Life and Fate: War and Art

e

                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.

New Review of Soldiers and Civilization in On Point

On Point: The Journal of Army History, recently published a very generous review of Soldiers and Civilization. (See Vol. 24, Issue 4). The reviewer, Navy Commander Stuart M. Mattfield, says that SAC “will appeal to a wide range of audiences” and that it “provides ample material from which to consider the broader question of how the profession of arms may influence the surrounding culture in a positive and meaningful way, and why maintaining the highest standards of such a profession must occupy the thoughts of military leaders in perpetuity.”

This hits pretty close to my purpose in writing the book. My thanks to On Point and Commander Mattfield.

An Introduction to Life and Fate

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.     

Tunes of Glory: A Tale of Two Colonels

Tunes of Glory

          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.

TOG

            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.

john-mills-in-tunes-of-glory-silver-screen

        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.

Tunes of Glory 2

         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.

JMH Review of Soldiers and Civilization

SMHThe 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.