21 January 2011

Two wars.

Via the quirks of the Brooklyn Public Library, I'd two unremitting-horror-of-war books checked out at the same time: E.B. Sledge's classic WWII Pacific memoir, With the Old Breed at Peleliu and Okinawa, and It Was the War of the Trenches by French graphic novelist Jacques Tardi, an episodic Great War comic just released in English by Fantagraphics.

Sledge's prose is almost entirely unadorned, and therein lies its power: there is no romanticizing, no rationalizing, not a shred of glamour in his account of fighting with the 1st Marine Division in two fierce, weeks-long battles on Pacific islands--the largely forgotten (and largely pointless) Peleliu, and Okinawa, the last great offensive of the war (though the soldiers didn't know it--they were simply preparing a base for the invasion of Japan. My 18-year-old paternal grandfather was waiting with the invasion force when the bombs were dropped.). He is matter-of-fact about mud and shit and maggots, the stench of a battlefield covered with corpses in various states of decay and crowded with unwashed living men, and the sometimes shameful treatment of the enemy dead by his fellow Marines--wrenching out gold teeth as trophies was common. At the same time, he is straightforward and sometimes heartwrenching about the emotional range of the soldier: despair, courage, and the wholly unique camaraderie that occurs between fighting men--a human relationship with no peaceful parallel. Sledge sums up the paradoxes of war better than I can:
War is brutish, inglorious, and a terrible waste. Combat leaves an indelible mark on those who are forced to endure it. The only redeeming factors were my comrades' incredible bravery and their devotion to each other.

Tardi's Great War* graphic novel is of course not an eyewitness account. It was originally published in chapters, over a span of 12 years, and there's no overarching narrative--it follows several different French soldiers, mostly to their deaths. The drawings are black-and-white, stark, and horrific (in fact, I think I upset a couple sitting across from me on the subway with the cover, which prominently features corpses, barbed wire, and rats). The French experience of the war was slightly different from other countries--for one thing, their trenches were shoddily built and maintained, especially compared to the Germans--and they were also the only army to mutiny on a large scale, in 1917 (43% of infantry divisions were "destabilized" by men refusing to remain in the front-line trenches; 24,000 were convicted of mutiny. More information will be forthcoming in 2017, when the last of the military archives will be released). This is borne out in Tardi's fiction by anger and misery among the men. There's also a fascinating catalogue of various colonial troops--Senegalese, Algerians, Vietnamese--dragged thousands of miles by imperial masters for the privilege of dying in the mud.

I'm fond of saying that all great war movies/novels/etc. are also great anti-war works, and vice versa; both of these more than qualify, and I'd highly recommend them, with of course the caveat that because they are true, they are not pretty, and if you're anything like me you will require your next couple of books to be frothy and delightful (I am countering with a couple of Eloisa James romance novels). They have also finally determined me to eventually read Karl Marlantes's much-ballyhooed-by-people-I-trust Vietnam epic Matterhorn, after a decent amount of time has elapsed.

*N.B.: I am wholly aware that referring to WWI as "the Great War" is an affectation, and it is TOTALLY OKAY if you roll your eyes when I do it. I just feel very, very strongly that it is too often relegated to the role of prequel to the war which came after it. If it were up to me to name conflicts that took place decades before I was born and affected millions of people (which really, would indicate something terribly wrong with the world), I would call them both the Great War, since the later was a product of the vindictive "peace" that resulted from the earlier.

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