, going to university, going to the beach, laughing, smiling—but keep firing long after he had made his point, and so require us to kill him with a grenade?
Before we knew it it was winter, and the winter in 1944–1945 was the coldest in Europe for twenty-five years. For the ground troops conditions were unspeakable, and even the official history admits the disaster, imputing the failure to provide adequate winter clothing—analogous to the similar German oversight when the Russian winter of 1941–1942 surprised the planners—to optimism, innocence, and “confidence”:
Confidence born of the rapid sweep across Europe in the summer of 1944 and the conviction on the part of many that the successes of Allied arms would be rewarded by victory before the onset of winter contributed to the unpreparedness for winter combat.
The result was 64,008 casualties from “cold injury”—not wounds but pneumonia and trench foot. The official history sums up: “This constitutes more than four 15,000-man divisions. Approximately 90 percent of cold casualties involved riflemen and there were about 4,000 riflemen per infantry division. Thus closer to thirteen divisions were critically disabled for combat.” We can appreciate those figures by recalling that the invasion of Normandy was initially accomplished by only six divisions (nine if we add the airborne). Thus crucial were little things like decent mittens and gloves, fur-lined parkas, thermal underwear—all of which any normal peacetime hiker or skier would demand as protection against prolonged exposure. But “the winter campaign in Europe was fought by most combat personnel in a uniform that did not give proper protection”: we wore silly long overcoats, right out of the nineteenth century; thin field jackets, designed to convey an image of manliness at Fort Bragg; and wool dress trousers. We wore the same shirts and huddled under the same blankets as Pershing’s troops in the expedition against Pancho Villa in 1916. Of the 64,008 who suffered “cold injury” I was one. During February 1945, I was back in various hospitals for a month with pneumonia. I told my parents it was flu.
That month away from the line helped me survive for four weeks more but it broke the rhythm and, never badly scared before, when I returned to the line early in March I found for the first time that I was terrified, unwilling to take the chances that before had seemed rather sporting. My month of safety had renewed my interest in survival, and I was psychologically and morally ill prepared to lead my platoon in the great Seventh Army attack of March 15, 1945. But lead it I did, or rather push it, staying as far in the rear as was barely decent. And before the day was over I had been severely rebuked by a sharp-eyed lieutenant-colonel who threatened court martial if I didn’t pull myself together. Before that day was over I was sprayed with the contents of a soldier’s torso when I was lying behind him and he knelt to fire at a machine gun holding us up: he was struck in the heart, and out of the holes in the back of his field jacket flew little clouds of tissue, blood, and powdered cloth. Near him another man raised himself to fire, but the machine gun caught him in the mouth, and as he fell he looked back at me with surprise, blood and teeth dribbling out onto the leaves. He was one to whom early on I had given the Silver Star for heroism, and he didn’t want to let me down.
As if in retribution for my cowardice, in the late afternoon, near Ingwiller, Alsace, clearing a woods full of Germans cleverly dug in, my platoon was raked by shells from an .88, and I was hit in the back and leg by shell fragments. They felt like red-hot knives going in, but I was as interested in the few quiet moans, like those of a hurt child drifting off to sleep, of my thirty-seven-year-old platoon sergeant—we’d been together since Camp Howze—killed instantly by the same shell. We were lying together, and his immediate neighbor on the other side, a lieutenant in charge of a section of heavy machine guns, was killed instantly too. My platoon was virtually wiped away. I was in disgrace, I was hurt, I was clearly expendable—while I lay there the supply sergeant removed my issue wristwatch to pass on to my replacement—and I was twenty years old.
I bore up all right while being removed from “the field” and passed back through the first-aid stations where I was known. I was deeply on morphine, and managed brave smiles as called for. But when I got to the evacuation hospital thirty miles behind the lines and was coming out of the anesthetic from my first operation, all my affectations of control collapsed, and I did what I’d wanted to do for months. I cried, noisily and publicly, and for hours. I was the scandal of the war. There were lots of tears back there: in the operating room I saw a nurse dissolve in shoulder-shaking sobs when a boy died with great stertorous gasps on the operating table she was attending. That was the first time I’d seen anyone cry in the whole European theater of operations, and I must have cried because I felt that there, out of “combat,” tears were licensed. I was crying because I was ashamed and because I’d let my men be killed and because my sergeant had been killed and because I recognized as never before that he might have been me and that statistically if in no other way he was me, and that I had been killed too. But ironically I had saved my life by almost losing it, for my leg wound providentially became infected, and by the time it was healed and I was ready for duty again, the European war was over, and I journeyed back up through a silent Germany to rejoin my reconstituted platoon “occupying” a lovely Tyrolean valley near Innsbruck. For the infantry there was still the Japanese war to sweat out, and I was destined for it, despite the dramatic gash in my leg. But, thank God, the Bomb was dropped while I was on my way there, with the result that I can write this.
