One thing I noticed while reading John Dos Passos’s “One Man’s Initiation: 1917” is how much I know about World War 2. And how much I know about Vietnam. Even about the Korean War.
All I know about World War I has come from fiction wherein it’s treated like a character, like a woman who is to be pursued, or from whose cruel rejection you must recover. In “The Beautiful and The Damned,” F. Scott Fitzgerald’s doppelganger, Anthony Patch, is disappointed when he misses out on going to the front to see action. In Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises,” Jake Barnes is impotent from a World War I injury.
I know there are some wonderful novels set during World War I. Out of the thousands of books I’ve read, I haven’t picked one up. I don’t know why.
Maybe because it’s so far distant. My grandparents were barely born when The Armistice ended the War, or when the Treaty of Versailles was signed, thus paving the way for a little WW1 Corporal named Adolf Hitler to take-over half of Europe, and scare the scheisse out of the other half.
My grandfather served in World War 2; my father and uncles served during Vietnam; my cousin is Skype-ing with his family from Afghanistan till he can leave that hell-hole.
My grandfather never said a word about World War 2. I saw him cry at the USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor, but he never said a word.
I think what matters is that my family connects me to that time–somebody I know and love was there.
World War I was horrible. It was muddy and cold and wet, and every time you turned around, you were being shelled or gassed. Allied troops had roughly a 50% chance of going missing, being injured, or being killed. The odds were worse for the Germans.
John Dos Passos’s “One Man’s Initiation: 1917” gives a window into that world, that horrible war.
Dos Passos volunteered as an ambulance driver, and served in France during the war. His protagonist (and future ambulance driver)–Martin Howe–sails from New York the happiest he’s ever been. His past is behind him, and his future is yet to be written.
His future is a hell of a lot less-glamorous than he might have envisioned.
There are battle scenes, of course, as well as moments of wartime camaraderie (or gallows humor, whichever you prefer).
“One Man’s Initiation: 1917” is a short book–128 or so pages–but it gives a rich sampling of what World War I was like, and how it can pop the idealism right the hell out of you. It’s divided into chapters, which are divided into short segments of a page or two, sometimes more, sometimes less. This truly gives the feeling of a journal: one day, there are no injured to haul, so you lie in the sun all day. The next day, you’re being gassed, having to clear roads as you go, it’s black and pouring and muddy, and you wonder where that sunshine went.
Toward the end, Martin and some friends are discussing politics. Different characters espouse for Communism, Anarchy, The Church, et. al. In the end, none of them can help. War is more powerful.
The image that sticks with me is when Martin is walking through a beautiful, ancient French forest, simply trying to enjoy the morning air and pristine surroundings. But it wasn’t pristine. Explosions had left ancient trees splintered and broken. Spent brass artillery shells littered the forest floor, and there were shards of metal, discarded gas-masks, and small scraps of uniform fabric mixed in with the undergrowth.
This should have been the quietest, most virginal place on earth. Instead, it’s the Grim Reaper’s junkyard. War can destroy anything, no matter how stalwart, and there isn’t even one acre of beauty we humans can’t find a way to fuck-up.
(“One Man’s Initiation: 1917” is available free at numerous online sites)