There It Is: A True War Story

August 30, 2016

Peter Hart, Voices from the Front: An Oral History of the Great War (Oxford University Press, 2016).

 

Had I put this book down at page 355, I would have nothing much to say about it except maybe, “Oh.” Perhaps that is as it should be.

Voices from the Front is an accounting of Britain’s experience in the First World War as told to the Imperial War Museum’s oral historian, Peter Hart. The author takes us with him to “to the myriad front doors, halls, kitchens, and living rooms of the elderly veterans” – some 183 of them – and though his care and respect for his subjects is patently clear, he strikes a remarkable balance in his treatment of tales that range from heroism to malingering and desertion. For all this care, Hart’s eyes are open to the shortcomings of oral history: the limited point of view, the effects of time, the few “sad fantasists,” the stress, shock, and “mental confusion and dislocation from events.” “In many ways,” he writes, “interviews are best used to give a sense of what it was like to be in an attack, rather than the fine details of what happened.”

There is little chance that such a careful, professional historian would weave in the art needed to truly convey the tenor of the aged voices and the telling patterns of their speech as they tell, many for the first time, their haunted tales some 70 years after those dreadful days when they lost their youth. Hart takes us from the heady days of 1914 when the lads vowed to be back by Christmas to the hopelessness of interminable war. In some senses, the book is narrow in scope, drawn only from those 183 British voices. It is all the more striking, then, that so many things are represented here: the Western Front, Gallipoli, Mesopotamia, the war on and under the sea, the earliest combat tankers, infantrymen, stretcher bearers and doctors, engineers, sappers, artillerymen, signalmen, and pilots. The men tell tales of being barraged, buried, gassed, shot, sickened with dysentery, and even left for dead.

The voices float up, disembodied, off the page. Hart admits that the accounts are “vague, sometimes dreamlike.” For all the unbelievable horror these veterans lived through, their stories lack punch – and for good reason. Over the course of the four years of the war, terror and barbarity became the new norm, searing eyes, hearts, and minds until they were all but numb.

Private Joe Yarwood, for instance, recalled the first wounded man he carried off the battlefield. Yarwood felt sorry because he’d been shot through the head, so Yarwood placed his tunic under the man as a pillow. As they carried him through the narrow trenches, the casualty tore off the bandages on his head and began vomiting. While Yarwood did not know what came of the man after they left him at the aid station, he reflected drily, “I very much doubt from the extent of brains on my tunic that he got through.” If that wasn’t enough, Yarwood’s colonel chastised him for letting such a mess become of his tunic, threatening to make him pay for a new outfit if he was ever so foolish again. It was a matter-of-fact world they lived in.

Not even the loss of a father made much of a dent on these men. During the Gallipoli campaign, Second Lieutenant Joseph Napier was called to see his father, also a British officer, who had been mortally wounded. His feelings that day evoke no profundities. “One had seen so many dead bodies lying around and being young one had got hardened – when I saw him dead I just accepted it as another of the facts of war.”

There is a quintessentially British understatement here and some small bit of poignancy, but it leaves you – too – a bit numb. As I went through the book, I struggled to find things to write about. There was an admirable balance of the details of jingoism and heroism, falsified ages and the need for a compulsory draft, cowardice, desertion, and even an execution. There were stories of shell shock that Hart passed without referring to our recent familiarity with traumatic brain injury even though the symptoms described in the book are now classic tells of severe concussion. I drew other parallels, too. Second Lieutenant Martin Greener, an engineer officer, told of his duties: “We were responsible for every bridge and every culvert – because they were all mined,” on unpredictable fuses set off by the action of acid on wires. Although we act like IEDs are a surprise, they clearly should not have been. There was no acronym for them in World War I. By Vietnam, there was – they were known as SFDs or surprise firing devices. Regardless, they have been a known threat for over a century.

The point here is that not much changes. While the scale of the horrors in the War to End All Wars was orders of magnitude beyond anything in recent experience, it all seems very terrifying and terrible at a personal level when you are confronted with it. It is all overwhelming, numbing, searing… cauterizing. Which is why the stories are so unfeeling. That, too, made sense to me, though.

A little over a year ago, I sent my father Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. I served in Afghanistan, he in Vietnam. It spoke to me and I thought it would speak to him.

In the first chapter, a snuffie – as my father would say – named Ted Lavender dies. He is shot in the head on his way back from taking a piss. Mitchell Sanders, one of his platoon mates says, “There’s a definite moral here.” Another soldier says, “I don’t see no moral.”

“There it is, man,” Sanders replies. The platoon goes on making light of Lavender’s death: zapped while zipping. A real pisser. My dad was pissed. “What, his death doesn’t matter because they thought he was a stoner?” he fumed. Keep reading Dad, I told him. He’d missed the point.

Lavender was notorious for being doped up on tranquilizers and weed. The squad waited for the chopper that would carry him out, smoking his weed, talking about “how the poor guy didn’t feel a thing, how incredibly tranquil he was.” This is when Mitchell Sanders comes upon the moral. “The moral’s pretty obvious,” he said with a wink. “Stay away from drugs. No joke, they’ll ruin your day every time.”

The platoon laughed and repeated the mantra, “There it is.” O’Brien writes that they said it “as if the repetition itself were an act of poise, a balance between crazy and almost crazy, knowing without going, there it is, which meant be cool, let it ride, because Oh yeah man, you can’t change what can’t be changed, there it is, there it absolutely and positively and fucking well is.”

