Writing by combatants brings death uniquely alive

The Argument

The classic books of battle by soldiers marry eerie thrill with abject terror


April 13, 2003|By Victoria Brownworth | By Victoria Brownworth,Special to the Sun

Writing by those who do the actual fighting tells a tale of war unlike any told by observers, however deeply embedded. Whether writ by history's battlefield stalwarts, or by youthful geniuses like Wilfred Owen and Rupert Brooke, who died along with a generation of English soldiers in World War I, these personal battlefield accounts reveal a side of war few noncombatants know. Memoirs, novels and poetry by those who have seen action and lived to tell the tale give a far more revelatory picture of war than any CNN telecast.

These tales explore war's eerie thrill as well as its abject terror. Who can forget the hideous display of the French slaughter of the Muscovites described by Tolstoy in War and Peace (Oxford, 1,344 pages, $11.95) the moaning soldiers begging for relief, the riven wounded, the dying and the seeming limitless inhumanity of man to man. Those same bloody scenes are repeated -- a different war, a different continent -- in Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage (Bantam, 138 pages, $3.95). War is, indeed, hell.

Anthony Swofford served in a U.S. Marine Corps platoon during the Persian Gulf war. Jarhead: A Marine's Chronicle of the Gulf War and Other Battles (Scribner, 262 pages, $24) details Swofford's experiences in Saudi Arabia and Iraq, where he contemplated both suicide and murder, was the target of both Iraqi attacks and American friendly fire (more U.S. servicemen were killed by friendly fire in the Persian Gulf war than by Iraqi soldiers) and was nearly killed in a booby-trapped Iraqi bunker.

Swofford writes with the skill of a veteran reporter and the lyricism of a poet. His account of life in the trenches -- the heat, the grit, the ferocious boredom, the simmering fear -- reads like a primer for why not to go to war.

A friendly fire incident in which Marines are killed and injured (and for which a member of his platoon would receive the Bronze Star because he stopped it) is described by Swofford as "more mysterious and thrilling and terrifying than taking fire from the enemy" because it makes no sense at all; as such, friendly fire somehow metaphorizes war itself for the infantryman.

"I know," he writes, "my job is to forget what I have just seen." But he will not forget that incident nor his long desert trek home at war's end through stacks of smoldering Iraqi bodies. The incontrovertible insanity of such events echoes Joseph Heller's brilliant depiction in Catch-22 (Scribner, 464 pages, $12) of the last days of the Italian theatre in World War II.

War is not hell only, but a shared nightmare of miscalculations and misadventure.

When he was sent to the gulf, Swofford was the same age as the 23-year-old Norman Mailer when he wrote America's premier novel of World War II, The Naked and the Dead (Picador, 734 pages, $16). In the characters of Croft, Martinez, Stanley, Red, Goldstein, Mantelli and others in a platoon sent to secure an island in the Pacific, Mailer illumines the dailiness of war -- the petty grievances carried from home or the barracks, the sick fear that accompanies the waiting for action, the frustration of not knowing what one's wife is doing stateside or with whom, the sure, terrifying knowledge of what day will be one's last.

Mailer dissects war and in the process unravels the American Dream; these men bring their stateside baggage with them -- racism, anti-Semitism, classism. Yet -- and this is almost biologically determined of wartime -- those differences break down under the relentlessness of war; what matters is no longer race nor religion but who will have one's back as enemy fire explodes from the impenetrable jungle behind, who will bolster the delusion that one's wife isn't cheating, who will assert that fear doesn't necessarily mean cowardice, who will survive to bring news of one's death home.

Tim O'Brien was a 23-year-old foot-soldier in Vietnam. In The Things They Carried (Broadway Books, 246 pages, $13.95) he writes of the shared sense of futility and the necessary pretenses of war and how they forever link the soldiers: "They had no sense of strategy or mission. They searched the villages without knowing what to look for, sometimes setting fires and sometimes not. They carried their own lives. The pressures were enormous. ... It was the burden of being alive. ... They were afraid of dying but they were even more afraid to show it."

Like other voices from the trenches, O'Brien's explicates the incomparable closeness that terror brings; it is the "grunts," the "legs," the "jarheads" who see the horror, who are themselves the embodiment of and vehicle for the horror of war. Who can bear witness to that but one of their own?

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