The release of Steven Spielberg's World War II epic Saving Private Ryan was a major cultural event of the summer of 1998. Spielberg's film was a revelation to many Americans whose knowledge of the Second World War was limited to the sanitized portrayals found in the plethora of B-movies of the 1940s and '50s. Saving Private Ryan, with the full weight of Hollywood's technological magic behind it, graphically portrays the horror and bloodshed of the D-Day landings and the bitter fighting of the days and weeks that followed. The audience watches as a wounded man is dragged ashore by a comrade who ducks at an explosion then resumes dragging his buddy. The camera pulls back, and we see that the wounded man now has no body below his waist. This incident is surrounded by equally gruesome images and some that show the capricious nature of war. For example, a soldier has his helmet dented by a bullet. He removes it to look at the dent in wonder and seconds later receives a bullet in the middle of the forehead. The film's main plot revolves around the search for Private Ryan. His three brothers have already been killed in combat, and the plan is to preserve his life by sending him home. Of course, to find him the lives of eight other soldiers are put in mortal jeopardy. In the midst of war's horrors, Spielberg explores the value of the individual and the paradoxical place of the individual in a society at war. The main character, Captain Miller, attempting to explain why he follows orders that endanger himself and his patrol, declares that he is simply trying to "earn me the right" to go home. For Miller, the individual must be subordinate to the needs of society as a whole, even to the extent of sacrificing his life.
Saving Private Ryan is rooted in a literary tradition that began with many of the novels that found print in the aftermath of the Great War and that continues to our day. In these novels authors use our modern technological wars as settings in which to work out their concerns about the plight of the individual caught up in and beleaguered by our twentieth-century industrial culture. As Paul Fussell argues, beginning with World War I, authors have used the battlefield experience to "stand as a virtual allegory of political and social cognition in our time" (35). The soldier becomes a twentieth-century Everyman, and the battlefield an allegorical representation of the world we inherit. Not surprisingly, such contemplations sanction dramatic conclusions. This drama is what this study will examine.
Of course, warfare has long been a major literary theme, going as far back as Homer's epic The Iliad. American literature is no stranger to this theme; it can be found in novels as early as those of James Fenimore Cooper and as recent as the hundreds of novels that are based on the Vietnam War. However, in contrast to the twentieth-century tradition that questions war and the modern world, many American war novels combine a celebration of patriotism and bravery with a lament over the pain and suffering that necessarily accompanies warfare. These patriotic novelists do not question the notions of honor and glory. They see war as a noble endeavor and the battlefield as an arena in which a man can establish his very manhood. Spielberg's film has little in common with these types of novels, though. His characters are certainly brave, but their bravery falls short of being ennobling. Captain Miller's bravery, for example, earns him an uncontrollable shaking of the hand that embarrasses both himself and his troops. Furthermore, the soldiers begin to quarrel over their differing opinions about the requirements of "duty" versus the demands of a mission that they regard as "fucked up beyond all repair." Consequently, Spielberg's film presents its audience with a vision of war as an absurd and brutal, although sometimes necessary, evil that challenges individuals to balance their desire for autonomy with their obligations to others. This vision has its origins in the muddy fields of Verdun, where the absurdity of the modern world found its full and unmitigated expression in senseless slaughter.
Prior to World War I, considerable dissatisfaction with an increasingly materialistic America already existed. According to Stanley Cooperman, disenchanted young men were eager to embrace the war as a way to realize their ideals and add adventure, purpose, and meaning to their lives. They hoped to emulate Stephen Crane's Henry Fleming and achieve manhood on the battlefield.(1) Unfortunately, what the war gave them in return for their enthusiasm was mud, trenches, and indiscriminate carnage, which only served to deepen their disenchantment, rather than dissipating it as they had hoped (Novel 44-49). As Cooperman reports, "in 1916, after great engagements like Verdun had proven nothing except that a million men could die in a single battle without changing so much as the front line, Ambassador [Walter Hines] Page . . . could despair of 'a crazy world--a slaughterhouse where madness dwells'" (Novel 59-60).
We see this vision of a world gone mad broached initially by the literary modernists. The Hungarian critic, Georg Lukács, maintains that "there is a continuity from Naturalism to the Modernism of our day" (482). Lukács sees in naturalism a "dim anticipation of approaching catastrophe" which after 1914 develops into an "all-pervading obsession" for the modernists (482). The modernist version of the self arose primarily from the waste and slaughter of World War I. To many, civilization seemed to have died, and life was not only meaningless, but capricious as well. The sense of loss, despair, and separation from the past was often profound. Modernist "Lost Generation" writers began depicting the self as isolated, alienated, solitary, and fragmented. The inner being of the individual was seen to be somehow more real than the individual's social being. The inability of people to communicate with one another was a common modernist theme. T. S. Eliot's J. