Remembering on Memorial Day
Published in the Los Angeles Times. 25 May 2009
As recently as the late 1950s, in a small town on Long lsland near New York City, young people in school learned certain poems: Joyce Kilmer’s “Prayer of a Soldier in France,” Alan Seeger’s “ I Have a Rendezvous With Death” and John MacRae’s “In Flanders Field.” Does anyone still remember the fallen this way in classrooms?
This spring, “Dispatches” by Michael Herr appeared in the Everyman Series from Alfred A. Knopf, 40 years after the publication of Herr’s memorable article on Khe Sanh in Esquire (it is also one of the most memorable parts of “Dispatches”). How many literary books are there about the Vietnam War? Some would say Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” is at the top of that list, though for many people the experience of Vietnam probably derives mostly from movies, not books — “Apocalypse Now,” of course, or “Platoon,” or “Go Tell the Spartans.”
As the poems above may suggest, World War I seems to have left a deep impression, not to mention some powerful books about that conflict: “All Quiet on the Western Front” by Erich Maria Remarque (still read in many middle schools across the country) and, now and again, Ernst Junger’s “Storm of Steel” (now in a very good translation by Michael Hoffman). “Storm” is probably the single best book ever written about the actual experience of an individual soldier in modern combat.
But for many around the world, is it Ernest Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms” — with its description of a young man’s experiences of combat on the Italian front in World War I — that has had the most lasting literary impact?
One can’t help but think so, especially in light of Mark Thompson’s new book, "The White War: Life and Death on the Italian Front 1915-1919" (Basic Books), which throws light on the true horror and sheer futility of that arena of the war. Thompson also points out that two other major world writers, besides Hemingway, were on that front: Robert Musil (“The Man Without Qualities”) in the Austrian army and, in the Italian army, Carlo Emilio Gadda, whose “That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana” is the only Italian novel of the 20th century that is reasonably compared in power and scope to James Joyce’s “Ulysses.”
But it seems that “A Farewell to Arms” is the book that has given shape and spirit to the way we think about war, how we read Herr’s book and, maybe, even how our view of 19 year so far involvemen or warin Iraq and it will be reflected in books to come. As Hemingway wrote:
I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain. ... I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory... . There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity. ... Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.
The quotation from Hemingway of course is finally echoed in the realty of the Vietnam War monument in Washington.