That day in mid-March that ended me was the worst of all for F Company. We knew it was going to be bad when it began at dawn, just like an episode from the First World War, with an hour-long artillery preparation and a smokescreen for us to attack through. What got us going and carried us through was the conviction that, suffer as we might, we were at least “making history.” But we didn’t even do that. Liddell-Hart’s 766-page History of the Second World War never heard of us. It mentions neither March 15 nor the 103rd Infantry Division. The only satisfaction history has offered is the evidence that we caused Josef Goebbels some extra anxiety. The day after our attack he entered in his log under “Military Situation”:
In the West the enemy has now gone over to the attack in the sector between Saarbrücken and Hagenau in addition to the previous flashpoints. . . . His objective is undoubtedly to drive in our front on the Saar and capture the entire region south of the Moselle and west of the Rhine.
And he goes on satisfyingly: “Mail received testifies to a deep-seated lethargy throughout the German people degenerating almost into hopelessness. There is very sharp criticism of the . . . entire national leadership.” One reason: “The Moselle front is giving way.” But a person my age whom I met thirty years later couldn’t believe that there was still any infantry fighting in France in the spring of 1945, and, puzzled by my dedicating a book of mine to my dead platoon sergeant with the date March 15, 1945, confessed that he couldn’t figure out what had happened to him.
To become disillusioned you must earlier have been illusioned. Evidence of the illusions suffered by the youth I was is sadly available in the letters he sent, in unbelievable profusion, to his parents. They radiate a terrible naïveté, together with a pathetic disposition to be pleased in the face of boredom and, finally, horror. The young man had heard a lot about the importance of “morale” and ceaselessly labored to sustain his own by sustaining his addressees. Thus: “We spent all of Saturday on motor maintenance,” he writes from Fort Benning; “a very interesting subject.” At Benning he believes all he’s told and fails to perceive that he’s being prepared for one thing only, and that a nasty, hazardous job, whose performers on the line have a life expectancy of six weeks. He assures his parents: “I can get all sorts of assignments from here: . . . battalion staff officer, mess officer, rifle-platoon leader, weapons-platoon leader, company executive officer, communications officer, motor officer, etc.” (Was it an instinct for protecting himself from a truth half-sensed that made him bury rifle-platoon leader in the middle of this list?) Like a bright schoolboy, he is pleased when grown-ups tell him he’s done well. “I got a compliment on my clean rifle tonight. The lieutenant said, ‘Very good.’ I said, ‘Thank you, sir.’’’ His satisfaction in making Expert Rifleman is touching; it is “the highest possible rating,” he announces. And although he is constantly jokey, always on the lookout for what he terms “laffs,” he seems to have no sense of humor:
We’re having a very interesting week . . . taking up the carbine, automatic rifle, rifle grenade, and the famous “bazooka.” We had the bazooka today, and it was very enjoyable, although we could not fire it because of lack of ammunition.
He has the most impossible standards of military excellence, and he enlists his critical impulse in the service of optimistic self-deception. Appalled by the ineptitude of the 103rd Division in training, he writes: “As I told you last time, this is a very messed up division. It will never go overseas as a unit, and is now serving mainly as a replacement training center, disguised as a combat division.”
Because the image of himself actually leading troops through bullets and shell fire is secretly unthinkable, fatuous hope easily comes to his assistance. In August 1944, with his division preparing to ship abroad, he asserts that the Germans seem to be “on their last legs.” Indeed, he reports, “bets are being made . . . that the European war will be over in six weeks.” But October finds him on the transport heading for the incredible, and now he “expects,” he says, that “this war will end some time in November or December,” adding, “I feel very confident and safe.” After the epiphanies of the line in November and December, he still entertains hopes for an early end, for the Germans are rational people, and what rational people would persist in immolating themselves once it’s clear that they’ve lost the war? “This can’t last much longer,” he finds.
The letters written during combat are full of requests for food packages from home, and interpretation of this obsession is not quite as simple as it seems. The C and K rations were tedious, to be sure, and as readers of All Quiet on the Western Front and The Middle Parts of Fortune know, soldiers of all times and places are fixated on food. But how explain this young man’s requests for “fantastic items” like gherkins, olives, candy-coated peanuts (the kind “we used to get out of slot-machines at the beach”), cans of chili and tamales, cashew nuts, deviled ham, and fig pudding? The lust for a little swank is the explanation, I think, the need for some exotic counterweight to the uniformity, the dullness, the lack of point and distinction he sensed everywhere. These items also asserted an unbroken contact with home, and a home defined as the sort of place fertile not in corned-beef hash and meat-and-vegetable stew but gum drops and canned chicken. In short, an upper-middle-class venue.
