Glamorization of War in Crane's Do not weep, maiden, for war is kind, Le Guin's The Ones Who Wal
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I dream sometimes about war. And the fear that follows the war drums. I dreamt once of my junior high teacher, a stocky woman with a passion for the middle ages, whipping me and my friends into an army with swords and shields, and then screaming that if we retreat even one step, we'll lose. If we lose, we die. So I took the burning line of the sword and stood in the mud waiting for war. I feared death, though not so much the end of life as the violence that would precede it. I feared whatever was waiting in the darkness beyond me. And then my dream shifted and my friends and I were swinging broomsticks in our upstairs study, facing nothing more threatening than one another. I don't understand my dreams. And I don't understand war. My only link to the repeated blood-baths of the early twentieth century are books and dreams. I wish I could say they ended neatly; that the characters, when the books closed, folded up their lives and went away and that the phantoms dispersed when I woke up. They don't.
War doesn't end neatly either. The Imperial War Museum in London stands as an enormous monument to wars the British people can't forget. War has fed into what Jung would call their collective unconscious until it's as much apart of them as the lungs they draw breath with. I walked down a wide passageway in the basement of the Museum, a dim red light illuminating my way. Huge slabs of tan mat hung on the staggered walls. The spread of mat was broken only by the deafening silence of words: "Only the dead find an end to war." "War demands violence. Anything mediocre is foolhardy."
The violence caught me off-guard, bringing a surge of rage-filled bile to my mouth. War demands violence. Demands. Violence. A young man from my quiet neighborhood was killed in a New York subway station trying to protect his mother.
Killed. And his little sister found out through a news-brief on the radio station. I remember his mother in church a few weeks later, pale faced but brave, trying to finish a testimony that kept dissolving in tears. And months later I found myself recalling the sign on the museum wall to a friend, talking intellectually and dispassionately about something neither of us has experienced. "Of course war demands violence," he said reasonably. Of course.
A non-violent war is an oxymoron. A violation of terms. War demands violence, gluttoning off the dead and fueling itself with blood. Not the violence of nature, not Annie Dillard's sharks in a feeding frenzy, caught by the dying light like insects in amber. That violence springs from gut instinct, part of Nature's complex balance of creation and destruction, and that instinct is ungoverned by reason. The violence of war seems unnatural.
I stood for a long time in that darkened hallway, looking at the pictures of soldiers in fields blooming with bodies, seeing over and over the dead that the soldiers could no longer see. At the end of the Museum hallway I read, "war is part of God's creation." My stomach knotted convulsively; my eyes stung. I wanted to scream, to break something. Instead, I stood for a moment, looking at the black letters, and moved on; civilized people don't react that emotionally, and I like to pretend I'm civilized. That same mute rage came back to me in Dachau, fueled by the black and white faces of people who've forgotten hope. A quote by Heinrich Heine hung beneath a photo of the notorious book-burning in Berlin: "This is only a prelude. Once they begin by burning books, they'll end by burning people." If violence breeds this kind of ignorance, how can God have anything to do with war? I felt an overwhelming need to cry.
Do not weep.
War is kind (Crane).
I want to divorce war from God. I want to paint myself a black and white world, where I can see everything clearly. But I can't do it without ultimately blinding myself. War, like love, is not simple. I live in a country ransomed by the blood of people who valued their inherent rights of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" more than they valued peace. Less than a century later, Abraham Lincoln dedicated a bloody battlefield with these words: "... we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain: that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom." Some of the metaphors that lie at the heart of my religion are war-related: the war in Heaven, the incessant battle between good and evil. We sing "Onward Christian soldiers" in sacrament meetings, and "Battle Hymn of the Republic" at graduations.
I wandered through a little room dedicated to Belsen-Bergen. Hanging on the far wall were pictures of the concentration camp guards, stolid and unmoved. Most of them were executed subsequent to the Allied Victory. On the adjacent wall, a video clip ran. It wasn't until the massed heap of shapes, pushed by the bulldozer across uneven ground, began to fall into a pit that I recognized them as bodies.
