Friday, July 15, 2011

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

John Steinbeck's Introduction to his Second World War articles collected in Once There Was A War (1958) has a number of comments about vain and pompous officers, thieving soldiers, and carousing war correspondents. And one of the refreshing things about it is that Steinbeck holds up some of the standard cliche├ęs of the time about the military and asks the reader to see them for what they were.

This is a great one, from his discussion of the habits that came to dominate war reporting:

Meanwhile strange conventional stories were born and duly reported. One of the oddest concerned the colonel or general in the Air Force whose duty required that he stay in reluctant comfort on the ground and who ate his heart out to be with his "boys" out on mission over Germany among the red flak. It was hard, stern duty that kept him grounded, and much harder than flying missions. I don't know where this one started, but it doesn't sound as though it came from enlisted personnel. I never met a bomber crew which wouldn't have taken on this sterner duty at the drop of a hat. They may have been a little wild, but they weren't that crazy.
He lists some of the standard conventions they followed:

There were no cowards in the American Army, and of all the brave men the private in the infantry was the braavest and noblest. The reaon for this in terms of the War Effort is obvious. The infantry private had the dirtiest, weariest, least rewarding job in the whole war. In addition to being dangerous and dirty, a great many of the things he had to do were stupid. He must therefore be reassured that these things he knew to be stupid were actually necessary and wise, and that he was a hero for doing them.
A second convention was that we had no cruel or ambitious or ignorant commanders.
A third sternly held rule was that five million perfectly normal, young, energetic, and concupiscient men and boys had for the period of the War Effort put aside their habitual preoccupation with girls.
On the latter point, he add mischievously:

When Army Supply ordered X millions of rubber contraceptive and disease-preventing items, it had to be explained that they were used to keep moisture out of machine-gun barrels - and perhaps they did.
And he summarizes the gloomy result of obsession with secrecy combined with unrealistic images of the military and the realities of war:

Since our Army and Navy, like all armies and navies, were composed of the good, the bad, the beautiful, the ugly, the cruel, the gentle, the brutal, the kindly, the strong, and the weak, this convention of general nobility might seem to have been a little hard to maintain, but it was not. We were all a part of the War Effort. We went along with it, and not only that, we abetted it. Gradually it became a part of all of us that the truth about anything was automatically secret and that to trifle with it was to interfere with the War Effort. By this I don't mean that the correspondents were liars. They were not. In the pieces in this book everything set down happened. It is in the things not mentioned that the untruth lies.
And it was this unreal quality in the reporting that for Steinbeck gave them a fairy-tale, once-upon-a-time quality re-reading them years later. Or, as he puts it, "Once upon a time there was a war, but so long ago and so shouldered out of the way by other wars and other kinds of wars that even people who were there are apt to forget."

And unlike our Keyboard Commandos today, Steinbeck hasn't forgotten that if war is sometimes a necessary evil, it is still an evil:

Perhaps it is right or even necessary to forget accidents, and wars are surely accidents to which our species seems prone. If we could learn from our accidents it might be well to keep the memories alive, but we do not learn. In ancient Greece it was said that there had to be a war at least every twenty years because every generation of men had to know what it was like. With us, we must forget, or we could never indulge in the murderous nonsense again.
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