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In the Valley of the Shadow of Death 101, continued

It was in the trenches of the Great War, "the war to end all wars," that the century’s disillusionment was born. The main character in Hemingway’s 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 reader’s 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 course’s 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 Okinawa’s 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 prisoner’s cheeks to create better access and then continued to gouge and pry, unfazed by the man’s 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 Sledge’s 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 couldn’t 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 course’s 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 people’s 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 terrible–and 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. Sledge’s 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 itself."
   
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 warscape–along 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 can’t 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 war’s unblinking stare look back. "We may not like death," jeered Private Joker, echoing Trotsky, "but death likes us."

Peter Nichols CGS’93 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.

 

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