We live in a society that glamorizes violence and glorifies war. Warwick Castle, in England, probably makes a small fortune off tourist fees. At the castle, I walked through a dark musty corridor, ducking under a low arched ceiling to reach the dungeon. The tiny room, with only one high window, smelled of rot and mildew. An iron body suit hung suspended from the ceiling; here they hung prisoners and traitors to rot and die. I recoiled from it, protesting my horror, but I think I secretly enjoyed it. With all the other tourists, I went to gawk at the oubliette-- a tiny room not quite large enough to stand or sit comfortably where prisoners were left (and often deliberately forgotten), sometimes until they died. Like the rack in the torture chamber, I would have felt cheated without them. I clambered out of the dungeon into the cloud darkened courtyard and wandered until I found the armory. There, a knight in armor sat astride a giant, metal girded horse. Swords, exquisite in their long, bright lines and elegant hilts, hung in cases on the wall. Momentarily war-mad, I put on a roundhead helmet and posed with a sword before the mounted knight. Susanna took my picture.
I could not love thee, Dear, so well,
Loved I not honour more (Lovelace).
When I was younger, I had an insatiable appetite for fantasy books, for chivalry and knights and heroes and war in all it's romantic glamour. I devoured T.H White's The Once and Future King, in all it's Arthurian splendor. I think that's why I was so thrilled by the Kingslayer exhibit. There, near the end of a series of half-dark rooms filled with Madame Tussaud's wax figures in Medieval dress, we found the Earl of Warwick surrounded by men-at-arms. Their armor gleamed golden, light splintering from helmets, lances, shields and swords. In the background, a page's shrill voice rose above the heroic music to describe a field of battle. Time and again I heard the voice rising to climax-- "they shot him! My Earl of Warwick!"-- both as I wandered around the room inspecting tapestries and as I walked through the gift shop inspecting postcards (I bought one of the dungeon). The soundtrack ends with a heroic death, and the violence is swept away by romanticized heroism. Mark Twain, writing in half-jest, half-earnest, blamed Sir Walter Scott for the Civil War. How much of war and how much of violence is conceived in heroic stories and Hollywood?
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori (Owen).
In "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" Ursula Le Guin describes ours as a society fascinated by cruelty. Our artists glorify the "banality of evil" and the triviality of violence-"to embrace violence is to lose hold of everything else," she writes (256). Artist's haven't always done so--Goya's "Third of May" and Picasso's "Guernica" are vivid testimonies to the base brutality of war and violence. And even here, Marxist theorists like Walter Benjamin would argue that the transformation of an outcry against war into high art robs it of its full impact. It waters it down into a form where we can enjoy the technique without being affected by the subject.
But the glorification of war happens often enough. I sat in the Varsity Theater watching Independence Day and listening to the crowd laugh as Will Smith delivered a well-aimed punch to an unconscious alien. Other times, other movies, I've heard the audience clap and cheer when the villain was shot and killed. A student in one of my classes described her experience of watching Saving Private Ryan while sitting behind a group of teenage boys. From their comments, she recognized that they viewed the movie as a simple action film. Nothing more, nothing less. I went with a group of students to tour the British Parliament; at the end of the tour our guide described the traditional sixteenth century punishment for treason. We listened to the description of men who are hung-- but not until dead-- disemboweled and then chopped in pieces. Publicly, we exclaimed our disgust, but I think privately we reveled in our own disgust, fascinated by the sadistic cruelty.
We were required to take certain walks around London for the Study Abroad program. Docilely, I followed the set walk, admiring the architecture and pretending to be a real Londoner. Usually I remembered details only long enough to set them down in my journal. But I remember walking down King Edward Street, on my way to St. Bartholemew-the-Great and passing Postman's Park. I ducked in for a minute and found, at the back wall of a building, a sagging roof and a wall with memorial tiles. This place is all but forgotten, it's heroes nameless: a sixteen year old boy who drowned trying to rescue his friend from the river, a fireman who died from his burns after rescuing three people from a flaming building; a man who, after rescuing two women from dangerous gas fumes, was killed by the gas himself. And yet it will be years before the world forgets mass murderers like Ted Bundy, whose name, rumor says, is still inscribed on one of the trees at Mia Shalom, where I went to Girl's Camp.