The only person who seemed to care was First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross. Cross cared because he was in charge and because he felt responsible. And because he had not yet stopped thinking about the “World.” The rest of the platoon noted his sobs with a mix of disgust and ambivalence. The next morning, Cross, resolved to avoid the sins of “carelessness and gross stupidity” that killed men in that place, “dispensed with love; it was not now a factor.” I doubt Cross cried like that again.

At some point, you have to stop caring much. Trauma numbs limbs. War dehumanizes. There are days… there are years that some people will never get back. For some, it is feelings. Some have lost countless memories. All too often, the mind has shut out the good while the bad comes back again and again.

It is temporary, though, the numbness. I recall a story my dad told me, and I do not now know if it really is true. Not that I doubt him. Rather, I do not trust my own jumble of memories in which one thing intrudes on another and some things have disappeared forever. In this story, which is true in one way or another, my father recalls how a marine lost it crying over a dog. I don’t know if the dog was shot, stepped on a mine, fell prey to a mortar… does it really matter? I remember my father saying – who knows what he really said – that after all the shit he saw, the kid broke down over a dog. Because it was unexpected. You expected your buddy to get it. You didn’t learn the FNG’s name because he just replaced your buddy. You even expected to be next. But not the dog.

There it is.

Had I put this book down at page 355, I wouldn’t have felt a damn thing. But on page 356, Private Bill Gillman narrates the day he thought he was leaving the line. As they marched away, one lone German shell reached out and touched them, right in the middle of their formation:

I sat by the side of the road and I sobbed my heart out. … What hit me was that having got away, marching back, no more casualties, really free of it: in fact we were singing, going along the road when this bloody thing came over, carefree away from the front… Then from all that bloody distance they lob a shell onto us. One shell, there was no more, it was the only one. … I thought I couldn’t cry – I didn’t feel like crying till then.

Eventually it comes welling up. You never know when or how. Sometimes it is tears. Sometimes it is anger. Sometimes it is the pure burn of self-destruction. Whatever it is, it is exceedingly hard to describe. O’Brien explains that, “Afterward, when you go to tell about it, there is always that surreal seemingness, which makes the story seem untrue, but which in fact represents the hard and exact truth as it seemed. … And in the end, really, there’s nothing much to say about a true war story, except maybe ‘Oh.’”

There it is and there is the essence of Hart’s book: “Oh.”

If you feel anything, it is in that one anecdote of the soldiers singing, thinking they were free of it all. But they weren’t and they never would be.

They’d learned to live in a world most of civilization cannot understand. As my father wrote to me, “Out in the bush I learned from snuffies that whatever thing/perk one could grab/obtain- it don’t mean nothing but I owe it to myself.” The thing, though, is that no perk means more than getting out of the field and back to the real world. My father, again: “When I left the field, and Marines in the field, to go to the battery at Da Nang, I thought I would feel happy to be returning to a more normal nicer way of life but I felt like I was leaving the good guys.” There it is. And so it goes. You can’t escape it.

We all know the soldier on the other side of this war, Erich Maria Remarque, for his classic All Quiet on the Western Front, yet he wrote what I think was an even greater book entitled The Road Back. Near the end, Remarque crafts a poignancy that lies in the fictive domain of the retrospective. Lieutenant Georg Rahe, too, felt that he had left the good guys. He tried to regain that feeling by returning to the army, but  found that the postwar soldiers just were not the same. . Thwarted in this attempt to find a road back, Rahe recalled the desire of a friend in an insane asylum to return to the fields of Fleury, near Verdun. Remarque writes this final chapter in a different point of view than the rest, leaving us to wonder if Rahe really did steal back to the front with a foreigner’s passport. Did he really crawl back on this singular patrol, smelling the old smells and feeling the old feelings? Could he not go forward, but only back to pointless end? There is no true war story here.

And suddenly he understands all. Before these crosses the whole fabric of grand abstractions and fine phrases comes crashing down. Here alone the war still exists, no longer as in the minds and distorted memories of those who have come away from it. Here stand the lost years that have not been fulfilled, like a will-o’-the-wisp over the graves; here the unlived life that finds no rest cries out in roaring silence to the sky; here the strength and the will of a generation of youth that died before it could begin to live is poured out in one vast lament upon the night.

Then, in a poetic and abstruse way, Remarque tells us that Rahe has put a bullet in his own head, as did more than one in his book. Fiction makes for better copy, but in the end, there’s nothing much to say about a true war story, except maybe “Oh,” and perhaps that is the point. There is no point in it.

 

Peter J. Munson (@peter_munson), a retired Marine officer and pilot, is Director of Safety & Security for the Cleveland Indians Baseball Club. Previously, Peter was a global crisis manager at Citigroup, dealing a wide range of security, safety, and risk management issues in the financial sector. Munson, who was a Middle East foreign area officer and Arabic linguist, is the author of two books: War, Welfare & Democracy: Rethinking America’s Quest for the End of History and Iraq in Transition: The Legacy of Dictatorship and the Prospects for Democracy. In addition, he was past Editor of the Small Wars Journal is a frequent contributor to international relations and military professional journals.

Image: World War One Photos Archive (www.WW1Photos.com).