../1198/space%20holder

In the Valley of the Shadow of Death 101, continued

    As a history major at Stanford, Michael Ryan enrolled in an independent study with a required reading list of writers like Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831) who make sense of war by looking at battle strategy and military theory. The course was supposed to acquaint seniors with the rigors of historical research. Ryan found the subject matter flat and boring, which was ironic because he took the course in 1967, when television had brought the Vietnam War into everyone’s living room–not to mention that as a college senior his draft deferment was about to run out. He remembers sitting alone in his room and trembling at the prospect of going off to war. He enlisted in the Marines but ended up in a stateside desk job.
   
When he was a kid, Ryan "lived on" movies made between 1942 and 1955 that extolled the nobility of war. "The TV was filled with all those World War II propaganda films plus the we’re-the-victor films that were done right after the war. I was raised on that stuff, and basically a good part of my world view for a long time, if not to this minute, has been shaped by a kind of thoughtless immersion in that culture." His father was a Seabee with the Marines in the Pacific during World War II but has remained silent about the experience. "It was fine to watch John Wayne and all that," Ryan recalls, "but in my Irish Catholic environment, these experiences were not considered worth talking about."
   
Reading The Great War and Modern Memory, by emeritus English professor Paul Fussell, opened Ryan’s eyes to how war gets represented as an enticing and intoxicating experience. "My interest in teaching this course grew out of an essentially thoughtless legacy of growing up on this stuff, along with the shock of the Vietnam War and the inability of the academy to connect with those experiences. I think it’s important for students, for society, to talk about war as a lived experience. Instead," he notes in a hushed conspiratorial tone, "we avoid it; we obfuscate it; we euphemize it. I thought, growing up in L.A. in the 1950s, that this is it: I’m just going to see war on the TV screen. You might think it’s off on the distant horizon, but at some point war is going to bite you."
   
Ryan, who went on to earn a doctorate in history from New York University after his tour of duty, specializes in the intellectual history of the early modern period and has taught at Stanford and the University of Chicago as well as Penn. With a Ph.D. in English literature, Dan Traister offers a complementary view on the seminar’s subject matter. An English-language literature bibliographer for Penn’s main library and curator for research services in the rare book and manuscript library on the sixth floor, he teaches frequently on book- and library-related subjects, and at Penn he has taught courses on Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Renaissance drama, popular fiction and westerns. He has twice taught a course called Nuclear Fictions, which looks at factual and fictional narratives on the development and use of the atomic bomb.
   
Traister was the kind of kid who, as a third-grader, discussed the flawed policies of Eisenhower and Dulles with his friends on the way to play stick ball in their Bronx neighborhood. He remembers his "clichéd Jewish middle-class New York household" as one convulsed with frequent and vigorous political arguments.
   
A child veteran of the Cold War, his political precocity convinced him that he lived in "bull’s eye central." In his earliest nightmares, Traister watched from his apartment window as chunky, Buck Rogers-like missiles descended on him in slow motion through ineffectual cannon fire. And it wasn’t just the anti-aircraft battery positioned to the south of his building that led him to make doodles of mushroom clouds while keeping an eye on the ticking doomsday clock that adorned The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. When he was a second grader in PS 95, around the outbreak of the Korean War, school authorities distributed dog tags to the students. The principal arranged for one of the older children, who had survived the Allied bombing of German cities, to explain the value of wearing dog tags–to help parents identify their bodies in the post-nuclear rubble. "It scared the living pee out of me," he exclaims. "Psychologically, I think this was an extremely witty thing to do with second-graders." Traister is fond of the kind of irony that comes down with both feet.
   
Together, Ryan and Traister don’t so much lead a class discussion as throw out thoughts and impressions. Sometimes their remarks appear to be a continuation across the seminar table of a conversation left off at their day jobs. The students either jump in or take the discussion in their own direction. One student called their informal pedagogy a "synergistic, tag-team teaching style."
   
Traister says "the students get two for the price of one." They are also a contrast in style and personality. Traister is fleshy, with full lips; Ryan is almost gaunt. Traister is bald and wears pull-over sweaters with an open-collar shirt; Ryan usually sports a tie and blazer, and keeps his hair neatly parted and his beard manicured. Traister guffaws; Ryan’s face wrinkles in a tight smile. Traister uses blunt irony; Ryan is direct and scholarly in his soft expression. In a summer course they co-taught at the University of Virginia Rare Book School, one of the students wrote on an evaluation form that it was hard to decide whether the instructors reminded them of Boswell and Johnson or Laurel and Hardy.
   
Responding to their promptings, the class usually embarked on discussions that struggled with ways to bring individuals’ war experiences together with the war’s larger, overarching aims–the end for which war, in Clausewitz’s view, serves as a means. "War and patriotism are intertwined," argued one student. "In World War II patriotism unified this country and spurred it to new heights as we helped defeat two evil empires." When evaluating such claims in light of a continuous dose of personal war narratives, though, the conversation usually toppled into an "unbridgable gap" that opened between the two perspectives.
   
"There is no way out of that one," says Ryan. "No matter how just you may have thought those war aims to be, they are still at odds with the fundamental experience of the guys on the ground." It’s like Bead’s attempt to understand his killing of the Japanese soldier: any explanation that invokes noble objectives like "stopping aggression" or "defending freedom" is essentially untrue to the immediate experience. It’s merely a John Wayne role "without anything, no reality, of himself or anything else." The conundrum remains.
   
