About the Book

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.

George C. Marshall on Donald Trump

I wrote this piece during the 2016 Presidential campaign. It never went anywhere, but as I’ve been reading Daniel Kurtz-Phelan’s excellent The China Mission: George C. Marshall’s Unfinished War, 1945-1947, and watching the news of DT’s clownish efforts at diplomacy, I’ve been inspired to put it on my blog.

George C. Marshall and Donald Trump

            When I was a cadet at the Virginia Military Institute, the image and memory of George C. Marshall, VMI Class of 1901 was hard to avoid.  Physical reminders included the Marshall Library on campus and Marshall Arch, the main entrance to what is still called “New Barracks” (although it is now over sixty years old).  More than this, Marshall was recognized as our most distinguished graduate.  His unmatched record of service as Army Chief of Staff in World War II, as Secretary of State and Defense after the war, and his status as the only professional soldier ever to win the Nobel Prize for Peace, were seen as a precious gift of the Institute to the nation and to the world.  I caught the reverence for Marshall as a plebe, and it has grown with me over the years.  Marshall can be such a towering figure that he may seem remote or impossible to emulate, but I’ve learned that he was very human. He was often dissatisfied with himself, and he had to work to control his temper.  Sometimes seen as chilly and aloof, he could be funny and affectionate, expressing his concern for others in quiet, even anonymous ways. 

            As a cadet, Marine Corps officer, even as a parent or employee, I would sometimes ask myself, “What would Marshall do in this situation?”  This may strike some people as naïve.  I can only say that a conversation, even an imagined conversation, with a great person can be good for you.   A question that popped into my mind recently is “What would Marshall make of Donald Trump?”  To do this right, one would have to make allowance for differences of time and circumstance.  Marshall never ran for public office, so the somewhat undignified antics of political candidates on campaign was something outside the range of his own behavior.  He knew the political system, however, and he understood its demands and separate culture. Marshall had also rubbed elbows with the very rich of his day, and he was acquainted with the effect of great wealth on a person’s personality and development.  So real estate tycoon-turned politician Donald Trump might have come in for the humorous tolerance that Marshall displayed for the sometimes outlandish figures of the political and financial landscape.  Even so, and even allowing for the differences between mid-twentieth century America and the nation as it is today, I think Marshall would be appalled at the spectacle that is Donald Trump.  Marshall the logical, deliberate, and humane planner would have found Trump’s emotionalism and his sweeping, untaught pronouncements on strategy to be unseemly and dangerous.  Trump’s appeals to fearful xenophobia would likely have struck the author of the design for European recovery that has gone down in history as the Marshall Plan in the same way.  Trump’s blowsy posturing and grimacing behind the podium might have reminded Marshall of the rhetorical styles of some of the despised dictators of his own day, perhaps of Mussolini especially.   Marshall was known and revered above all for his integrity, and Trump’s lies and misrepresentations (about his own business success, for example) go far beyond what Marshall had come to expect and even accept among some politicians. 

            A strong indication of how Marshall would have responded to Trump is Marshall’s reaction to another bully and demagogue, Joseph McCarthy.  McCarthy attacked Marshall in Congress, blaming him, in rhetoric eerily similar to that of Donald Trump, of responsibility for America’s “retreat from Communism” in China and Korea.  McCarthy’s claims amounted to a charge of treason. His disdain for the facts and his abusive language appalled even the members of his own party, but he persisted on the manner of people whose egomania has canceled out sense.  Marshall’s response to these attacks was cool.  He never replied to them in public, and when a reporter offered to provide material for a rebuttal to McCarthy’s scurrilous charges, Marshal replied, “I appreciate that, but if I have to explain at this point that I am not a traitor to the United States, I hardly thinks it’s worth it.”         

