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photo copyright: Corbis Images
Title: In the Valley of the Shadow of Death 101, by Peter Nichols

A general honors seminar led by a pair of unlikely guides--two rare-book librarians at Van Pelt-Dietrich Library -- took students on an "intellectual reconnaissance" of some of our century's greatest horrors.

Picasso's Guernica, copyright by 2000 Estate of Pablo Picasso / ARS
Picasso's Guernica: (Copyright) 2000 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; all other photos (Copyright) Corbis Images.

Early in this century, Leon Trotsky commented, "You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you." He would know. A leader of Russia’s 1917 October Revolution and a war commissar who devised military policies that led to the defeat of the anti-Communist White Army in the Russian civil war of 1918-20, Trotsky was eventually exiled by Stalin, then hunted down and murdered. His remark casts war as a kind of baleful intelligence that turns a predatory eye upon the complacent who presume to live as though peace will continue indefinitely.
   Dr. Michael Ryan and Dr. Daniel Traister, rare-book librarians at Van Pelt-Dietrich Library, reciprocate war’s interest. In the spring semester they co- taught a general honors seminar on Experiences of War in the Twentieth Century. Trotsky’s quote stands at the head of the course syllabus, which characterizes the seminar not as a history of war but as a "retrospective tour of the ways in which ordinary, and not-so-ordinary, men and women have dealt with war, and the ways in which war has dealt with them." Together with the instructors, 14 undergraduates read and discussed poems, memoirs and novels that offered firsthand accounts of the First and Second World Wars and the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam, mostly from the perspective of American infantrymen (see box). The group met in a seminar room on the library’s sixth floor.
   
In one of the class readings, novelist James Jones creates a striking metaphor that lays out the absolute divide separating war and civilized life. The Thin Red Line tells the story of C-for-Charlie Company, which lands on Guadalcanal in the second wave of attackers. The initial assault force had already pushed the Japanese defenders off the beach, so Charlie Company had not yet been plunged into war. Approaching a jungle, they move skittishly along its edge, bending down at points trying to peer through the dense "wall of green leaves." Peering at the "meaty green leaves," one of the characters, Big Queen, "felt that you might almost expect one of them to bite back at you if you shoved it." Once the group steps through, they are dismayed by "the suddenness and completeness of the shutting off." The "enormity" that stood before them "was more than they had bargained for. Whatever else you could call this teeming verdure you certainly could not call it civilized. And as civilized men, it made them fearful."
   
Poking around inside the jungle, the group of innocents soon discovers the remnants of an earlier battle: a torn and bloody shirt from an American soldier, which the narrator calls the "death flag," and a mass grave from which the leg of a Japanese soldier protrudes. In search of souvenirs, Big Queen seizes the leg and hauls the corpse from its grave. With the exhumation also comes the vile stench of death, an almost palpable presence that compels the group to flee immediately, "jettisoning their dignity and everything else." In this symbolic encounter with death, "[n]o man who was sane and at liberty to leave was going to stay around." Later, these and other characters and individuals the class studied would not be free to run away and are forever scarred by their sojourn in the domain of death. Private Joker, the grimly cavalier narrator of Gustav Hasford’s Vietnam novel, The Short-Timers, teaches that Marines "live by the law of the jungle, which is that more Marines go in than come out."
   
In Experiences of War, Ryan and Traister lead an intellectual reconnaissance through the wall of leaves–at least to the degree possible for those dwelling in what the German author Ernst Jünger, in his World War I memoir, The Storm of Steel, calls "the dominion of comfort." The students go as spectators, and though they all come out, some are not quite the same as when they went in. "I literally had to catch my breath and put the book aside," says one student of a reading assignment. Freshman Ji Young Park reports weeping as she read All Quiet on the Western Front. "This course really gave me something to think about that four years of high-school history failed to do: the personal experiences of war."
   
The particular and individual perspective paints a starker picture of war’s meaning than does the broad, single-sweep brush stroke of historical overview. Jones portrays Charlie Company’s first killing when Private Bead goes off alone to relieve himself. Squatting with pants down around his ankles, he spots a Japanese soldier moving through the trees who suddenly turns and charges with the bayonet on the end of his rifle extended. Bead manages to elude the bayonet and bring down the enemy soldier. Sobbing and wailing in a "wild animal scream," Bead claws, kicks and chokes him; then grabs the rifle, thrusts the bayonet into his chest and finally fires the weapon point blank when he can’t pull it out. When the beaten soldier continues to thrash weakly, Bead drives the rifle butt into the man’s face again and again "until all the face and most of the head were mingled with the muddy ground. Then he threw the rifle from him and fell down on his hands and knees and began to vomit."
   
Bead is ashamed to tell his buddies about the "hysterical, graceless killing" and the "shameful botched-up job." It was not an exemplary killing for a citizen from the home of the brave: John Wayne would have done it better. When the dead soldier is discovered, the men admire Bead and convince him that the killing was justified. It is, after all, war. Essentially, they interpret the experience for him, and he eventually adopts that meaning, even if he does so doubtfully at first. "[H]e was fitting the killing of the Japanese man into the playing of a role; a role without anything, no reality, of himself or anything else. It hadn’t been like that at all." Later in the story, Captain Stein calls the reconstruction of lived experience into an acceptable and coherent narrative "the great conspiracy of history"–the kind of "augmentation" that veterans use to tidy up their war stories. Bead’s first and best expression of that unspeakable experience was to vomit. In the novel’s final sentence, after probing like a connoisseur of pain the nuances of Charlie Company’s experiences on Guadalcanal, the narrator states: "One day one of their number would write a book about all this, but none of them would believe it, because none of them would remember it that way." They had already "made sense" of the war.

 

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