"The Mourner's Song is a well-integrated and wonderfully written set of reflections on the role of the poetic, architectural, and visual arts in the remembrance of war dead and…of killing in war.…Illuminating and written with a lively and engaging style."—Jonathan Shay, Bryn Mawr Classical Review
"Tatum refuses to let us delude ourselves. The poetry of war for western civilization has always been in the killing."—Thomas G. Palaima, Times Higher Education Supplement
"[Tatum] gives us a sequence of elegant, thoughtful and moving essays on aspects of war as the Iliad suggests them."—Tom Payne, The Daily Telegraph
"An eloquent and moving study of the memorialization of death in war, showing how the forms and processes of art convert mourning into memorial."—History Today
[In The Mourner's Song] a Dartmouth classics professor delivers his shrewd, highly reportorial meditation on monuments and memorials to war dead.—Read Sun Tzu and Tatum together. Better, reverse the course of life and read Tatum first. Suddenly, Sun seems to stand still, as the voices rise silently behind him."—Carlin Romano, Philadelphia Inquirer Books
"The classicist James Tatum has taken two numinous texts, Homer's Iliad and Maya Lin's Vietnam Memorial, and studied them in their various dimensions along with other voices like Robert Lowell and General Grant, creating something new out of man's obsession with war and memory that roves back—like the rose—through so many wild centuries to our origins and the titanic wrath of Achilles before the walls of Troy."—Gore Vidal
The Poetry is in the Killing
To the dismay of peaceful readers, Homer's descriptions of wounding and killing are copious and exquisitely detailed. Although modern critical descriptions of the Iliad never fail to acknowledge the major role battles play in the poem, these scenes are rarely at the center of commentary. We linger over the deaths of Patroclus and Hector because we get to know them so well. Few other heroes gain such loving readerships. Today, a reader of the Iliad is likely to skip over the fray, from the quarrel of Agamemnon and Achilles, and go to such famous moments as the parting of Hector and Andromache and the meeting of Priam and Achilles in book 24. These are cardinal moments in the poem, and each of these inspiring, tragic moments arises from scenes like this:
The spear smashed in the bone and he fell to the ground headlongRelentless as they are, these scenes lead us to larger considerations, reflections beyond sheer blood and guts. But blood and guts, in fact, mean everything. Our squeamishness at recognizing their connection to the rest of the poem and to us is due to our imagined distance from war.
Only the greatest heroes of the Greeks and an occasional Trojan champion such as Aeneas survive their wounds to fight another day. As we might expect in a Greek poem about a Greek war, the Trojan enemies and their allies suffer more. Yet death in battle has a way of leveling differences. As Elaine Scarry has observed in The Body in Pain, our wounds and deaths in wars denationalize us, reducing us to a fundamental, stateless human identity.
The "unmaking" of the human being, the emptying of the nation from his body, is equally characteristic of dying or being wounded, for the in part naturally "given" and in part "made" body is deconstructed. When the Irishman's chest is shattered, when the Armenian boy is shot through the legs and groin, when a Russian woman dies in a burning village, when an American medic is blown apart on the field, their wounds are not Irish, Armenian, Russian, or American precisely because it is the unmaking of an Irishman, the unmaking of an Armenian boy, the unmaking of a Russian woman, the unmaking of an American soldier that has just occurred, as well as in each case the unmaking of the civilization as it resides in each of those bodies.Thus, while the patriotic disposition to dwell on the killing of the enemy is alive and well-served in Homer, in the end the funeral rites of Achilles' hated enemy Hector become the poem's culmination, a moment of pathos surpassing even the funeral games for Patroclus.
Half of the Iliad's war music is devoted to battle, told in precise details that become as characteristic of the poem as its similes. In a war poem filled with the compression of opposites, Patroclus's metamorphosis is the most extreme. The gentlest of warriors becomes the most ferocious, and in the shortest time. Once he enters the battle in Achilles' armor, no one is more merciless with his enemies.
