Book Review - Ordinary men in extraordinary times
Over the past decade, many non-fiction accounts of the Allied Forces’ battles in World War II have concentrated on the extraordinary heroism of the soldiers who liberated Europe and the Pacific.
Popular works such as Stephen Ambrose’s Band of Brothers and Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation have portrayed American GIs who fought their way across Europe as bloody but never beaten, afraid but never paralyzed by fear. These men never lost possession of an indomitable warrior spirit, bred of democratic patriotism and loyalty to their fellow soldiers. They effortlessly rose to the occasion of the extraordinary task before them: defeating and destroying Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.
Released around the 50th anniversary of the D-Day invasion, these books also show that after being demobilized, World War II veterans went on to build modern America into the strongest, freest, wealthiest and most culturally vibrant country in the world. In the pre-Freudian world where these men grew up, issues of loyalty, duty and patriotism far outweighed questions of personal fulfillment and spiritual wholeness that became the signature calling card of their children’s generation. Perhaps as a result of this absence of self-conscious egotism, the generation that came of age during World War II accomplished what it did both at war and at peace.
Whatever the case may be, it is not surprising that it was during the 1990s that American society chose to idealize these men. As a decade characterized by moral relativism justified under the banners of diversity and multiculturalism, Americans in the 1990s needed to view their aging countrymen as symbols of American greatness that contrasted sharply with the America they saw on their television screens.
That America, filled with Clintonian salaciousness and insistence on being just another member of the international community, was the polar opposite of the ideal of American exceptionalism that had been the core of the American character since the Founding Fathers.
And yet, though necessary and undoubtedly accurate, these signature books on the heroism of US forces in World War II lack a dimension of insecurity and uncertainty. The Allied forces did not march effortlessly to victory in Germany. The fighting was intense and littered with disaster. In the Battle of the Bulge, the last German offensive of the war, the Allied Forces in the Ardennes forest in Belgium were taken by surprise. In the largest ground battle the US fought in Europe during the war, the US suffered some 80,000 casualties in a month. Some 20,000 Americans were killed and another 21,000 were missing. Entire units surrendered to the Germans.
This gap between victory and defeat is filled by historian Michael Oren’s new novel, Reunion.
OREN, WHO won international acclaim last year with his bestselling history of the Six Day War (Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East, Oxford University Press), tells the fictional story of a reunion of a company of American infantrymen at the site of the battle they had lost a half-century earlier at the edge of the Ardennes forest.
While like their real life counterparts, these men returned home, married and built their lives as loyal citizens, the characters in Reunion carry the demons of their defeat throughout their ensuing years.
Lt. Buddy Hill, a squad leader, is introduced as a retired Iowa banker dying of bone cancer. Hill, like the rest of the characters, greets his invitation to the reunion with anxiety. Hill had escaped the imprisonment that was the lot of most of his company by evacuating his frostbitten sergeant to a field hospital hours before his men were forced to capitulate to the Germans. In the 50 years since the battle, Hill was plagued with the guilt and loneliness of an officer who feels unworthy of his own soldiers.
Cpl. Pieter (Sweet) Martinson, a line soldier, is an aged stonemason who earns his living carving gravestones in his basement workshop in Wisconsin. Sweet had been a model soldier until the German offensive began. In previous battles, Martinson had distinguished himself for bravery. Yet, as the narrator explains, what motivated Martinson was fear of dying, for, were he to die he would be unable to marry his high-school sweetheart, Meg.
"It wasn’t the threat of pain that got to him or of being maimed or even of losing his life per se, but rather of losing her. Meg. If he died, she’d marry someone else eventually, make love and have kids with him. Death for him meant Meglessness, and the thought of that tormented him."
In the end, he survived the war, yet suffered a nervous breakdown induced by a traumatic event he experienced during the German offensive. A broken man, he returned home and lost the one person who gave meaning to his existence.
Each of Oren’s characters, like Hill and Sweet, carries the insecurity over his performance during combat throughout his life; each, in his own way, views attending the reunion as an opportunity to find closure and absolution for his self-perceived failures on the one hand and as a terrible risk on the other, because his sense of failure and inadequacy may be pointed out by his comrades.
AS A FOIL to the aging veterans, Oren introduces a representative of the "Me" generation they spawned in the form of Richard Perlmutter, the son of their company clerk Label who died shortly before the reunion. Richard, a failed post-modern historian, fills the role of the rebellious child who insists that their sacrifices were made not for the greater good, but for the geopolitical advantage of imperialist leaders who used them to put down the masses.
Partly in reaction to his radical provocations, the men are able to draw together to defend the truth they suddenly understand about their fight.
An interesting sub-layer of the novel involves the elderly veterans’ relationship with death. Each of them is dying or suffering the maladies of old age. Yet they meet on a battleground where their comrades died before their eyes as young men. The interplay between greeting death at life’s natural endpoint and experiencing death prematurely in combat achieves its apogee at the end of the novel and delivers a life-affirming message.
It is not surprising that it takes a work of delicate and sensitive fiction to render the thickness and complexity of the humanity of the soldiers who fought in World War II. Given the universal appreciation for the vital war they waged against Nazi Germany, it is hard to find a historical account of the bitter wages of that war for the men who suffered fighting it and then lived in its shadow for the rest of their lives.
Wars are extraordinary events. Fighting them demands extraordinary courage and sacrifice from ordinary men. Every man who has ever been called to the challenge of combat and survives lives with the legacy of what he did or did not accomplish. The great service that Oren’s Reunion provides, with deft craftsmanship and enormous sensitivity, is to bring the soul-searching of unselfish men to life, and help us all better understand the true meaning of the individual sacrifice of the line soldier.
Originally pubished in The Jerusalem Post Literary Quarterly.