Upper middle class too, I suspect, is the unimaginative cruelty of some of these letters, clear evidence of arrested emotional development. “Period” anti-Semitic remarks are not infrequent, and they remain unrebuked by any of his addressees. His understanding of the American South (he’s writing from Georgia) can be gauged from his remark “Everybody down here is illiterate.” In combat some of his bravado is a device necessary to his emotional survival, but some bespeaks a genuine insensitivity:
Dear Mother and Dad:
Today is the division’s 84th consecutive day on line. The average is 90–100 days, although one division went 136 without being relieved. . . .
This house we’re staying in used to be the headquarters of a local German Motor Corps unit, and it’s full of printed matter, uniforms, propaganda, and pictures of Der Fuhrer. I am not collecting any souveniers [sic], although I have had ample opportunity to pick up helmets, flags, weapons, etc. The only thing I have kept is a Belgian pistol, which one German was carrying who was unfortunate enough to walk right into my platoon. That is the first one I had the job of shooting. I have kept the pistol as a souvenier of my first Kraut.
It is odd how hard one becomes after a little bit of this stuff, but it gets to be more like killing mad dogs than people. . . .
The only comfort I can take today in contemplating these letters is the ease with which their author can be rationalized as a stranger. Even the handwriting is not now my own. There are constant shows of dutifulness to parents, and even grandparents, and mentions of churchgoing, surely anomalous in a leader of assault troops. Parental approval is indispensable: “This week I was ‘Class A Agent Officer’ for Co. F, paying a $6000 payroll without losing a cent! I felt very proud of myself!” And the complacency! The twittiness! From the hospital, where for a time he’s been in an enlisted men’s ward: “Sometimes I enjoy being with the men just as much as associating with the officers.” (Associating is good.) The letter-writer is more pretentious than literate (“Alright,” “thank’s,” “curiousity”), and his taste is terrible. He is thrilled to read Bruce Barton’s The Man Nobody Knows (“It presents Christ in a very human light”), Maugham’s The Summing Up, and the short stories of Erskine Caldwell. Even his often-sketched fantasies of the postwar heaven are grimly conventional: he will get married (to whom?); he will buy a thirty-five-foot sloop and live on it; he will take a year of non serious literary graduate study at Columbia; he will edit a magazine for yachtsmen. He seems unable to perceive what is happening, constantly telling his addressee what will please rather than what he feels. He was never more mistaken than when he assured his parents while recovering from his wounds, “Please try not to worry, as no permanent damage has been done.”
But the shock of these wounds and the long period recovering from them seem to have matured him a tiny bit, and some of his last letters from the hospital suggest that one or two scales are beginning to fall from his eyes:
One of the most amazing things about this war is the way the bizarre and unnatural become the normal after a short time. Take this hospital and its atmosphere: after a long talk with him, an eighteen-year-old boy without legs seems like the normal eighteen-year-old. You might even be surprised if a boy of the same age should walk in on both his legs. He would seem the freak and the object of pity. It is easy to imagine, after seeing some of these men, that all young men are arriving on this planet with stumps instead of limbs.
The same holds true with life at the front. The same horrible unrealness that is so hard to describe. . . . I think I’ll have to write a book about all this sometime.
But even here, he can’t conclude without reverting to cliché and twerpy optimism:
Enough for this morning. I’m feeling well and I’m very comfortable, and the food is improving. We had chicken and ice cream yesterday!
He has not read Swift yet, but in the vision of the young men with their stumps there’s perhaps a hint that he’s going to. And indeed, when he enrolled in graduate school later, the first course he was attracted to was on Swift and Pope. And ever since he’s been trying to understand satire, and even to experiment with it himself.
It was in the army that I discovered my calling. I hadn’t known that I was a teacher, but I found I could explain things: the operation of flamethrowers, map-reading, small-arms firing, “field sanitation.” I found I could “lecture” and organize and make things clear. I could start at the beginning of a topic and lead an audience to the end. When the war was over, being trained for nothing useful, I naturally fell into the course that would require largely a mere continuation of this act. In becoming a college teacher of literature I was aware of lots of company: thousands of veterans swarmed to graduate schools to study literature, persuaded that poetry and prose could save the world, or at least help wash away some of the intellectual shame of the years we’d been through. From this generation came John Berryman and Randall Jarrell and Delmore Schwartz and Saul Bellow and Louis Simpson and Richard Wilbur and William Meredith and all the others who, afire with the precepts of the New Criticism, embraced literature, and the teaching of it, as quasi-religious obligation.