He fell thunderously, and Patroclus in his next outrushThese gruesome deaths come without comment from Patroclus himself. But the technique of fisherman and spearman are closely related not only in the poet's mind. Not too long before his own death, Patroclus's frenzy carries him so far from where he began that he articulates what we would think only a poet and a muse could conceive. After Sarpedon, the son of Zeus, his other great trophy is Hector's charioteer, Kebriones:
The sharp stone hit him in the foreheadAs if he were hearing the poet along with us, Patroclus picks up on the image of the graceful death-leap of Kebriones and turns it into battle poetry, on the spot.
NowPatroclus hears the poetry we hear: the simile of the fisherman Thestor, hundreds of lines before (16.406-8). When he says the Trojans "also have their acrobats," he seems somehow to have overheard his enemy Aeneas praising his victim Meriones for dancing out of the way of his spear.
Meriones, though you are a dancer my spear might have stopped youPoet's song and warrior's song blend into a single melody as Patroclus turns killing itself into poetry. With apologies to Wilfred Owen, who found poetry in the pity of war, war's poetry is also to be found in the killing.
Few of Homer's commentators have wished the Iliad a battle longer than it is. With fully half the poem devoted to violence and mayhem, there are as many battle scenes as a romance would devote to the obsessions of lovers and their intrigues. Pope knew battle scenes were likely to be as unpopular with Homer's newest readers as with those reading them for the hundredth time. He explains not only their proportions in the poem, but their variety. Killing one's enemies can be carried out with as much craft and studied variation as any other art. Consider this sequence from Achilles' slaughter of Trojans in book 20:
Now Tros with his hands was reachingApart from the sheer volume of deaths in this brief scene of slaughter, what impresses us most is Achilles' ingenuity—and the poet's. Neither of them wades into a killing the same way twice: a sword to the liver, a pike in the ear, a sword into the head, and finally, the climax of a double mortal blow for Deucalion, who is transfixed at the elbow with a spear, and then decapitated with a sword.
The battles of the Iliad have the "inquisitorial approach" that John Keegan desires: get at the truth of what happens in battle, do not aim simply for a verdict about what led to victory or defeat. Keegan excludes traditional military history, of the kind that Basil Liddell-Hart writes, with its deliberate focus on generalship and strategy rather than the accidents of human misery. What Keegan does convey in The Face of Battle is the aesthetics of the battle, much the same kind of scenes that the Iliad gives us in such abundance:
Wounds and their treatment, the mechanics of being taken prisoner, the nature of leadership at the most junior level, the role of compulsion in getting men to stand their ground, the incidence of accidents as a cause of death in war, and above all, the dimensions of the danger which different varieties of weapons offer to the soldier on the battlefield . . . hand weapon, single-missile weapon, and multi-missile weapon . . . to demonstrate, as exactly as possible, what the warfare, respectively, of hand, single-missile and multiple-missile weapons was—and is—like, and to suggest how and why the men who have had (and do have) to face these weapons control their fears, staunch their wounds, go to their deaths.
Keegan's inquisitorial approach is in full force in a war writer like Paul Fussell, who combines the roles of critic and soldier into one angry profession. His treatment of Ernie Pyle, the most popular American war correspondent in World War II, exposes the gap between the soldier's and the civilian's imaginations of war. It points to the realities that the soldier would know, and the poet.
One of Pyle's best-known pieces is his description of the return to his company in Italy of the body of Captain Henry T. Waskow, "of Belton, Texas." Such ostentatious geographical precision only calls attention to the genteel vagueness with which Pyle is content to depict the captain's wound and body. Brought down from a mountain by muleback, Captain Waskow's body is laid out on the ground at night and respectfully visited by officers and men of the company. The closest Pyle comes to accurate registration is reporting that one man, who sat by the body for some time, holding the captain's hand and looking into his face, finally "reached over and gently straightened the points of the captain's shirt collar, and then he sort of arranged the tattered edges of the uniform around the wound."In his impatience Fussell misses the memorializing purpose of identifying Captain Waskow for the folks at home; this is the purpose of "of Belton, Texas," in particular. Is not this detail like Homer's precision in genealogy and geography? We think of Patroclus's victim Thestor, Enops's son, or young Simoeisios and his mother who bore him beside the banks of Simois. Genealogy is only gratuitous when we make it so. Fussell is also not sensitive to the feelings of Captain Waskow's family, who might, after all, be expected to have read Ernie Pyle, and would take no pleasure in such an autopsy. But he is trying to make us see what his real war was like.
