Thursday, May 03, 2012

Gray's Warriors

One more short book not to throw out: Glen Gray's The Warriors appears to persist in print, if just barely, but I suspect it wouldn't be there at all without the imprimatur of Hannah Arendt who wrote a preface to a 1967 reprint.  And Arendt, for her part, apparently undertook her task to correct what she saw as a great wrong.  She says the book "was almost entirely overlooked when it first appeared' (i.e., in 1959).  She adds that in time it had acquired "a group of readers in very different walks of life who cherished it as a triumph of personal discovery," but obviously she thought it deserved better, and so came to sponsor the edition which remains available today.

Yet if Gray seemed remote in his own time, today he seems as distant as a Tiepolo ceiling.  Gray was reporting--no, reflecting--on his own experience of war, from the sober and removed vantage of a small-college professorship, back in the days when a small-college professorship was a post of obscure dignity.  So much has happened, not least to the small colleges, but for our purposes much more important, to our understanding of war.

Recall the simple irony: some 11 million Americans "fought" (broadly defined) in World War II.  They brought home their stories.  Or so we thought; but in fact almost everything conspired to assure that the home folks just didn't get it. The military itself and the press had collaborated to put a benign face on the endeavor while it continued.  And the soldiers, for all their stories, really didn't want to talk about the worst of it; they much preferred to turn their face away and to get on with their lives.  Grant that we had The Naked and the Dead (and by the way, does anybody read it these days); but recall that Joseph Heller didn't finish Catch-22 until 1961--and that it didn't really gain traction until years later in a different war.

We've had on the whole rather better war writing since--think Tim O'Brien and Phil Caputo--to say nothing of the monumental "real war" movies llke Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now.  Compared to all of these, Gray is bound to seem irretrievably far away.

Arendt did Gray (and us) a great service, but I think she may have misunderstood its spirit. She says in her preface that "the first lesson to be learned on the battlefield is that the closer you were to the enemy, the less did you hate him."  But Gray deserves a more careful reading.  He does conjure up "the image of the opposing enemy as an essentially decent man who is either temporarily misguided by false doctrine or forced to make war against his better will and desire,."  He says that; he says also that this image "appeals to most reasonable men"--but he says that this image appeals to most "only after a war is past" (my italics).  During the war, we can expect that kind of detachment from "only  the minority of combat soldiers who are at the same time reflective and relatively independent in their judgment."  One is tempted to add: and for that very reason, perhaps not very good warriors?


Anonymous said...

what's the title of the great vietnam war book based on a lt col actions? read it twice. tells more about a futile war than anything else i've read. NY times staffer wrote it. ought to be required reading (every year) at military academies.

they call me trouble said...

Who knows. But there was "dispatches"

Buce said...

Michael Herr's Dispatches is certainly in a class almost by itself. I bet Anon is thinking of Neil Sheehan's Bright Shining Lie.