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essays

Apr 1, 1977

Johnny, Svjek, and Paul

Tom Palmer reviews three authors’ perspectives on war.

Johnny Got His Gun

By Dalton Trumbo

The Good Soldier Svjek

By Jaroslav Hasek

All Quiet on the Western Front

By Erich Maria Remarque

 

Reviewed by Tom Palmer / All Quiet, Fawcett Crest, 1928 / $1.25 / Johnny, Bantam, 1939 / $1.75 Good Soldier, Crowell, 1974 / 5.95.

 

One of the most profound books on war ever written is Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. Through the medium of the novel, Remarque shows us the experiences, thoughts and feelings of the innocent victims who actually do the fighting and dying in the wars politicians embroil their subjects in. One of the purposes of a novel is to recreate in the reader the experiences of the characters by bringing the reader into the plot, involving him as participant as well as observer. In this respect Remarque excells. At once, you identify with the miserable and frightened soldier of Remarque’s novel as his friends and past fall around him, knowing that the same fate lies in wait for him.

The story is written from the perspective of a German youth who is called up for war with his high school class. Paul Baumer, the main character, enters the war with little knowledge of what he is in for. He and his comrades are persuaded by their school master with patriotic exhortations and fear of ostracism to join up and bring Germany “her place in the sun.’’ As Baumer reflects, “The idea of authority, which they (his elders) represented, was associated in our minds with a greater insight and a manlier wisdom. But the first death we saw shattered this belief … They surpassed us only in phrases and cleverness. The first bombardment showed us our mistake, and under the world as they taught it to us broke in pieces …. While they taught that duty to one’s country is the greatest thing, we already knew that death throes are stronger;’’

Baumer fights and does as he is told while his friends die wretchedly about him. Remarque, who was himself forced to serve in the German army during the Great War and experienced that which he relates, portrays war without the glory and tinsel razzle-dazzle associated with it by imperialists and armchair generals. For the generals and power wielders who “fight” the wars and reap the profits, war indeed can be “glorious,” but for those who do the bidding of these chessboard killers, the ones who experience war first hand, it is a miserable and degrading spectacle. The book’s characters receive letters from their old school master which describe them as the Iron Youth.” It is only they who realize what they really are—a group of frightened near-children with no heart for what they are doing. Their lives have been cruelly snatched from them by imperialism and militarism.

“Summer of 1918—Never has life in its niggardliness seemed to us so desirable as now;—the red poppies in the meadows round our billets, the smooth beetles on the blades of grass, the warm evenings in the cool, dim rooms, the black, mysterious trees of the twilight, the stars and the flowing waters, dreams and long sleep—O Life, life, life!” War is mass murder. This is a self-evident proposition which is easily held by libertarians as an intellectual position, but it takes something more to bring it to a visceral conviction as well. I know of no book which brings home the case for peace so well. It is not often that a novel brings me to tears, but the ending of this book brought on one of those rare occasions.

Dalton Trumbo’s classic Johnny Got His Gun comes in a close second to Remarque’s master-work in moving both the intellct and the emotions. This story also takes place during World War I, though Trumbo writes about a young American infantryman. The young man of the story is horribly wounded, deprived of his sight, smell and hearing (his entire face is gone), as well as his arms and legs. The book consists largely of flashbacks to his life before he was “hit by an enemy shell” and entered as a number in some report filed by nameless bureaucrats in Washington, D.C. Now that it is lost, he realizes how desirable life is.

During the mid 1960s and the Vietnam War, the, newspapers used to have little boxes on the front page listing “their” dead and “ours.” People would glance at them and then turn to the comics section. It takes something like Johnny Got His Gun to remind you that each one of those numbers represented a group of men, each of whom had a life, complete with memories, families, lovers, hopes and plans. The War Lords of Washington had brutally rubbed them out. When a man becomes a number it is easy to erase him without remorse.

“I know of no book which brings home the case for peace so well.”

The end of the book contains Trumbo’s major philosophic statement, as the wounded man begins to communicate with his nurse by tapping out messages in Morse code with his body. Using this method, he attempts to relate to her years of silent and isolated brooding about the conditions and forces which landed him where he is. He asks to be placed on exhibit as a warning of what war is and what the next will be like. The doctor turns him down and drugs him to end the annoying tappings. The last few pages leave the youth fading under the drug and hating those who had taken his life and would continue, unhindered by conscience or public condemnation, to sacrifice still more. He carries on a great libertarian tirade against the State in his mind. “If you tell us to make the world safe for democracy,” he screams wordlessly, “we will take you seriously and by God and by Christ we will make it so. We will use the guns you force upon us; we will use them to defend our very lives and the menace to our lives does not lie on the other side of a no man’s land that was set apart without our consent. It lies within our own boundaries here and now we have seen it and we know it.”

The only disappointment of this terrifying book is the author’s introduction. Trumbo’s typical leftism leads him to denounce only some wars, and of course, the war against Nazi Tyranny, to make the world safe for democracy, was different. World War I, Korea, and Vietnam were all despicable wars, but World War II, the bloodiest war in history, was not. It’s a shame that Mr. Trumbo’s blind political allegiances (his pro-Soviet attitudes and desire for War were typical of the left of the late thirties and forties) led him to refrain from applying the message of Johnny Got His Gun to World War II. He even oes so far as to defend censorship aimed against his own book. “There are times when it may be needful for certain private rights to give way to the requirements of a larger public good.” Despite this flaw, Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun is brilliant.

While Remarque and Trumbo describe war from the point of view of the suffering soldier, Jaroslav Hasek uses war as a stage on which to lambast and mock the State. Hasek was active in prewar libertarian circles in Prague and was inducted into the Austro-Hungarian army after a long history of anti-State activism. He had taken part in anti-imperialist demonstrations in 1897 and in 1906 joined the Czechslovakian anarchist movement. In 1907 he became editor of an anarchist journal. Hasek was famous in Prague for the pranks he played on the monarchy and its servants. One of the most daring of these hoaxes occurred just prior to the war’s outbreak when Hasek took a room at the hotel U Valsu, known for being a half brothel and half hotel and registered as a Russian. The name he registered under sounded Russian, but became “Kiss my arse” in Czech when read backwards. He declared to the clerk that his reason for being in Prague was to check into the activities of the Austrian General Staff and, with war hysteria at full pitch, the desk clerk notified the police. The gendarmes, thinking they had an important spy on their hands, surrounded the hotel, only to find the famous prankster Hasek. His response to questions about his purpose was that he was checking the efficiency of the Austrian police. Hasek the anarchist was jailed.

This anecdote gives a hint of the content of Hasek’s famous masterwork, which is largely based on his own wartime experiences. The good soldier Josef Svejk plays one hoax after another on the Austrian military apparatus. He does this by simply following orders … to the letter. Svejk does all he is ordered to do, precisely as it is ordered. This, of course, inevitably leads to chaos and the sight of superior officers tearing their hair out by the handful, for how can one punish such imbecilic obedience? Without a doubt, The Good Soldier Svejk is one of the most hilarious books I have ever read. Hasek, who has been compared favorably with Cervantes and Rabelais, has written one of the most barbed and witty assaults on the State ever penned. While it is a long book, and the writing is at times uneven (Hasek wrote parts of it while drunk), the content is sufficiently captivating to enthrall the reader from start to finish. The humorous illustrations by the Czech artist and companion of Hasek, Josef Lada, enliven the pages, perfectly complementing Hasek’s magnum opus.

Each of these three books is filled with insights that complement libertarian analysis. I recommend them without reservation.