While delivering an account satisfying in its own terms, this leaves untouched what normally would be thought journalistically indispensable questions, and certainly questions bound to occur to readers hoping to derive from the Infantry's Friend an accurate image of the infantry's experience. Questions like these:This has an incisiveness Achilles would envy. Fussell is driven by a rage from his war that is as strong fifty years after the event as ever. There is a level of precision in those angry questions that the war photographer and cameraman strive to capture, but what Fussell wants Pyle to have recorded would have gone far beyond the limits that journalists had to observe in reporting to the home front on American casualties in World War II. It is important to realize that what Fussell is after, authenticity, does not require actual experience. What he wants Pyle to have reported is something that society sends soldiers off to find out, somewhere else, anywhere else but at home.
With characteristic savagery, Virginia Woolf makes the same point in Mrs. Dalloway. Set in a fine June afternoon in postwar London, Mrs. Dalloway captures with great precision the ability of those confronted with violence not to see it, and the power of those who are not witnesses to it to recapture that violence, completely, in their imagination. The veteran Septimus Smith kills himself at the moment a Dr. Holmes is barging his way past Smith's wife, Rezia.
There remained only the window, the large Bloomsbury lodging house window, the tiresome, the troublesome, and rather melodramatic business of opening the window and throwing himself out. It was their idea of tragedy, not his or Rezia's (for she was with him). Holmes and Bradshaw like that sort of thing. (He sat on the sill.) But he would wait till the very last moment. He did not want to die. Life was good. The sun hot. Only human beings—what did they want? Coming down the staircase opposite an old man stopped and stared at him. Holmes was at the door. "I'll give it you!" he cried, and flung himself vigorously, violently down on to Mrs. Filmer's area railings.Everyone at the actual scene of Septimus's death takes care to avoid looking at or even thinking about the suicide: how it was done, what happened, why it happened—above all, what it might mean. Dr. Holmes exclaims, "The coward!" But Septimus's wife Rezia "ran to the window, she saw; she understood." Holmes protects her by drugging her to sleep: "she must not see him, must be spared as much as possible." As Rezia dozes off, she sees her landlady, Mrs. Filmer. "'He is dead,' she said, smiling at the poor old woman who guarded her with her honest light-blue eyes fixed on the door. (They wouldn't bring him in here, would they?) But Mrs. Filmer pooh-poohed. Oh no, oh no! They were carrying him away now. Ought she not to be told? Married people ought to be together, Mrs. Filmer thought. But they must do as the doctor said." The discretion of the doctor is an attempt to turn everyone present away from the reality of death, and on the actual scene of Septimus's suicide, it may succeed. But not in Clarissa Dalloway's imagination.
He had killed himself—but how? Always her body went through it first, when she was told, suddenly, of an accident; her dress flamed, her body burnt. He had thrown himself from a window. Up had flashed the ground: through him, blundering, bruising, went the rusty spikes. There he lay with a thud, thud, thud in his brain, and then a suffocation of blackness. So she saw it. But why had he done it? And the Bradshaws talked of it at her party?Clarissa's party is suffused with her sense of being alive, a sense heightened by the news of a young man's suicide. Thus a war veteran's death becomes a sacrifice, where the lifeblood of the ritual victim furnishes the surrounding community with a new vitality.
What Fussell and Woolf are both after is what the Iliad provides in abundance. Here is a terse summary of one sequence that begins toward the end of book 4, a relatively brief passage marking a quick crescendo of battle, leading into book 5 and an even greater struggle when the hero Diomedes gets to shine because of the absence of Achilles. That book will be a proper aristeia or show of prowess (arete) in battle for Diomedes, something for which every hero strives. With a glance back to Fussell's list, we might reduce the information in Homer to basic questions: Who is killing or wounding? Who is wounded or killed? What is the weapon used? How and where wounded? What is the outcome of the action?
