Monday, September 10, 2007

Once There Was a War...

Tim gave me a copy of Steinbeck's collected writings about the war (Once There Was a War). As always, Steinbeck's writing is some of the most beautiful and insightful I've read and a passage in the foreword struck me. One of the things about the military is that many people tend to generalize about a "military type". I know I did it before I joined and often, when people discover I am in the military, I am told that I "don't seem the type."

Steinbeck was writing about the self-imposed rules that many journalists wrote under at that time and wrote the following:
The rules, some imposed and some self-imposed, are amusing twenty years later. I shall try to remember a few of them. There were no cowards in the American Army, and of all the brave men the private in the infantry was the bravest and noblest. The reason for this in terms of the War Effort is obvious. The infantry private had the dirtiest, weariest, least rewarding job in the whole war. In addition to being dangerous and dirty, a great many of the things he had to do were stupid. He must therefore be reassured that these things he knew to be stupid were actually necessary and wise, and that he was a hero for doing them. Of course no one even casually inspected the fact that the infantry private had no choice...
Since our Army and Navy, like all armies and navies, were composed of the good, the bad, the beautiful, the ugly , the cruel, the gentle, the brutal, the kindly, the strong, and the weak, this convention of general nobility might seem to have been a little hard to maintain, but it was not. We were all part of the War Effort.

It's interesting that only twenty years after the war was over that Steinbeck was able to discern in his writing this little bit of insincerity and yet, in writing this passage, he really gets at the most beautiful part of the military and the part that is most often overlooked by those who care to think about such things. We are not all heroes in the conventional sense of the word, and we are not all moral beacons...we are not all anything. It is the fact that in our unique society (military people) our organization encompasses people of all walks of life, from all spectrums of personality and privilege and yet, as my friend wrote in her comment, it is what we give up that we share in common. (Now that I've typed all this, the whole first paragraph of the quote was probably unnecessary, although interesting.)

I recommend the book to anyone to read. Reading these war dispatches from so long ago makes what goes on today somehow more real for those of us who are not fighting.


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