Soldiers and Civilization covers the history of the military profession in the Western World from the ancient Greeks to the present day. Drawing from military history, sociology, and other disciplines, it goes beyond traditional insights to locate the military profession in the context of both literary and cultural history. Reed Bonadonna maintains that soldiers have made an unacknowledged contribution to the theory and practice of civilization, and that they will again be called upon to do so in important ways. The comprehensive nature of the book and the extent to which Bonadonna draws on the disciplines of the humanities to make his points set this volume apart from others on the subject. The military profession, in its broadest consideration, might be viewed as an interdisciplinary branch of the humanities. A soldier is made of the words of history, poetry, and the laws and language of his calling. With each new conflict, the military may be called upon to preserve the values of civilization. To fulfill its future role, the military professionals of today must know, heed, and apply the examples and narratives of the most successful and exemplary military professionals of the past at their best.
I recently finished reading Life and Fate, Vasily Grossman’s massive novel of the Eastern Front in World War II. Starting today and over the next few weeks, I will be posting about Grossman’s book on this blog. I hope to incite a discussion and at least encourage interest in this novel and perhaps in some of Grossman’s other writing. I believe that Life and Fate is a mostly neglected masterpiece, one of the great novels of the twentieth century, of our time, and of all time. In this short introductory post, I will make an argument for the novel’s claims to greatness and I will lay out some of the themes and subjects of Life and Fate that will be pursued in subsequent postings.
It has been said that a great novel is one that combines moral seriousness and great artistry. Life and Fate succeeds on both counts. Grossman’s main subject is the struggle to become and remain human under conditions of great adversity. He addresses this subject both directly and indirectly, and running through this theme are many intersecting narratives that support and give richness to his main idea. Grossman’s novel is a true “heteroglossia,” and he employs many voices and forms of language. His long novel has a long, diverse list of characters and settings. His writing is by turns novelistic, philosophical and poetic. He also engages in historical narrative and even literary criticism, but without cluttering the novel’s plot or structure. Paradoxically, the literary merits of the novel may have been enhanced by the fact that it was written under the threat of censorship. In the event, Grossman’s novel was suppressed in the Soviet Union as soon as it appeared in 1960. Writing under censorship may have forced Grossman to deal in metaphor and indirection where bald statements might have been clearer but not as rich or memorable. I will give examples of some of these passages in a later posting. The greatness of Life and Fate is upheld by the fact that it bears comparison to War and Peace, the other great work on Russia and a world at war on which it was based. In fact, I would argue that Life and Fate exceeds its model, at least in terms of contemporary relevance.
In Grossamn’s account, obstacles to humanity are posed by war and totalitarianism. Soviet and German is an even greater threat to humanity than war, both in its pervasiveness inherent wickedness. In Grossman’s work, war can actually develop one’s humanity. In fact, its effects are sometimes all too short-lived. Victors and vanquished often forget the hard-won lessons, the humility and courage that can thrive in war, almost before the guns are silenced. In the struggle to be human, some try hard (and often fail), some seem indifferent, and some suppress or are abashed by what humanity they have. Although, in even the most wicked (Hitler and Stalin both have speaking parts in the novel), an ember of humanity may be said to glow fitfully with the winds of fortune and setback. For Grossman, to be human requires a number of conditions. These unsurprisingly include a desire for freedom, an interest in the truth, and a capacity for love. For Grossman, it also involves an openness to doubt and complexity, which is a function of art.
The greatest enemies of human-ness in Life and Fate are the authoritarian ideologies and governmental operations seen in different forms on both sides of the conflict. Both regimes are manifestations of political evil, of evil come to roost in a political domain, where it is perhaps at its most virulent. Soviet Communism and Nazism both suppress freedom, truth, love and complexity. They punish the exercise of freedom, poison human relationships, and replace truth and complexity with solemn falsehood and banality.
Much of Life and Fate is organized around a single family and their connections. Two main characters are physicist Viktor Shtrum , a member of the family, and Army Colonel Pyotr Novikov, who is in love with Shtrum’s sister-in-law Yevgenia. The book appears to be making an analogy between science and war fighting, or between the professions of scientist and military officer. In the novel, both men must do their work under the close scrutiny and ignorant interference of political officers and commissars. One succeeds and prospers (at least at the time of the end of the novel), although at a cost. He is in effect seduced by his sudden rise, by “candies and cookies,” as he self-disparagingly puts it. The other appears to fall from favor and die, although we are never sure of the details, as many in the Soviet Union might never know the fate of their friends and family.
It is interesting that both men fall in love with women who are likely beyond reach. Their pursuit of honorable lives are possibly also hopeless, given the constraints and temptations under which they live.
Life and Fate is not only a great novel, it has enormous relevance for today. My own particular interest in the novel is as a text to educate military officers in the nature of armed conflict, the experience of war, and military decision-making. An even greater role of the novel may be in its insights into totalitarianism, given the events and trends of our time. The world depicted by Grossman is all too recognizable, and getting more so, not less, as the current century progresses.
To be continued.
My thanks to Edward Erwin and the Naval War College Review for a great review of Soldiers and Civilization, linked below.
The 1960 film Tunes of Glory has long been a favorite. The movie depicts a post-World War II Scottish infantry battalion that has its headquarters in a highland castle. The castle, scenery, and soldiers in their kilts and trews all make up for great visuals. The acting by Alec Guiness, John Mills and a troop of British character actors is very good. The screenplay was written by James Kennaway, based on his novel of the same name. Kennaway had served as an officer in a highland regiment after World War II. A promising career as a writer was cut short by his death from a heart attack at age 40. I’ve seen the movie as a teenager, junior officer, and since my retirement from the Marine Corps, always experiencing it a little differently, but always being drawn back to it because of its quality and also because I’ve felt that I was missing something. It took me awhile to see past the particulars of time and setting to appreciate the points about military life that Tunes of Glory makes which are universal and eternal.