In the space of eighty-two lines (4.457-538), roughly two and a half pages in the translations of Lattimore or Fagles, and, say, less than ten minutes of spoken or sung verse:
Even in this numbing summary the studied variation is unmistakable. The particular battle sequence from which this comes does not win the greatest prize of all for the Greeks in the first day's fighting, the capture or killing of Paris, but Diomedes will go on to wound both Aphrodite and Ares. Perhaps his greatest achievement—for those partial to the Greeks, certainly among the most satisfying in the whole poem—is not just his killing of Pandarus, whose arrow had wounded Menelaus and broken the truce, but the way Diomedes kills him. It is a fine example of retributive justice, where the punishment seems to fit the crime. As a warrior fighting against Diomedes, Pandarus is out of his league, not using the weapon he uses best, the bow and arrow. He throws a spear that grazes Diomedes and boasts about it. Diomedes' answer is a spear cast guided by Athena. As he often does, Fagles turns up the volume of what is already a gruesome enough passage in Lattimore.
With that he hurled and Athena drove the shaftThe trajectory of the spear is so high in the air that it comes down at an acute angle to produce the grotesque wound that pays back Pandarus, symmetrically, for wounding Menelaus with an arrow, breaking the truce, and resuming the war. And yet, even as he is paid back, the entire life story of Pandarus first unfolds before us, immediately before he goes to his death at the hands of Diomedes. Aeneas calls him to go into battle and shoot more Greeks with his arrows, but Pandarus is already disenchanted with his lovely weapon. His father, Lycaon, had urged him to go to Troy with his horses and chariot, but he had refused—unwisely, he now sees.
So I left them and made my way on foot to IlionSo goes an early version of the sniper's lament. Pandarus's speech marks not only a turn back to the more prestigious mode of combat for warriors in Homer, fighting with weapons face-to-face; it is also more than a little apotropaic. (The bullet with our name on it won't get us if we say there is a bullet with our name on it.) If Pandarus can swear off the weapon he has used up to now, with such skill—it's not his fault if the greatest Greek heroes lead charmed lives—perhaps he will escape the battlefield retribution that any man in battle might fear is headed his way. The murderous little boy lurking in every Greek man is urged to say, Take that, Pandarus. The simple pleasures of seeing an enemy on the other side get his just deserts is no longer so simple. Pandarus is brought alive, unforgettably, like Simoeisios and countless others in Homer, at the very moment he is about to die.
Many of Homer's later civilian readers have found such overkill overdone. For them Ovid's parody of Homeric battle scenes in the Metamorphoses is richly deserved. Like any effective parody, Ovid's springs from an intimate understanding of what drives the original poetry. Here, in his incongruous world, Nestor is a Polonian elder giving an interminable account of the fabled battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs—a myth about civilization versus the barbarians, recalled on the metopes or frieze sculptures of the Parthenon, no less. Homeric battle turns into a tavern brawl or gladiatorial combat in a Roman amphitheater. There have been many versions published since that get more words of the original across, but Rolfe Humphries' translation has the right mix of brio and absurdity:
Amycus robbed the inner shrine and from it
Ovid's parody works because it plays on the artifice that underlies literary accounts of battle. It is just such precision that makes us believe some war stories—even when many of the wounds described are fantastic inventions—and disbelieve others. But it isn't "reality" at all that we are being mesmerized by. Homer's anatomical exactitude is no more than an illusion of what a battle wound might really be like. Those who hate war and want nothing to do with such grisly stories would have little to hate or to flee from if they did not face such battle scenes. Those who look forward to war and seek it out, whatever the cost, have a powerful stimulus to see if battle will be as terrible as the poets make it seem, or as funny.
