Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Book Eight - Birdsong - Part Three

There are my men going mad under shells. We hear nothing from our commanding officer. I sit here, I talk to the men, I go on patrol and lie in the mud with machine guns grazing my neck. No one in England knows what this is like. If they could see the way these men live they would not believe their eyes. This is not a war, this is an exploration of how far men can be degraded.
The above is from page 145 of my Vintage International version. This book is about WWI. I have to admit I've never focused much on WWI. I've spent lots of time reading about WWII. I love the old movies and music and stories. I had to read All Quiet On The Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque in high school and I remember being shocked by the description of men who kept running after their feet were blown off. That image has remained with me; it's similar to the image from the last scene of A Rose For Emily by Faulkner. (Ick.) But both scenes stayed with me because of the emotion they evoked.

Whenever I read a book about war my reaction is always one of gratitude. It is difficult to read the gory stuff, but war is gory. Reading the reality is a way to remember. It feels insufficient simply to dedicate one day of the year to honor these people who gave their lives so that we – generations of people they would never know – could be free. How did they do that? What possessed them? What kept them going?

This book is doing a good job of answering some of those questions. It provides just enough information about individuals to give a glimpse into why they enlisted and how they continued to fight. It also does a good job of describing the horrors of war, particularly the mustard gas used as a weapon in WWI. One scene set in a medical tent demonstrates how badly the wounded long to die, how difficult it is for the medical personnel to care for them, and how fervently their less seriously wounded comrades hope their wish comes true. Death is merely relief from misery. 

Books about war also remind me that whatever we may think we know about ourselves, our virtue, or our morality, all of that goes out of the window when we’re fighting for our lives. It’s easy to become smug in our nice little suburban or city homes and forget that even now our soldiers are in harm’s way. Why? There is always that lingering question. Yet where is the boundary? Where is it set and when should it move? Should we have let Hitler continue? Of course not. Does that mean anyone less evil than Hitler should be allowed to continue? Where is that line?

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