In the Valley of the Shadow
of Death 101, continued
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 everyones living roomnot 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 were-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
Ryans 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 its 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: Im
just going to see war on the TV screen. You might think its 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 seminars subject matter. An English-language literature
bibliographer for Penns 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
A child veteran of the Cold
War, his political precocity convinced him that he lived in "bulls
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 wasnt 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 tagsto 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
dont 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; Ryans 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 wars larger,
overarching aimsthe end for which war, in Clausewitzs 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." Its like Beads 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. Its
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 wouldnt be sitting here teaching this course.
What makes these issues important for kids to think about is precisely
that they are extraordinarily difficultand serious," Traister
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 knownthe one known as
Desert Storm, in the Persian Gulftook place when they were too young
to understand it or the events that led up to it. As a whole, they dont
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 "theres 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
dont believeand I bet they still dont believe this week
when were in the business of dropping bombs [on Yugoslavia]that
this is ever going to happen to them." The subject of Kosovothe
latest conflict in the region where the Great War got its starthardly
came up for discussion.
for General Honors 215, The Experiences of War in the Twentieth Century:
and Her Children, Bertolt Brecht. 1955. A deeply troubling play about
the contradictions of war: why we need it, why we dont; what it
gives to us, what it takes from us; why we cant live with it, why
we cant 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 centurys two most devastating wars.
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
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."
Gustav Hasford. 1979. "The truth can be ugly." A grimly realisticsometimes
surrealisticnovel by a former combat correspondent in Vietnam that
portrays American Marines from boot camp on Parris Island to the jungle
battle for Khe Sanh.
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 books 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.
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 Germanys highest medal for "ruthless bravery,"
Jüngers 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 Gr65 Hon83. 1981. The Holocaust in Europe
confronts the holocaust in Japan. Potoks novel looks at the bombs
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 its like to be "drawn into the vortex of a flaming
The Return of
the Soldier, Rebecca West. 1918. This deeply ironic novel presents
a womans 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