How They Die
In his study of the psychological costs of learning to kill in modern society, Dave Grossman maintains that there are fewer psychiatric problems in sailors and pilots because no one is trying to kill them, specifically, personally, nor do they have to see anyone they are killing. "Instead of killing people up close and personal, modern navies kill ships and airplanes. Of course there are people in these ships and airplanes, but psychological and mechanical distances protect the modern sailor." The American veteran Alvin Kernan tells what it was like to see pilots in an aircraft carrier plane crash in the sea and vanish almost immediately, without a trace left behind, being and nothingness summed up in a sentence.
The quickness with which active life, so much energy and skill in the banking plane, disappeared as if it had never been, stunned me.This kind of instantaneous transformation is characteristic of modern air warfare. Pilots and their planes can simply disappear, and as Samuel Hynes points out in his war memoir Flights of Passage, this can create a problem for traditional modes of commemoration.
On the whole, memoirs of those at sea have a little less of the horrors of land warfare, if only because the resolution, as final of course as any, comes so rapidly. A striking theme about sea warfare and especially air war is the speed, the finality, the god-awful neatness of it. So often there is little trace left of what or who is lost. . . . The reality of death comes to you in stages. First it is an ideal—all men are mortal, as in the syllogism. Then it is something that happens to strangers, then to persons you know, but somewhere else, and at last it enters your presence, and you see death, on a runway or in a field, in a cloud of dust and a column of smoke. Though even that doesn't make your own death conceivable.But quickly as it comes, the essential transition from being to nonbeing is nonetheless there.
Our friend Bergie—the church-in-the-wildwood tenor, the gentle husband, the "father" of our Santa Barbara family—had simply vanished from our lives. There was no body, no grave, and no funeral, no one, it seemed, to mourn for. T and Joe and I put his possessions together—there was almost nothing worth saving—and gave them to the Adjutant to send home, and took his cot apart and moved it out of the tent. For a while there was a patch of dead wheat where the cot had been; but gradually it was worn away, until it was like the rest of the tent floor.A patch of dead wheat gradually worn away: Hynes experienced in microcosm what those who know Battery Wagner could see in larger scale.
Compared to Okinawa or the Somme, air and naval wars seem cleaner wars in most respects. In other ways they may have been worse. The essential horror of death in battle was more accelerated than ever, often with everything over before either victim or onlooker could realize what had happened. Elmer Bendiner's The Fall of Fortresses, a memoir of the American bombing command in World War II, has just such moments, linking as it does the serene, almost Olympian detachment and beauty of the air with the sudden sharp realities of mortal death in air combat. He describes the situation of his plane's ball turret gunner, the kind of airman Randall Jarrell turned into the subject of a short poem, "Death of the Ball Turret Gunner":
I do not know how he withstood the torture wrapped within himself, powerless amid bullets and explosions, oppressed by the realization that at any instant he might be spattered to a mass of ugly tissue, like a cat run over on the highway. This might happen to any man in the crew, but the rest of us had the illusion of motion, of elbow room to give us security. There was nothing that Leary could do about his fate. He was as powerless as a rivet in his ball turret. He had been reduced to a neuter.Bendiner makes us live through what the poet Jarrell never experienced, but what Jarrell's poetry causes us to see. He also records a kaleidoscopic inventory of poetic images in his comments on the war as it exists in his memory. "Our war did not allow for sustained emotions. It spattered the brain with images of headless corpses, then washed it clean with the sight of a girl laughing at the piano player, then shattered it again with a dying plane sending its sacrificial smoke into the sky. It froze the brain at twenty below, boiled it with the smell of gunpowder, and let it fall asleep in a pub."
Bendiner writes of an evening in the Brevet, a pub for airmen in London: not a place for Grand Guignol or for solemn politics, but a place for lullabies, for seductions—what the alluring Hedy Lamar playing Tondelayo in the movies was all about. "In the morning I had been over Germany watching Tondelayo's sister plane"—a B-25D bomber had been named after Hedy Lamar's character—"through my port window. Along the fuselage to the tail ran a scarlet streak. It had taken me a moment to understand that there was no top turret and that the fuselage was painted with the blood of a gunner who had manned it before it was blown away. And here I was in the evening, charmed by total irrelevancies at the Brevet. I talked and smiled as if I had not seen what I had seen only some ten hours earlier." The soldier often has too little time to think about what is happening to him. Or if there is time, too little to think larger thoughts.
