In the Valley of the Shadow
of Death 101, continued
was in the trenches of the Great War, "the war to end all wars,"
that the centurys disillusionment was born. The main character in
Hemingways A Farewell to Arms sustains a serious leg
injury when an exploding shell smashes his dugout. "Tell me exactly
what happened," a friend who wants to procure a medal tells him.
"Did you do any heroic act?" "No," responds the protagonist,
"I was blown up while we were eating cheese." The inglorious
and darkly comic remark deflates the readers sense of what conventional
pomposities like "wounded in the line of duty" really mean.
Such senseless happenings were multiplied daily along 400 miles of trenches
and over four years of war.
Even Jünger, the proud aristocrat and staunch
believer in chivalric virtues, understood how "the soul of scientific
war" had rendered them obsolete. He writes in The Storm of Steel
that "a battle was no longer an episode that spent itself in blood
and fire; it was a condition of things that dug itself in remorselessly
week after week and even month after month ... Death lay in ambush for
each one in every shell-hole, merciless, and making one merciless in turn."
Marine E.B. Sledge tells one of the courses
most grueling tales. In his World War II memoir, With the Old Breed,
the author writes of being locked in close combat with the Japanese on
Peleliu and Okinawa. In the worst of the fighting, during a long stalemate
on Okinawas Half Moon Hill, the Marines were unable to leave their
waterlogged foxholes. The dead remained where they fell, and thick hordes
of flies hovered over them. In some cases, pools of fat, writhing maggots
were all that remained of a corpse that had sunken into the mire. "[T]he
ever-present smell of death saturated my nostrils," he writes. "It
was there with every breath I took."
The appalling nightmare world that Sledge portrays
is almost too terrible to comprehend. He reports watching a fellow Marine
using a Kabar knife to extract the gold teeth from the mouth of a wounded
Japanese soldier. Frustrated in the attempt, the Marine sliced through
the prisoners cheeks to create better access and then continued
to gouge and pry, unfazed by the mans weak thrashing and gurgling.
Sledge asserts that "[w]e come from a nation
and a culture that values life and the individual"an ethos
with no survival value where killing rules. The noble purposes for which
men fight become swallowed up in the pitiless and unyielding necessities
of war, and those who must kill and die on opposing sides become the same,
as each individual struggles to remain alive.
In his memoir, Doing Battle, Paul Fussell
casts his personal journey through the wall of green leaves as a loss
of innocence. "I was privately rather exhilarated by this new turn
of events," he writes about the declaration of war, "for I knew
that I could come to no harm. I was too rich, too well looked after, too
well groomed, too fortunate in every way to be damaged." The breath-taking
naiveté of "Boy Fussell" was summarily stripped away
when he awoke in a French forest after being introduced to the front line
during the night. Dawn revealed that he had slept amid dozens of dead
German soldiers. "My boyish illusions, largely intact to that moment
of awakening, fell away all at once, and suddenly I knew that I was not
and would never be in a world that was reasonable or just." Where
Sledges prose is vividly transparent and wide open to unadulterated
horror, Fussell passes his experience through a "protective screen
of irony." He writes, "At this sight, I couldnt do what
I wanted, go off by myself and cry. I had to pretend to be, if not actually
gratified, at least undisturbed by this spectacle of our side victorious.
Such murders, after all, were precisely what my platoon and I were here
for." Here, the abstraction victory is not captured by the
celebratory Life-magazine image of a white uniformed sailor planting
a deep kiss on the lips of a young woman; it meant two "dead children,
rigged out as soldiers" whose brains extrude through bullet holes
in their foreheads and through their nostrils.
"I entered the war when I was nineteen,"
Fussell writes, "and I have been in it ever since." A scholar
of 18th-century British literature, he states that "[t]he eighteenth
century taught me how to appreciate satire, and the twentieth century
taught me to perceive that it is worthy of it." The bitter lessons
of war, he argues, cannot be gotten from a film, a library or a classroom.
Most of the courses combat veterans make the same claim and feel
an intense alienation, almost a hatred, of civilians who have not been
scarred by and, therefore, do not really understand war.
Yet they also try to give expression to their
experience, however inexpressible, and even if the attempts do not measure
up to the reality, the experience of being immersed in these writings
is a sobering, if not a harrowing, one. "I think you need to stare
horror in the face to really understand war," says Constantin Friedman,
a junior studying the history and sociology of science. "This course
is an antidote to the whitewashed ... conception of war most people have."
Traister points out that some Penn students
will likely be in positions of making important decisions that affect
peoples lives. "Even though you may eventually have to give
a simple answer in order to do something," he says, "before
arriving at the simple answer, you need to think as carefully and as hard
as you can through the complexities." Matt Nimtz, a junior studying
finance in the Wharton School, admits that one of the "simplistic
and generalized opinions I had coming into this course was that war is
bad but usually necessary. Now I see that war is not bad, but terribleand
maybe not worth fighting under most circumstances."
Ryan makes the observation that "this whole
tormented literature has about it the anxiety of the person in a dream,
yelling but emitting no sounds." On Half Moon Hill, Sledge sometimes
found himself "slipping," particularly in the impenetrable night
that engulfed him after the star shells burned out. He had to know the
position and posture of every corpse inhabiting that deathscape to detect
infiltrating Japanese who would freeze among the dead when illuminating
shells lit up the sleepless nights. Sledges foxhole looked down
one side of the ridge where the body of a dead Marine sat in a partly
flooded crater with its back toward the enemy positions: "His head
was cocked, and his helmet rested against the side of the crater so that
his face, or what remained of it, looked straight up at me. His knees
were flexed and spread apart. Across his thighs, still clutched in his
skeletal hands, was a rusting BAR [rifle]." Whenever Sledge looked
down toward the Japanese positions, "that half-gone face leered up
at me with a sardonic grin. It was as though he was mocking our pitiful
efforts to hang on to life ... Or maybe he was mocking the folly of war
Sledge relates a dream, or a hallucination,
he had one fitful night while the dark oscillated between an absolutely
black gloom and the unnatural glare of star shells illuminating the death-littered
warscapealong with its stark shadows. Wavering between wakefulness
and sleep, on the boundary between the real and the unreal, between life
and death, he watched as the partly decomposed Marines sprawled about
him slowly rose up and stalked aimlessly with stooped shoulders and dragging
feet. Their lips moved "as though trying to tell me something,"
he recalls. "I struggled to hear what they were saying." He
never succeeded. He did, though, in his imagination, hear a message from
the "grisly visage" that gazed back at him from the foot of
Half Moon Hill: "It is over for us who are dead, but you must struggle,
and will carry the memories all your life. People back home will wonder
why you cant forget."
The students enrolled in Experiences of War
glimpsed only a portion of a shadow of that experience. Like Ryan and
Traister, some looked into those hollow sockets, black and bottomless,
and felt wars unblinking stare look back. "We may not like
death," jeered Private Joker, echoing Trotsky, "but death likes
Peter Nichols CGS93 is the editor and principal
writer of PENN Arts & Sciences, the alumni publication of the
School of Arts and Sciences. He has worked at the University since 1982.