Of all of Trump’s shortcomings, his treatment of women might have aroused in the gentlemanly Marshall the greatest contempt.  Marshall cared for an invalid wife for the over twenty years of his first marriage, never breathing a word of the toll this might have taken on him. Second perhaps only to the relief of MacArthur on Marshall’s watch as Defense Secretary, the decision which may have attracted the most criticism from McCarthy and the rest of the far right was his appointment of Anna Rosenberg, a Jewish woman, as Assistant Secretary of Defense for Manpower.  Marshall came to her defense when the appointment was challenged in Congress. Later, she helped to convince Marshall to begin the racial desegregation of the armed forces.  A man of his times, with the strengths of those times, Marshall had the ability to see beyond the limitations of his upbringing and early years.    

Marshall the selfless public servant I believe would have seen through Trump’s pretensions. He would have observed Trump’s contempt for law, his incitements to violence and divisiveness, his ignorance and mendacity, and Marshall’s steely, blue-eyed gaze would have dismissed him as the mountebank that he is.

Life and Fate, III, Victory and Defeat

            In this third post on Life and Fate, I will develop some of the ideas in the last on the usefulness of Vasily Grossman’s novel to military professionals. In this post, I will focus on the character of Novikov, a Russian colonel and tank corps commander. Novikov is a representative, recognizable, and deeply human figure. He is a man of action whose inner life fuels and sometimes impedes his efforts as a commander. His feelings, thoughts, and actions are such for modern military officers to ponder, and they offer insights into the nature of victory and defeat in war.

Like most soldiers going to war, Novikov carries with him into battle an accumulation, often amounting to a burden, of memory and desire. As soldier-philosopher J. Glenn Gray noted, war is both love’s ally and foe. Novikov is actually roused to feelings of arrogant anger by his thoughts of his beloved Zhenya. His power to command the beautiful Zhenya’s love inspires in him a belief in his own invincibility on the battlefield. The reality, in both cases, turns out to be much more complex. His love for Zhenya is probably hopeless, and the victory he achieves will be equivocal.

               The novel provides considerable insight into Novikov’s thoughts as a commander, perhaps his frustrations in particular. Novikov is often resentful of the uneducated and militarily illiterate political commissars and their interference. He observes that his senior commanders don’t get upset about casualties, but about lost time and equipment, the abandoning of positions (even when this is necessary or unavoidable.) He also recognizes that the war is wearing him down. He’s drinking and swearing more, becoming violent and short-tempered. Novikov’s finest moment, his personal victory, may be when, in defiance from pressure above, he delays an advance in order to give the artillery barrage time to take effect on German positions. The narrator observes that-

“There is one right even more important than the right to send men to their death without thinking: the right to think twice before you send men to their death. Novikov carried out this responsibility to the full.”

Novikov’s attack succeeds beyond expectation. He responds to his political commissar’s florid praise by telling him that he had not possessed the prescience being attributed to him, but had entirely misjudged how the brigade commanders would perform once the attack started.  Later, however, success seems to go to his head, and Novikov finds himself succumbing to the “fever” to have his units be first to enter the Ukraine, and to the unaccustomed desire to make others jealous of him. Finally, he openly defies the commissars ignorant prodding to push exhausted men beyond their limits for he sake of nominal objectives.  For defying the commissar, he may be robbed of the honors of his victory, or worse.    

                The Soviet victory too is in some ways hollow. The moment of transcendence, of “love and …humility” granted to the victorious soldiers is fleeting and largely forgotten. The Tolstoyan freedom of the battlefield is replaced by the “political vigilance” of the commissars.  Officers and men engage in drunken bickering.  Grossman (perhaps for the sake of the censor) pleads with the reader to remember these men at their best, but the victors, who have warded off the terrible evil of Nazism, must settle for the bittersweet victory of the restoration of another corrupt and dehumanizing order.

               The novel ends with a scene of a returning Russian officer being reunited with his wife and child just as the long Russian winter in finally giving way to spring. This is the moment that all soldiers dream of. The family seems to lose its individual identity in the final passages, standing for the generations that had survived the terrible war, enjoying in respite the pleasures of nature and family that are left to them with the return of peace.  Maybe a kind of victory has been won, after all.          

Life and Fate: War and Art


                In my first post on Life and Fate, I argued for the novel’s neglected greatness. In this entry, I will make a case for the significance of Life and Fate in the canon of instructive war literature. Life and Fate belongsamong the literary works that should be read by all military officers and others engaged with the practice of armed conflict, a list that would include the Iliad and War and Peace.

