Visions of War and Peace - WWI Literature and Authority
By Phil Klay
"Froth-corrupted lungs," "a ballet," "lies," "the most wonderful war in the world." These terms present the diverse ways writers have described WWI in literature. But which is the most accurate when it comes to relating the real experience of war? Who has the authority to tell the real story? These are the questions National Book Award Winner, Phil Klay, contemplates as he surveys various literary works on WWI, written by soldiers, officers, nurses, writers, and intellectuals. In WWrite's closing post, Klay also provides insight into the ways reading and writing WWI have shaped contemporary thought on war's impact on culture.
In the familiar literature, WWI comes to us, overwhelmingly, as muck and madness, an orgy of pointless violence, insanity on a civilizational scale as waves of young men were sent off with fine words into a meat grinder. It is blood gargling from “froth-corrupted lungs, obscene as cancer.” It is the old battalion, “hanging on the old barbed wire.” It is “strange hells within the minds war made,” while an oblivious public back home remains smugly, and wrongly, certain that “chivalry redeems the wars."
In Company K, a brilliant and sadly underread novel by William March, who served in WWI with the Marines and was decorated with the Croix de Guerre, the Distinguished Service Cross, and the Navy Cross, a soldier tries a hand at writing an honest condolence letter after the death of a comrade. He writes:
“He died in agony, slowly. You’d never believe that he could live three hours, but he did. He lived three full hours screaming and cursing by turns. He had nothing to hold on to, you see: He had learned long ago that what he had been taught to believe by you, his mother, who loved him, under the meaningless names of honor, courage and patriotism, were all lies . . .”
This, according to much of the literature of World War I, is the bitter truth which the war revealed. Yes, there are the occasional Ernst Jungers, who compared the exchange of hand grenades to a ballet and who counted his generation lucky to have been able to serve in such a great struggle, but the vast majority of the famous literature of the war, from Wilfred Owen to Siegfried Sassoon to Jaroslav Hasek, is a collective ode to futility, waste, horror, and despair. Is this, then, the truth?
In The Fighters, CJ Chiver’s superb book about the current American wars, he announces that he is rejecting senior officer views so that his book many channel “those who did the bulk of the fighting with the unapologetic belief that the voices of combatants of the lower and middle rank are more valuable, and more likely to be candid and rooted in battlefield experience, than those of the generals and admirals who ordered them to action—and often try to speak for them, too.”
But of course, it’s not just generals and admirals who try to speak for the common soldier, it’s poets and novelists too. Wilfred Owen is very self-consciously trying to speak for “his men,” a move which, as the poet Tom Sleigh has pointed out, when contrasted with the less ideologically inflected (and, to my mind, artistically superior) work of an enlisted soldier like David Jones, can seem “at best…heroic posturing in an anti-heroic guise [a]nd at worst…a form of unconscious class condescension.” And many of the great writers to come out of World War I are writing in the emerging modernist tradition which had already, prior to the war, established itself in an iconoclastic relationship with tradition and the old order. Marinetti had demanded we “demolish museums and libraries” in 1909, Ezra Pound had tried to move past the “crust of dead English” by founding Imagism in 1912, Stravinsky and Nijinsky had shocked audiences with The Rite of Spring in 1913. The spirit animating that generation of artists was revolutionary, tossing down old idols with reckless abandon, and so we must ask: Were “honor, courage and patriotism” revealed as lies by the war, or by these artists commitment to the prevailing current of thought among their tribe? Both, probably.
After all, the writings of those non-artists at war paint a more complex picture. As the historian Jonathan Ebel points out in the introduction to his Faith in the Fight: Religion and the American Soldier in the Great War, “Soldiers’ and war workers’ writings do not allow the honest historian to write a polemical history or a predictable ideological critique. As much as one may love or hate the idea of war, love or hate the men and women who plan wars and send others to die, love or hate those who profit financially or politically from war, the voices of soldiers and war workers will provide, at most, equivocal support.” And indeed, through soldiers’ and war workers’ letters and diaries he finds that, though we now like to tell the story of WWI as one of disillusionment, that was not the case for many Americans in the war, who saw it as an opportunity to practice "Christianity of the sword" by which they could find personal and national redemption for a God-chosen nation--and that that narrative was strengthened rather than weakened post-war.
Walter Poague, who flew seaplanes on anti-submarine missions and who would be killed six days before the Armistice, wrote to his mother, “This is not a terrible war. It is the most wonderful war in the world. It is the war which means the real salvation of the world.” Red Cross nurse Elizabeth Walker Black noted the “exaltation about being under fire” which shirkers, “with their flabby souls and sluggish blood living selfish lives” would never get to experience. And Infantry officer Vinton Dearing wrote to his mother of the strangely compelling nature of war:
“You go out into the moonlight and feel the place ‘holy and enchanted,’ a new world, half mystical, a different moon, more wondrous lights;-then some tremendous 155 goes off and shatters your dream….Life is great and the aims of the war are great. It is when you see into the aims with your inner eyes that you see the bigness of it all.”
To which truth do we owe allegiance? If we accept Chivers’ democratic notion that it is among the voices of lower and middle-rank combatants where we find the truth of war, then our poetically-informed ideas about WWI must get pulled in an uncomfortably militaristic direction.
As a writer who was once a Marine and writes about war, I am skeptical that there is any kind of final authority which we can rest on the supposed perspective of “the troops,” whatever that might be, and doubly skeptical that such authority then reverts to artists. After all, the budding fascism of the post-war period can be spotted not simply among those who grimly clung on to a cold and fatalistic nationalism through all the bloody years of the war, but also among far too many disillusioned artists and writers, from Celine to Evola to Huelsenbeck to Pound. The destruction of the old values can lead in many directions.
Veterans and artists can convey to us the thrilling or horrifying or insane intensity of war experience. They can show us the desperate attempts at sense-making done by humans engulfed in it. They can allow war to revolt us, or seduce us. They can lie, for sure, but even more dangerously, they can tell terribly impartial truths.
In the 1930s, Walter Benjamin took it upon himself to review a collection of essays, edited by Ernst Junger, about World War I and the possibilities within German nationalism for those of “heroic spirit.” As Benjamin, who a decade later would commit suicide while fleeing the Nazis, points out, all the authors “were themselves soldiers in the World War and, dispute what one may, they indisputably proceed from the experience of this war.” And yet, despite this, and despite the fact when war broke out in 1914 Benjamin spent his time translating Baudelaire rather than fighting, he confidently, and accurately, condemns not only their work but even their ability to write about war itself. In the essay, titled “Theories of German Fascism,” he declares:
We will not tolerate anyone who speaks of war, yet knows nothing but war. Radical in our own way, we will ask: Where do you come from? And what do you know of peace? Did you ever encounter peace in a child, a tree, an animal, the way you encountered a patrol in the field? And without waiting for you to answer, we can say No! It is not that you would then not be able to celebrate war, more passionately than now; but to celebrate it in the way you do would be impossible.
This, it seems to me, rests authority where it ought to reside. Not in the lived experience of war, nor in the penetrating yet isolate truths of individual artistic geniuses, nor in the aggregated opinions of a given mass of veterans, but in a careful reader possessed of a vision of peace.
Phil Klay is a Marine Corps veteran of the Iraq War and the author of the short story collection Redeployment, which won the 2014 National Book Award for Fiction. He is also the 2018 Laureate of the George W. Hunt, S.J., Prize for Journalism, Arts & Letters for outstanding work in the category Cultural & Historical Criticism. A graduate of the Hunter College MFA program, his writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Atlantic Magazine, the New Yorker, and the Brookings Institution’s Brookings Essay series.