I know something of war from the infrequent snatches of stories my grandpa tells, of being shot at in Guadalcanal and surviving when most of his crew was killed, and going into Japan after the fighting had stopped. He and the other marines walked off the gangplank with guns in their hands and fear in their hearts. It's easier for governments to declare the end of war than it is for soldiers to enact that end. The war hasn't left him yet; he still bears the shrapnel in his body and the memories branded in his brain. I think my grandpa must still dream blood dreams.
But none of these-- the stories, the books, the dreams-- leave me with dirt under my fingernails or grime smeared into my pores so that not even a week's scrubbing with strong soap will remove it. I walk around in a clean, sanitary world without fear and without blood and without nights spent crouching in bomb shelters and listening to missiles scream overhead. I've never walked off a ship into an alien land, protected only by a paper peace. I can be horrified by the atrocities of war, but the war itself can only touch me vicariously. I walk around a large, drafty museum, surrounded by war paraphernalia and jump when the bench in a mock bomb shelter gives way beneath me, and curl my lip in revulsion at the descriptions of wormy bread and then toddle home to a warm (hopefully worm-free) dinner and my own bed in a relatively quiet room. Though I decry violence with all the passion I can muster, I've never faced it.
My encounters with violence are like my encounters with war-- I know of it through books and stories and movies. And yet my abhorrence of violence is no less genuine for all that. The contrast between the violence I read of and the relative peace I know jars me as though my stomach had been ripped open and cold wind blew against my guts. I went through Southwark Cathedral in March; the Cathedral was hosting an Anne Frank exhibit. I read of the cramped, threatened life she lived, unable to communicate with anyone, her journal sufficing for a friend. I wondered what it would be like to live in perpetual fear. I'm afraid of a lot of things-- intimacy, vulnerability, failure-- but my fears seem trivial beside the fundamental fear for life. The last few walls of the exhibition described briefly the fate of the family. They were betrayed and separated, most of them ending their lives in the inhumanity of concentration camps. I think Anne was sent to Belsen-Bergen, the same concentration camp commemorated in the Imperial War Museum. Was hers one of the grotesquely emaciated bodies dumped unceremoniously in a giant burial pit? It doesn't really matter-- if not hers, the bodies belong to others, with names, faces and histories. Human victims of violence made all the more horrible because it was deliberate.
Teeda Butt Mam, in To Destroy You is No Loss, describes life under the Khmer Rouge-- a world where entire villages were marched into secluded corners of the jungles and slaughtered one by one. A world where individualism was devalued and people were considered replaceable. A world where the government could not only say, but believe the slogan "to destroy you is no loss; to keep you is no benefit"(104).
But I can't see the violence without seeing something else. There is an indomitable human spirit that rises out of the abyss of violence. The nameless heroes on the wall at Postman's Park in London help counteract the violence that swept up one of the sisters in the Britannia Ward, who was mugged on her way home from a church activity. I heard Kitty de Ritter, a Japanese concentration camp survivor, tell of her mother, who shaved the heads of all the young women in the camp rather than select twenty to feed the soldiers' lusts. She knew she might face death for what she did, but she did it irregardless. Teeda Butt Mam refused to surrender to the Khmer Rouge; while outwardly conforming, she fought inwardly to retain her own individuality. Corrie Ten-Boom and her sister Betsy risked their lives to hide Jews in a secret annex of their own. I'm not aspiring to heroism, though I can't deny I'd like to be heroic. I am aspiring to be human, and I'm trying to separate true humanity from the violence that seems inseparably connected with it. I'm not entirely sure they can be separated-but I like to think they might be.
Crane, Stephen. "Do not weep, maiden, for war is kind." The Modern Age Literature. Eds Leonard Lief and James F. Light. 4th Ed. Holt, Rhinehart and Winston; New York, 1981. p. 137
Criddle, Joan D. and Teeda Butt Mam. The Odyssey of a Cambodian Family. Anchor Books; New York, 1987.
Le Guin, Ursula. "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas." Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama. 6th Ed. Eds X.J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia. Harper Collins; New York, 1995
Lovelace, Richard. "To Lucasta, Going to the Wars." 100 Best Loved Poems. Ed. Philip Smith. Dover Publications Inc.; New York, 1995. p. 16
Owen, Wilfred. "Dulce Et Decorum Est." World War I British Poets. Ed. Candace Ward. Dover Publications, Inc; New York, 1997.