Part of the power of Christopher Logue's War Music comes from its compression of heroic experience, so that the death of a hero in an ancient poem from a vanished civilization becomes for us a death in the present, for the present. In Logue's version, one of Patroclus's mortal killers, Euphorbus, is turned into the onomatopoetic "Thackta," and his spear cast is changed from behind the shoulders ("a Dardanian man hit him between the shoulders with a sharp javelin") to the thighs. Logue's poetry narrows and deepens the focus on mortality, capturing the awful sense of the growing separation between the dying man and the unconcerned Trojan warriors who are onlookers. There is full awareness of the shock of a wound, as much clinical precision as Fussell could desire, compressed to the point where we feel the thrust of Thackta's javelin along with Patroclus.
And all the Trojans lay and stared at you;The language here contorts and writhes around Hector's spear: ". . . ach." Compare Lattimore's literal version of the same lines:
He spoke, and as he spoke the end of death closed in upon him,The soul of the young warrior mourning its destiny loses mythical detail in Logue, but not poetry: "And his soul went through the sand."
The final pages of The Ghost Road, Pat Barker's concluding novel of a trilogy about Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, and other soldiers in the Great War who were patients of the psychologist William Rivers, builds to a similar crossover moment.
Prior was about to start across the water with ammunition when he was himself hit, though it didn't feel like a bullet, more like a blow from something big and hard, a truncheon or a cricket bat, only it knocked him off his feet and he fell, one arm trailing over the edge of the canal.Prior crosses the divide between the living and the dead as elusively as Patroclus. Both deaths leave us in awe.
To witness the death of others in war is to realize that the same thing can happen to you. One does not require a set piece on the battlefield to reach that point. It can happen simply by accident. Alvin Kernan tells of two pilots lost over the side of an aircraft carrier in the Pacific:
In an instant the plane was in the water off the starboard side, broken in half between the radioman and the pilot, neither of whom, knocked out by the crash, heads hanging limply forward, moved. Then in an instant both pieces were gone, the water was unruffled, and the ship sailed on. The quickness with which active life, so much energy and skill in the banking plane, disappeared as if it had never been, stunned me.
Our curiosity about war's mystery is pervasive. When there is no possible way of recovering a direct account of death in war, we will use every kind of ingenuity to reconstruct what the killing may have been like. Forensic pathology can even make up for a direct report of war. One earlier example of such an event is the Russian secret police's massacre of thousands of Polish officers in the Katyn forest in 1940, a notorious war crime ordered by Stalin that was for some years attributed to the Germans. The executions were orchestrated so that each victim was compelled to go to his death completely alone. As the historian Allen Paul reconstructs the event in his book Katyn:
For the victims, these last seconds were marked, almost certainly, by disorientation and helplessness. It seems likely that their thoughts—geared so recently at hopes of reparation—suddenly swirled in fear and dismay as the first shots were fired outside the bus. . . . Only the bullets were merciful at this scene of slaughter. They pierced like estoques to the occipital bone, coursing upward from this small protrusion at the base of the skull, then passing through the brain to a point of egress between the nose and hair line. This angle suggests that each victim's head was bent forward and that the executioner stood close behind him, firing slightly downward. A shot thus aimed offered two practical advantages: it caused instant death and minimal loss of blood.Even the execution teams may have been murdered to remove any possibility of later testimony from eyewitnesses. Paul relies on a forensic pathologist's report from the exhumed bones of the victims at Katyn to create a sense of what it might have been like to be one of the Polish officers about to be executed. Precise anatomical descriptions are a major reason the scene moves us, speculative and unprovable as it is. The combination of imagined personal terror and detached, clinical description is not easily forgotten.