                Life and Fate explores the nature of armed conflict from different directions and in different voices. Even more than War and Peace, Life and Fate ranges across the enormous Russian landscape and a multitude of vocations, cultures, and circumstances. About half of all of the characters are Soviet and German soldiers. Grossman’s depicts and conveys the language of soldiers from the rank of private through the top levels of military command and up to the political leadership, in the persons of Stalin and Hitler. He depicts infantrymen involved in grinding, close-quarters combat, aviators flying missions, officers leading and planning. All of these scenes can enhance an officer-reader’s appreciation of war, perhaps especially of war at it’s most costly and dire.  America has never experienced a war like that fought on the Eastern Front. Its geographical scale, the numbers of combatants and swept-up civilians, and the brutality of the fighting set it apart. In the background was the Soviet state’s attempt to survive, a cause for which it was willing to sacrifice millions of people, exerting draconian discipline across all of society, devouring itself for the sake of an idea and an uncertain future. An even darker backdrop is the Nazi effort to put their final solution into practice. The machinery of genocide followed close behind the German Army, and the Wehrmacht lost whatever honor it had left be being a participant in the killing of millions of innocent people.          

               For all of its uniqueness, the war in the Eastern Front as depicted by Grossman has knowledge to impart about the enduring nature of war, of military command, of the pursuit of victory and the enduring and (sometimes) overcoming of defeat. Grossman reflects on the sudden transitions in warfare, the rapid shifts from triumph to disaster that take place in the mind, impelled by a shifting sense for the unity and effectiveness of our own forces and those of the enemy. “Often,” Grossman writes, “it is the understanding of these transitions that gives warfare the right to be called an art.  This alternating sense of singularity and plurality is a key not only to the success of night-attacks by companies and battalions, but to the military success and failure of entire armies and peoples.”[i]  A short time later in the narrative, following a conversation between senior and subordinate commanders that is mostly concerned with details of tactics and reinforcements, the narrator reflects, “Another moment and it seemed that they might begin the one conversation that really mattered–about the meaning of Stalingrad.”[ii] This reflection on the meaning of the battle also places warfare in the category of art in the sense that it is the subject both of creation and interpretation. Like Tolstoy’s War and Peace for the Russian empire, Grossman’s account will come to define the Russian and Soviet people and state, perhaps by cementing their characteristic mutual inseparability. The historical significance of Stalingrad and World War II are, like works of art, subject to interpretation and re-interpretation.  Along with the memorials, the literature and art that they inspire, wars and battles themselves are in this sense works of arts, vortices through which different forms of meaning are continually rushing: aesthetic, moral, historical, infinite.                     

                I had a personal encounter once that gave me an idea of the different forms the memory of Stalingrad could take. On a cool New York morning in the nineteen-eighties I was home on leave, staying at my mother’s apartment house in Manhattan. I left the building to go running, and the doorman, a large individual with a heavy accent, pointed to the letters on my sweatshirt. “USMC, United States Marine Corps!” I asked how he knew this, thinking that as a foreigner, perhaps a recent immigrant, knowledge of the initials of the smallest military branch in the Defense Department had probably not been part of his upbringing. He was a soldier too, he said. He had been a member of a 155mm artillery battery in the Soviet Army in World War II. I had recently read a book on Stalingrad, and I impetuously asked him if he had been in the Battle of Stalingrad.  I still remember his response. With a kindly, patient expression, he waved a finger at me. “No, no” he said “if was at Stalingrad then, would not be here now.” His division, it turned out, had been pulled from the Stalingrad sector about a month before the battle began.  He believed that if they had stayed, and been there from the beginning of the epic fight, it is most unlikely that he would have survived. I’ve forgotten what book it was I read on Stalingrad, but I don’t think I’ll ever forget that brief conversation.   

[i] Vasily Grossman, Life and Fate. Robert Chandler, trans. (New York: New York Review Books, 1985), p. 48.

[ii] Ibid, 56.