Required reading about war's human toll

October 15, 2002|By D.R. Belz

REQUIRED READING has citizens in many large American cities practicing a mass approach to reforming public opinion via the shared experience of some seminal work of literature, history or pop nonfiction. Cities should be touting their texts: Our libraries are our liberty.

Baltimore City chose a good one in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Published through the Anti-Slavery Office in Boston in 1845, this book still speaks not only to the ongoing problem of race relations in America, but demonstrates that Douglass knew the Civil War had started in Maryland long before Pratt Street or the Battle of Antietam.

It's healthy for communities to pick up the same books at the same time if they can leverage a kind of inverse relationship between more books and fewer bullets.

But are our leaders reading what matters?

In the early 1980s, The Book of Five Rings, by Miyamoto Musashi, was required reading at master's of business administration programs all over the country. Largely devoted to the art of gracefully lopping adversaries in two, the book describes the way of the Japanese samurai and was a hit in the boardrooms of the "Me" generation.

In the '90s, another work became the text du jour around many MBA campfires: The Killer Angels, by Michael Shaara. A gripping psychological portrait of the Battle of Gettysburg through the eyes of Robert E. Lee, James Longstreet, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and others, this novel was also required reading at places like the Pentagon and the war colleges.

But the truth is, we need more books that teach us how to stop killing each other. We need a new short list of required reading for our leaders, for ourselves and for our children. What kind of syllabus can we imagine for a world way past the deadline for disarmament?

Start with Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain, the tale of a convalescing and heart-sick Confederate soldier who only wants to return to his sweetheart but who can't find his way out of the morass that war has made of his home country.

Then pick up Johnny Got His Gun, by Dalton Trumbo, a book on my list for nearly 30 years. Written in 1938 and published on the eve of World War II, this novel about a World War I doughboy who loses everything, including his identity, will leave you transformed. Try to read this book and remain unaffected by what war can do to the human consciousness.

Another novel we should all read but won't be able to forget is The Assault, by Harry Mulisch. Set in the Netherlands in World War II, it's the story of a young boy in the horror of the Nazi occupation whose whole family is killed in revenge for a brutal mistake. He comes to realize the deep disaster that war visits on the landscape of the human soul.

We objectify enemies from afar, but what about when they are dying next to you? All Quiet on the Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque, will alter your perception of how we define each other as "enemy."

Explore what weapons of global mass destruction could actually do in A Canticle for Liebowitz, by Walter M. Miller Jr. It's a simultaneously ironic and horrific tale of a world transformed by all-out war. What survives of humanity will surprise you.

Finally, don't miss Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five, or The Children's Crusade. Required reading for my generation at 16, the novel contains Mr. Vonnegut's pledge to his own children that, after living through World War II, he would never let them fight in another war.

If that seems like a strangely unpatriotic and naive idea to us today, that's all the more reason why these books should be required reading for us all and for tomorrow's leaders.

So let us not then go to war lightly -- or unread.

D.R. Belz teaches writing at Loyola College in Baltimore and lives in Lutherville.

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