The opening up of those reflective spaces and the pause before closing on some opinion are outcomes Ryan and Traister aim for with their teaching. In the session that delved into the novel Black Rain, two students locked in a tense debate over the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. The exchange recapitulated, and went no further in resolving, the argument that pits a calculus of American and Japanese lives "saved" against the claim that mass killing of civilians is always intrinsically pernicious. "If we had the resolutions to these problems, we wouldn’t be sitting here teaching this course. What makes these issues important for kids to think about is precisely that they are extraordinarily difficult–and serious," Traister observes.
   
Many of the students came to the seminar suspecting vaguely that they wanted to know something more about war. The only American war they had known–the one known as Desert Storm, in the Persian Gulf–took place when they were too young to understand it or the events that led up to it. As a whole, they don’t believe a war will be fought on U.S. territory in their lifetime, nor do they expect to be drafted into a big ground war, although most will admit to a fear of being nuked. But "there’s not really any point in worrying about it," they say almost immediately and go on to dismiss that prospect as "a reality we all have to live with." The irony in those words seems to go unheard.
   
"For young people," Traister contends, "war is abstract, ancient history. They really don’t believe–and I bet they still don’t believe this week when we’re in the business of dropping bombs [on Yugoslavia]–that this is ever going to happen to them." The subject of Kosovo–the latest conflict in the region where the Great War got its start–hardly came up for discussion.

Required reading for General Honors 215, The Experiences of War in the Twentieth Century:

Mother Courage and Her Children, Bertolt Brecht. 1955. A deeply troubling play about the contradictions of war: why we need it, why we don’t; what it gives to us, what it takes from us; why we can’t live with it, why we can’t live without it. "Your brood should get fat off the war, but the poor war must ask nothing in return?"

War Poetry: An Introductory Reader, Simon Featherstone, ed. 1995. Anthology of poems and some prose as well as critical essays that examine a genre that bears witness to the 20th century’s two most devastating wars.

Doing Battle: The Making of a Skeptic, Paul Fussell. 1996. Memoir by a retired Penn professor: "Late in the afternoon of March 15, 1945, in a small woods in southeastern France, Boy Fussell was ill treated by members of the German Wehrmacht … How a young person so innocent was damaged this way and what happened as a result is the subject of this book."

Good-Bye to All That, Robert Graves. 1929. After completing this somewhat farcical autobiography of his WWI experiences and his life before the trenches, this British novelist, poet, critic, translator and essayist departed for a life of "exisle" on Majorca, "resolved never to make England my home again."

The Short-Timers, Gustav Hasford. 1979. "The truth can be ugly." A grimly realistic–sometimes surrealistic–novel by a former combat correspondent in Vietnam that portrays American Marines from boot camp on Parris Island to the jungle battle for Khe Sanh.

Catch-22, Joseph Heller. 1961. About a WWII American bomber squadron, this best-selling novel never tires of asking the question: Are you crazy? At once hilarious and horrific, the book’s tortured logic reveals a "secret" in the entrails of a disemboweled crewman: "Man was matter" and hence, the plaything of forces and powers that hardly notice what they grind up.

A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway. 1929. A love story whose two protagonists live tenuously in the shadow of a third "character"–WWI. The author probes the failures and deceptions of language to express the truth of a world that "breaks everyone" and in the end reduces the narrator to silence.

Black Rain, Masuji Ibuse. 1969. The story of a young woman whose life is crippled physically and socially by the radioactive "black rain" that fell after the bombing of Hiroshima. The novel recounts the experiences of a family and a shattered city beneath the shadow of the mushroom cloud.

The Thin Red Line, James Jones. 1962. A veteran of Guadalcanal, the author creates a fictional account that follows the thoughts and actions of the men of C-for-Charlie Company in their first encounters with war. "Property. All for property."

The Storm of Steel, Ernst Jünger. 1929. Wounded no fewer than seven times in WWI and awarded Germany’s highest medal for "ruthless bravery," Jünger’s memoir insists on seeing war through a prism of aristocratic ideals and chivalric virtue. All the while industrialization and the science of killing have reduced war from a contest of courage and will to an efficient process of systematic slaughter.

The Book of Lights, Chaim Potok Gr’65 Hon’83. 1981. The Holocaust in Europe confronts the holocaust in Japan. Potok’s novel looks at the bomb’s Jewish scientist-creators through the lives of two rabbinical students who end up as chaplains in the Korean War. "[I]nvent the bomb, punish Germans, save American boys, end the war. A benevolent apocalypse."

All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque. 1928. German ex-soldier composes a novel detailing the cruelty and stupidity of the Great War. It was not just British troops: all sides experienced the savage meaninglessness of trench warfare beneath a "network of arching shells."

With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa, Eugene B. Sledge, Jr. 1981. Unflinching account of close combat with the Japanese in the island-hopping campaigns of the south Pacific. "It was unreal," this U.S. Marine writes in this memoir of what it’s like to be "drawn into the vortex of a flaming abyss."

The Return of the Soldier, Rebecca West. 1918. This deeply ironic novel presents a woman’s view of combat by observing its mind-shattering effects upon the men who endure it. West portrays a carefully structured world in which men are made fit for the trenches, aided by wives who help maintain the sterile, loveless, lifeless world of class and domesticity that the trenches reflect.

 

previous page | next page


July/August Contents | Gazette Home

Copyright 1999 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 7/7/99