Thursday, July 14, 2011

John Steinbeck on war and the Second World War (1 of 3)

John Steinbeck published a collection of his newspaper articles as a war correspondent during the Second World War under the title Once There Was a War (1958). The title reflects the position he takes in the Introduction, in which he looks back on the war as though it were a kind of fairy tale or dream.

But not a dream of the Good War, as it is now revered in the general American culture. Steinbeck understood the war and its purposes. He wasn't taking some isolationist position that the US should not have been part of the war. Nor was he arguing that the war aims weren't good or that the defeat of Hitler Germany and militarist Japan were unworthy results.

What he means is more like the following. I first read this Introduction years ago. And re-reading it now, I was surprised at how I found something on almost every page that I remembered and that made a particular impression on me. But this portion, which gives a sense of the title, is what stuck with me the most:

For what they are worth, or for what they may recapture, here they are, period pieces, fairy tales, half-meaningless memories of a time and of attitudes which have gone forever from the world, a sad and jocular recording of a little part of a war I saw and do not believe, unreal with trumped-up pageantry, so that it stand in the mind like the battle pictures of Crécy and Bunker Hill and Gettysburg. And, although all war is a symptom of man's failure as a thinking animal, still there was in these memory-wars some gallantry, some bravery, some kindliness. A man got killed, surely, or maimed, but, living, he did not carry crippled seed as a gift to his children.

Now for many years we have suckled on fear and fear alone, and there is no good product of fear. Its children are cruelty and deceit and suspicion germinating in our darkness. And just as surely as we are poisoning the air with our test bombs, so are we poisoned in our souls by fear, faceless, stupid sarcomic terror. [my emphasis]

Biologists and anthropologists would quarrel with a literal assertion that fear produces "no good product." After all, the famous fight-or-flight reaction presumably offered humanity some comparative advantage over millennia of natural selection. (By "sarcomic," Steinbeck apparently meant "cancerous."

But the kind of generalized, sometimes hysterical fear of the early Cold War period about which he was commenting in 1958 does yield the kinds of results Steinbeck describes, "Its children are cruelty and deceit and suspicion germinating in our darkness."

And Steinbeck was writing in 1958, ten years into the Cold War if we count the Communist coup in Czechoslovakia and the Berlin blockade in 1948 as the beginning of the Cold War. The Cold War continued for over three more decades. And for the last decade, the United States has largely "suckled on fear" during the War on Terror. Only this time the bogeyman that justified multiple "small wars" and Cold War levels of military spending was not the nuclear-armed Soviet superpower but small band of Islamic terrorists known as Al Qa'ida. Our new Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, says there are only 20 or so of them left. But the security establishment and its wars continue to function as if they were every bit the menace that many Americans imagined the Communist world to be in 1958.

This kind of generalized fear is corrosive to democracy. Fortunately, not everyone has been afraid all the time during the Long War that encompassed the the Cold War and the War on Terror. Which is why democracy in some ways has also thrived and expanded during that period. But the long-term trend isn't encouraging. And in recent years the corrosion of democracy and the rule of law has been severe. From Bush v. Gore to Guantánamo to a Democratic President opposing Social Security and Medicare and embracing plutocratic economics, the trend has been bad.

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"It is the logic of our times
No subject for immortal verse
That we who lived by honest dreams
Defend the bad against the worse."

-- Cecil Day-Lewis from Where Are The War Poets?


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