Men at War

June 11, 1994|By HAL PIPER

My mother wonders if the extraordinary media event that D-Day became on its 50th anniversary might promote a glorification of war as the solution to our problems -- in North Korea, say, or Haiti.

It's a good question. I think the D-Day celebration was something healthier than that, but perhaps that merely reflects my recent reading.

One of the pleasures of having teen-agers in the house is revisiting our school days, without the distracting anguish of worrying about our complexions, our social standing or the opposite sex. My 9th-grader read some wonderful books this year, and she was kind enough to want to share them with me. So during these D-Day days I have been reading about older wars -- World War I (''All Quiet on the Western Front'') and the Civil War (''The Red Badge of Courage'').

Both can be read as profoundly pacifist works, but neither succeeded in turning the world away from war, so perhaps my mother is right. The memory of a ''good war'' -- and everybody who survives a war likes to think it served some good purpose -- makes the next war acceptable.

But if both books show us the futility of war, they also show us the extraordinary tenderness and love among men in combat. War, says Paul, the young narrator of ''All Quiet,'' ''has awakened in us the sense of comradeship, so that we escape the abyss of solitude.''

This comes something of a surprise. War novels, as well as ''Heart of Darkness'' and ''Lord of the Flies'' (two more that I have been enjoying again with my children), teach us how thin is the veneer of civilization over our savage hearts.

Yet the opposite is also true. Civilization is tenacious, even in conditions of savagery. Paul reflects on how difficult it is to eradicate our humanity and nourish the primitive cunning that will carry the soldier through the battle.

Two of Paul's comrades ponder whether it is best to eat heartily before a battle. One knows that he may be dead in an hour; best to enjoy the moment. The wiser man knows that if he should be shot in the belly in an hour, the wound will be more dangerous on a full stomach than an empty one.

''Such things are real problems,'' Paul observes. ''Life is simply one continual watch against the menace of death; it has transformed us into unthinking animals in order to give us the wisdom of instinct.'' Yet primitivism is not really possible: ''Our inner forces are not exerted toward regeneration, but toward degeneration.'' True primitives, Paul thinks, ''are primitive and naturally so, but we are primitive in an artificial sense, and by virtue of the utmost exertion.'' And every now and then civilization reasserts itself. He adduces ''the mad story of Detering.''

For 200 pages, Detering has been an unimportant and uninteresting character ''who thinks of nothing but his farmyard and his wife.'' Soldier's cunning -- the unthinking animal's weapon of instinct -- has kept him alive thus far.

And then, abruptly, civilization reclaims the peasant Detering. In the last spring of the war, coming back from the front line, he sees a blooming cherry tree in a garden. He has cherry trees at home: ''When they are in blossom, from the hay loft they look like one single sheet, so white. It is just the time.''

That does it. Detering's war is over. He deserts, bee-lines for his farm and cherry trees. He is caught, of course, and though we don't hear what happens further, Paul is resigned: ''What does a court-martial a hundred miles behind the front line know about it?''

What I heard in the D-Day observances was not jingoism, nor military vainglory, but homage to unimaginable sacrifice. Sixty thousand people stood in silence as taps was played to honor men who drowned in the heavy surf before even getting ashore; to honor the town of Bedford, Virginia, practically depopulated of its young men, who fought together in a unit that took particularly heavy German fire; to honor men who moved forward because there was no going back.

They went forward because the carnage was not senseless, but necessary. All wars are fought by Deterings who would rather be at home with their cherry trees, and who will go home if they understand that they are fighting against civilization, not for it.

The D-Day lesson is inspiring, but sobering. It is as much a story of loss as of triumph. Wars may sometimes be necessary, but modern war is too harsh to be fought to indulge the martial spirit.

Hal Piper edits The Sun's Opinion * Commentary page.

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