Thursday, June 7, 2007

Once there was a war

John Steinbeck is one of the greatest writers of the last century, with classics like Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, among others.

He also was a war journalist for the New York Herald Tribune during World War II. Unlike the other reporters though, Steinbeck, like Ernie Pyle, wrote not of the furious campaigns that raged around, nor of the 'glory' of the victories that the Generals achieved. Instead, he wrote about the common soldier- those unrewarded hordes of men who were torn from their homes by the antics of leaders and fought for no reward, no honours, no glory, but only in the belief that their lives saved those of the people back home and around them. Hard hitting, evocative, and clearly able to see things that others couldn't, his stories are a reminder to all of us who thirst for war, what it really is.

A collection of these stories that he filed from the front was published as a book, Once There Was A War (1958). The book follows the soldiers and airmen through their daily lives, from the cramped troopships to England, through the fields of Sicily and the sea, hunting and being hunted by German U-boats. It is an extremely well written journal of what the soldiers lived like, what they felt, and what the war was to them and the common people they liberated. It brings you face to face with the true face of war- no glory or rewards, only death, loneliness and tears. Its a book that I recommend most forcefully.

Below is one of the stories that he filed from a troop carrier to England in 1943:

Somewhere in England, June 24, 1943-

A small USO unit is aboard the troopship, girls and men who are going to entertain troops wherever they may be sent. These are not the big names who go out with blasts of publicity and maintain their radio contracts. These are girls who can sing and dance and look pretty and men who can do magic and pantomimists and tellers of jokes. They have few properties and none of the tricks of light and color which dress up the theatre. But there is something very gallant about them. the theater is the only institution in the world which has been dying for four thousand years and has never succumbed. It requires tough and devoted people to keep it alive. An accordion is the largest piece of property the troupe carries. The evening dresses, crushed in suitcases must be pressed and kept pretty. The spirit must be high. This is trouping the really hard way.

The theater is one of the largest mess halls. Soldiers are packed in, sitting on benches, standing on tables, lying in the doorways. A little platform on one end is the Stage. Tonight, the loudspeaker is out of order, but when it isn't, it blares and distorts voices. The Master of ceremonies gets up and faces his packed audience. He tells a joke- but the audience is made up of men from different parts of the country and each part has its own kind of humor. He tells a New York joke. There is a laugh- but a limited one. The men from South Dakota and Oklahoma do not understand this joke. They laugh late, merely because they want to laugh. He tries another joke and this time, he plays safe. It is an Army joke about MPs. This time, it works. everybody likes a joke about MPs.

A Blues Singer comes on the stage. Without the loudspeaker, she can hardly be heard, for her voice although sweet has no volume. She forces her voice for volume and loses her sweetness, but she is pretty and young and earnest. A girl accordion player comes next. She asks for suggestions. This is to be group singing and the requests are for old songs- "Harvest Moon", "Home on the Range", "When Irish Eyes are Smiling". The men bellow out the words in all pitches. There is no war song for this war. Nothing has come along yet. The show continues- a pantomimist who acts out the physical examination of an inductee and does it so accurately that his audience howls. A magician in traditional tail coat manipulates colored silks.

One of the men in the unit has been afraid. He has not slept since the ship sailed. He is afraid of the ocean and of submarines. He has lain in his bunk, listening for the blast that will kill him. He is probably very brave. He does his act when he is terrified. It is foolish to say he should not be afraid. He is afraid, and that is something he cannot control, but he does his act, and that is something he can control.

Up on the deck in the blackness the colored troops are sprawled. They sit quietly. A great bass voice sings softly a bar of the hymn "When the Saints Go Marching In". A voice says, "Sing it, brother!"

The bass takes it again and a few voices join him. By the time the hymn has reached the fourth bar, an organ of voices is behind it. The voices take on a beat, feeling one another out. The chords begin to form. There is nothing visible. The booming voices come out of the darkness. The men sing sprawled out, lying on their backs. The song becomes huge with authority. This is a war song. This could be THE war song.
Not the sentimental wash about lights coming on again or bluebirds.

The Black deck rolls with sound. One chorus ends and another one starts, "When the Saints Go Marching In". Four times and on the fifth, the voices fade away to a little hum and the deck is silent again. The ship rolls and metal protests against metal. The ship is silent again. Only the shudder of the engine and the whisk of water and the whine of the wind in the wire rigging breaking the silence.

We have not yet a singing Army nor any songs for a singing Army. Synthetic emotions and nostalgias do not take hold because the troops know instinctively that they are synthetic. No one has yet put words and a melody to the real homesickness, the real terror, and the real ferocity of the war.


Anonymous said...

I would have to disagree with your view that Steinbeck's Once there was a war only shows you the "true face of war" consisting of only death, lonliness and tears. What have you to say when, after taking the island of Capri, the american soldiers go to a bar and meet the sad italian bartender Luigi. He informs the soldiers of how his daughter is trapped on a nearby island that the germans are approavhing. The Americans show compassion on this man and risk their own lifes to rescue a daughter of the enemy. This does not sound like the death, lonliness and tears you descirbe the book as.

Anonymous said...

Of course there are going to be a few positive things that happen in war, but these are few and far between. Surely you can't say that Steinbeck filled his book with positive aspects that praise war. He writes that "...we must forget, or we could never indulge in the murderous nonsense again." This book is not meant to glorify the minute and trivial parts of war, but should show that the ideals of war and the realities of war are quite different.