Until barriers of technology are breached, so that we at last can smell and feel as well as hear and see what happens to human bodies in war, we cannot imagine what people have to endure. The memoirs of E. B. Sledge about his service in the marines in the Pacific during World War II come as close as possible to the physical realities of war—the equivalent in prose to Goya's graphic designs in The Disasters of War, or the battles of the Iliad. One thing that Sledge wants to convey is what war is like to a culture based on indoor plumbing. "In combat, cleanliness for the infantryman was all but impossible. Our filth added to our general misery. Fear and filth went hand in hand. It has always puzzled me that this important fact is omitted from otherwise excellent personal memoirs by infantrymen. It is, of course, a vile subject, but it was as important to us then as being wet or dry, hot or cold, in the shade or exposed to the blistering sun, hungry, tired, or sick." This theme is laid out early at Peleliu, then reaches something like an apotheosis in the mud and maggots of Okinawa six months later. Although one's own dead (marines in this case) would naturally be removed, the enemy dead were often left to rot where they fell. It is not so widely appreciated, as it might be, that for all their geographical and temporal remove from the trench warfare of the western front of World War I, the Americans and Japanese went through essentially the same experience, and in far worse conditions because of tropical climate.
The bodies were badly decomposed and nearly blackened by exposure. This was to be expected of the dead in the tropics, but these Marines had been mutilated hideously by the enemy. One man had been decapitated. His head lay on his chest; his hands had been severed from his wrists and also lay on his chest near his chin. In disbelief I stared at the face as I realized that the Japanese had cut off the dead Marine's penis and stuffed it into his mouth. The corpse next to him had been treated similarly. The third had been butchered, chopped up like a carcass torn by some predatory animal.Sledge is no detached artist, and even thirty years later could not control his rage at what he remembered. He was coming onto ground that possibly only poets and artists can stand to occupy for long. In two of the worst (and artistically, the best) scenes from Goya's Disasters of War, we see how an artist can patiently convey war's inhumanity, by an exquisite design and attention to details. Goya captures the artistry of such mutilation with a delicacy and precision in his composition that, like Homer's studied variation of battle deaths, actually intensifies the horror of what we see.
Sledge's resolve that American marines would never be guilty of such barbaric acts doesn't last even for the length of his own memoir. A friend named Mac comes in with a severed, dried Japanese hand, which he thinks would be more interesting than a tooth to have as a souvenir. Mac was
a decent, clean-cut man but one of those who apparently felt no restraints under the brutalizing influence of war—although he had hardly been in combat at that time. He had one ghoulish, obscene tendency that revolted even the most hardened and callous men I knew. When most men felt the urge to urinate, they simply went over to a bush or stopped wherever they happened to be and relieved themselves without ritual or fanfare. Not Mac. If he could, that "gentleman by the act of Congress" would locate a Japanese corpse, stand over it, and urinate in its mouth. It was the most repulsive thing I ever saw an American do in the war. I was ashamed that he was a Marine officer.This is the same officer whom Sledge once sees on a patrol, "taking great pains and effort to position himself and his carbine near a Japanese corpse. After getting just the right angle, Mac took careful aim and squeezed off a couple of rounds. The dead Japanese lay on his back with his trousers pulled down to his knees. Mac was trying very carefully to blast off the head of the corpse's penis. He succeeded. As he exulted over his aim, I turned away in disgust."
Sledge was outraged by the mutilation and dishonor meted out to his fellow soldiers, and to begin with he was capable of as much disgust at his fellow marines' similar treatment of the enemy. But by the time his memoir nears its end, in the trench warfare of Okinawa, it is only his own comrades' deaths that move him; dead Japanese did not bother him "in the least." Then he too was finally caught in the Yes and No of war, the contradictions that are as impossible for us to untangle as the feelings we have about Achilles strumming away on the lyre from EÅtion's city. And everywhere there is the abiding fascination with how they die—more truthfully, how we die.
Copyright notice: Excerpted from pages 116-135 of The Mourner's Song: War and Remembrance from the Iliad to Vietnam by James Tatum, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2003 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press and of the author.