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.
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
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
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.
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.