The veneration of war and its masters

My parents’ families, first generation Americans, did not give birth to a lot of soldiers. Indeed, a branch of the family — the ones from Odessa — came to the United States in rejection of soldiering. My father’s father went AWOL from the Czar Nicholas’s navy, into which he had been dragooned, and took his family to New York.

The exigencies of World War II put my father and my Uncle Saul in uniform. Dad, in what was then called the Army Air Force, went to the Midwest, where he became a Link Trainer (flight simulator) instructor. For most of my life I considered this funny, because my father was not a pilot. Or so I thought. When I finally read his many letters to my mother during the war, I discovered that he had flown. (I also discovered he’d been asked to join the OSS as the war was ending, and to become a spy in France. He turned them down.)

Moreover, as a trainer, he had to learn how to repair the Link when there were problems. My father was known for his intellect, not for manual dexterity (I do wish we had a video of my father carving a chicken, an act which had his three kids collapsed in laughter), and he had to lean on a mechanical engineer in his unit to explain the Link manual.

Uncle Saul, a physician, was posted to London. He left the Army as a captain; my father left as a corporal. Although as a toddler I must have seen them both in uniform at some point, I did not develop reverence for the uniform.

Therefore, I found it an exotic experience to visit a friend in her home state, where at least one sibling was an Army careerist. That’s when I first sensed the aura of power or grandeur or awe conveyed by the uniform to many people. It was surprising and slightly unsettling.

For me, growing up as I did in the ’60s, the Army wasn’t an honorable career; it was a scary summons by leaders — all male — who had determined there was a necessity to go to war and to draft men to do the dangerous work. Those leaders were not themselves going into the horror of this monstrous…thing…in which thousands upon thousands of people, for no reason worthy of the word “reason” would try to kill each other.

Whenever war arises in reality or conversation, my reaction to it has remained the same for my entire adult life: it is the apparently irreparable, deadly glitch in the makeup of mankind, emphasis on the man.

I view war as man-made chaos with the illusion of purpose and strategy hanging over it. It’s an action of insane mass violence made persuasive by the “mass” part: in order to make a War — not just a repulsive act of individual or small-group violence such as happened at the Capitol on January 6, punishable by prosecution and imprisonment — the leaders have to convince something like a majority of a country’s people to agree on the need for War.

Now, I’ll bet what I wrote above sounds cliché-ish and shallow. I don’t quite know how to impart in words what happens to me when I turn to face the reality of war. I have a kind of double vision: I see what it is — or what I’m being told this war is and is about and why it must be fought — and then my eyes take steps back and sweep over what I know of the course of human history. Which is when I feel like an alien creature gazing on the insanity labeled by this three-letter word, War.

I just spent an odd half hour digging around biographical information on the writer Steve Shagan, for a memorable reason. Literally memorable: I needed verification of a memory concerning something he told me about war.

I was working at Paramount Pictures when Shagan, who’d written both the novel and the screenplay adaptation for Save The Tiger, which Paramount had distributed, came up to meet with a Paramount executive. Since I worked for that executive, I sat at my desk in the outer office and chatted, as I was wont to do with interesting visitors, which Shagan certainly was.

Because his story, and the film, crisscrossed two aspects of Jack Lemmon’s character’s life — his immediate predicament as a troubled businessman and his experiences as a soldier in World War II — I asked Steve something about that. What he told me has lived in my memory, although I don’t recall his precise words.

Steve dropped out of high school to join the Coast Guard during World War II. His wartime experiences, he said, were the largest, most exhilarating of his entire life. Nothing since had been so mighty in his life as had been the war. Nothing. Not success at work, not love, not anything.

A decade later, David Hare explored the same idea in his play, Plenty. Although Hare’s protagonist is a woman, the theme is the same as Shagan’s: the heightened risks, fears and triumphs of one person’s war experiences can never be equaled afterward, in peace.

Is that why we must live in perpetual war? Because people thrill to it, are bored without it?

No, that can’t be. I’m back to seeing the compulsion to make war, to kill, as a warp in the genetic material of men.

Note: I don’t know whether I should call this ironic (a word so overused nowadays I don’t even know what it means anymore), but what took me so long in searching for Steve Shagan was that only one biography noted his time in the Coast Guard — which he’d described to me as the greatest experience of his entire life.





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