The movie and the novel play off each other. Experiencing them both opens up interpretations that might not be available if you only know one or the other. Reading the novel (and an introduction by Allan Massie) helped me to understand the movie, and vice versa. Kennaway does a fine job as screenwriter adapting his own novel to film. He makes some of the scenes more visual, putting events that are only referred to in the novel in front of the camera. The acting of the two leads in particular gives the two main characters added depth and complexity. Together, film and book peel back some realities about military life that often get swept under the carpet but that bear more consideration.
The plot revolves around two officers commanding a Scottish battalion in the years after World War II. Jock Sinclair is an ex-piper raised to officer rank who took command of the battalion in North Africa. He is relieved by Barrow, a well-connected Sandhurst graduate who spent most of the war in a Japanese prison camp. Sinclair is resentful of Barrow for having ousted him from command. Barrow is intimidated by Sinclair the war hero. In a sense, each has what the other lacks. Sinclair is a warrior and leader of men, but he’s hopeless as an organizer and disciplinarian. He leads his officers in heavy drinking and often buffoonish behavior. Barrow unwisely orders all officers to take instruction in highland dancing every morning, arousing their resentment, and he makes an unbecoming scene at a cocktail party for the local gentry when the officers engage in the kind of rowdy dancing that the instruction had been intended to correct.
They are similar in the sense that both men are essentially lonely and unfulfilled. Both have been married but are now on their own. Sinclair has a grown daughter with whom he has a loving but somewhat distant relationship. Both are burdened by their memories of the war. Barrow spent years in harsh and unproductive captivity. Sinclair suspects that his best days are over, and even that his wartime success was a fluke. They also share a keen sense of the burden and isolation of command. There is the hint of Othello in Tunes of Glory, with Barrow as the Moor and Sinclair as his Iago. The sexual element of Othello is echoed when Sinclair strikes a corporal who he learns has been dating his daughter Moag, and perhaps in a rivalry between Sinclair and another officer for the same woman, actress Mary Titterington (played in the movie by Kay Walsh). None of these men or women are mad or wicked, but the soldiers are caught in a claustrophobic, competitive environment of male one-upmanship. There is humor and comradeship in the story too (more in the movie than in the novel) but always there is the bark of authority and the threat of punishment and shaming. The castle setting and kilts reinforce a sense of isolation and antique barbarity.
Even if you’ve never read or seen Tunes of Glory, you have probably guessed by now that this story ends badly, with the death of one colonel and the personal breakdown of the other. Tunes of Glory is probably one of the best literary or filmic warnings of some of the pitfalls of army life, of lives spent preparing for death. The romance and tragedy of soldiering are here in concentrated form. It could be rewritten for the modern American military, maybe with an academy graduate being put in above a popular up-from-the-ranks XO in a battalion back from deployment, with piney, southern, Civil War-haunted woods taking the place of snowy highlands, PT in place of dancing, beer instead of scotch whisky, PTS and post-deployment remorse and suicide in the air.
Anyone on the New York Upper East Side next Wednesday, the 24th at 5:30 PM (1730 for all you military types) can stop in at the Webster Library on 1465 York Ave. to hear me hold forth on Soldiers and Civilization. The link below is is to the flyer put out by the library. My thanks to Alexandria Abenshon for setting this up.
The October issue of The Journal of Military History includes a very favorable review by Paul D. Lockhart of my book Soldiers and Civilization. Prof. Lockhart calls me on some shortcomings, but overall the review is very positive. It’s always very gratifying to have such an obviously perceptive, discerning reviewer praise one’s work, an experience I’ve been fortunate to have several times with this book.
There might be copyright issues involved in posting the review entire, so instead I’ll quote here a few lines.
“Colonel Bonadonna visits an almost bewildering variety of topics: the art and practice of war, military technology and operations, the training of officers, the political role of armies, even the contributions of soldiers to literary culture. Fortunately, in Bonadonna’s capable hands. this daunting array of topical threads comes together in a cogent package.”
“Its topical breath makes it equally suitable as a general history of Western warfare, similar to–though grander in scope than–Michael Howard’s venerable War In European History.”
His last words-
“In a field where most books traditionally zoom in on narrow topics, constrained time periods, and individual events, such a broad approach is to be admired and encouraged.”
As I work on getting my next book, “How to Think Like an Armed Forces Officer” ready for publication, I’m going to keep in mind some of Prof. Lockhart’s critical comments, especially those on my writing. The suggestion that I use too many “signposts” is one I plan to take to heart.
I learned yesterday that the Naval Institute Press has accepted for publication “How to Think Like an Officer: A Guide for Officers and Others”! My thanks to the editors and friends who have helped with this project. I have a month or so to get the manuscript into shape, so I’m still looking for input if anybody has any bright ideas on the subject. You can read earlier posts on this blog as well as articles on The Strategy Bridge and War on the Rocks to get an idea of how my thoughts have been tending.
Briefly, the book breaks down into two main parts on getting ready to think and thought in action. I spend a lot of time talking about reading in the first part. The second part is in three chapters on the organizer, warfighter, and visionary. The last chapter deals mostly with life after the uniform: dreams and aspirations, continuing to serve. I think that bit might be my best and favorite, maybe because I’m retired myself, but also since I think the role of officers after we leave the service has been neglected.
Semper Fi, Reed
Thanks to War on the Rocks, and especially editor Usha Sahay, for working with me on this article and posting it this morning.