To this day I tend to think of all hierarchies, especially the academic one, as military. The undergraduate students, at the “bottom,” are the recruits and draftees, privates all. Teaching assistants and graduate students are the noncoms, with grades (only officers have “ranks”) varying according to seniority: a G-4 is more important than a G-1, etc. Instructors, where they still exist, are the second and first lieutenants, and together with the assistant professors (captains) make up the company-grade officers. When we move up to the tenured ranks, associate professors answer to field-grade officers, majors and colonels. Professors are generals, beginning with brigadier—that’s a newly promoted one. Most are major-generals, and upon retirement they will be advanced to lieutenant-general (“professor emeritus”). The main academic administration is less like a higher authority in the same structure than an adjacent echelon, like a group of powerful congressmen, for example, or people from the judge advocate’s or inspector general’s departments. The board of trustees, empowered to make professorial appointments and thus confer academic ranks and privileges, is the equivalent of the president of the United States, who signs commissions very like letters of academic appointment: “Reposing special trust and confidence in the . . . abilities of—, I do appoint him,” etc. It is not hard to see also that the military principle crudely registered in the axiom “rank has its privileges” operates in academic life, where there are such plums to be plucked as frequent leaves of absence, single-occupant offices, light teaching loads, and convenient, all-weather parking spaces.
I think this generally unconscious way of conceiving of the academic hierarchy is common among people who went to graduate school immediately after the war, and who went on the G.I. Bill. Perhaps many were attracted to university teaching as a postwar profession because in part they felt they understood its mechanisms already. Hence their ambitiousness, their sense that if to be a first lieutenant is fine, to work up to lieutenant-general is wonderful. And I suspect that their conception of instruction is still, like mine, tinged with Army. I think all of us of that vintage feel uneasy with forms of teaching that don’t recognize a clear hierarchy—team-teaching, for example, or even the seminar, which assumes the fiction that leader and participants possess roughly equal knowledge and authority. For students (that is, enlisted men) to prosecute a rebellion, as in the Sixties and early Seventies, is tantamount to mutiny, an offense, as the Articles of War indicate, “to be punished by death, or such other punishment as a court-martial shall direct.” I have never been an enthusiast for the Movement.
In addition to remaining rank-conscious, I persist in the army habit of exact personnel classification. For me, everyone still has an invisible “spec number” indicating what his job is or what he’s supposed to be doing. Thus a certain impatience with people of ambiguous identity or, worse, people who don’t seem to do anything, like self-proclaimed novelists and poets who generate no apprehensible product. These seem to me the T-5s of the postwar world, mere technicians fifth grade, parasites, drones, noncombatants. Twenty years after the First World War Siegfried Sassoon reports that he is still having dreams about it, dreams less of terror than of obligation. He dreams that
the War is still going on and I have got to return to the Front. I complain bitterly to myself because it hasn’t stopped yet. I am worried because I can’t find my active-service kit. I am worried because I have forgotten how to be an officer. I feel that I can’t face it again, and sometimes I burst into tears and say, “It’s no good, I can’t do it.” But I know that I can’t escape going back, and search frantically for my lost equipment.
That’s uniquely the dream of a junior officer. I had such dreams too, and mine persisted until about 1960, when I was thirty-six, past recall age.
Those who actually fought on the line in the war, especially if they were wounded, constitute an in-group forever separate from those who did not. Praise or blame does not attach: rather, there is the accidental possession of a special empirical knowledge, a feeling of a mysterious shared ironic awareness manifesting itself in an instinctive skepticism about pretension, publicly enunciated truths, the vanities of learning, and the pomp of authority. Those who fought know a secret about themselves, and it’s not very nice. As Frederic Manning said in 1929, remembering 1914–1918: “War is waged by men; not by beasts, or by gods. It is a peculiarly human activity. To call it a crime against mankind is to miss at least half its significance; it is also the punishment of a crime.”
And now that those who fought have grown much older, we must wonder at the frantic avidity with which we struggled then to avoid death, digging our foxholes like madmen, running from danger with burning lungs and pounding hearts. What, really, were we so frightened of? Sometimes now the feeling comes over us that Housman’s lines, which in our boyhood we thought attractively cynical, are really just:
Life, to be sure, is nothing much to lose;But young men think it is, and we were young.
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