Tuesday, September 4, 2007


This quote from Robert Pirsig posted today at In A Dark Time in a discussion of LILA: AN INQUIRY INTO MORALS,

"The Victorian social system and the Victorian morality that led into World War I had portrayed war as an adventurous conflict between noble individuals engaged in the idealistic service of their country: a kind of extended knighthood. Victorians loved exquisitely painted heroic battle scenes in their drawing rooms, with dashing cavalrymen riding toward the enemy with sabers drawn, or a horse returning riderless with the title, “Bad News.” Death was acknowledged by an occasional soldier in the arms of his comrades looking palely toward heaven.

World War I wasn’t like that. The Gatling gun removed the nobility, the heroism. The Victorian painters had never shown a battlefield of mud and shell holes and barbed wire and half million rotting corpses, some staring toward heaven, some staring into the mud, some with- out faces to stare in any direction. That many had been murdered in one battle alone.

Those who survived suffered a stunnedness, and a lostness and felt bitter toward the society that could do that to them. They joined the faith that intellect must find some way out of old Victorian “nobility” and “virtue” into a more sane and intelligent world. In an instant it seemed, the snobbish fashionable Victorian social world was gone,"

prompted me to find the above photographs because I have always been struck by the unequivocal weariness in my grandfather's face as he was photographed while sitting between and distant from my subdued-looking mother and her brother with his enigmatic expression. It was 1919, and my grandfather had just returned to the United States from World War I where he had served as a doctor. My grandfather, the only surviving son of German immigrants whose first American-born son died of cholera, had worked as newspaper typesetter in his 20s and had gone to medical school at Harvard at night when he was in his 30s, possibly attending lectures by the psychologist and philosopher, William James. In 1917, when my mother was 1 year old and my uncle was 9 years old, my then 47-year-old grandfather entered the army as a doctor and served in France until the last days of World War I. The photo was taken in Natick, Massachusetts where my grandmother's relatives lived. My grandparents had married in Boston in 1906. During the time my grandfather was gone, my grandmother spent part of the time in Gulfport, Mississippi with relatives and then must have taken a train to Natick to meet my grandfather when he returned to the United States in 1919, before returning to St. Paul, Minnesota.

My mother told me that her father had told her that he was "not near the battlefront and that not much was happening where he was," but by the look on his face I don't think he wanted to talk about the war.

After my mother died, my grandfather's camera, photographs, letters, documents and other artifacts came to me. The World War I photos in France are ones that he bought in London after the war.


Loren said...

I suspect that any war that involves a considerable number of people will have important social consequences, because it's impossible to fight in a war without changing your entire perspective on the world.

After the Civil War The Transcendentalists lost out to modernists like Stephen Crane, whose dominant tone seems to be a skepticism towards society and religion. The Red Badge of Courage is a remarkable book for someone who had never actually fought in a war.

I didn't really understand Existentialism until I fought in Vietnam.

The remarkable thing is that most soldiers can come home and go on with their old lives at all, knowing that much of what they've been taught about human nature and life was lies.

am said...

"The remarkable thing is that most soldiers can come home and go on with their old lives at all, knowing that much of what they've been taught about human nature and life was lies."


With the large number of women who are deployed in Iraq, I wonder what the social consequences of war will be in that regard. From this war there will be a generation of American women, besides nurses, who have had the experience of, if not being in combat, being in close proximity to combat, of being away from their husbands and children for long periods of time, of grieving the deaths of friends whose lives were lost in war.

Loren said...

I must admit that I've wondered whether the fact that we now have a "professional" army will make a difference in how society reacts to the war.

Army people around Tacoma have a very different view of this war than those of us who aren't in the military.

Those who stayed in the military seem to sincerely believe that we would have won in Vietnam if we had "stayed the course." It's those "cut-and-run" liberals who lost the war, not the military.

I think there are some societal costs of having a mercenary army rather than one consisting of civilian conscripts.

am said...

That's a good point. I'm not sure that I'd use the word "mercenary," but it is true that none of those involved in this war were drafted.

While riding on an airplane two weeks after September 11, I sat next to an 18-year-old young man who had never been on an airplane before. He had decided to join the miltary and was in the process of doing that. I told him that I was on my way to visit a Vietnam veteran who had a terminal diagnosis of lung cancer. He said that his grandfather had died of lung cancer and offered sympathy. The young man asked what had been my friend's experience in Vietnam. I told that effects of war were still with him. As I left the plane, I shook his hand saying I was glad to have met him. As I was heading off to find my rental car, he caught up with me and said, "Thanks for talking with me." I think of him often.

Loren said...

You're right "mercenary" reflects my displeasure with an army that's not made up of everyday citizens who have their main allegiance to the country, and are not so invested in the Army.

I rejected "professional" soldiers because it implies just the opposite, that they're somehow better soldiers because that's what they do for a living.

I do think that a professional army makes it easier to employ them, unless you happen to have a member in the services if your the President or Congress. And young people are certainly less apt to protest if they know they're not going to be drafted.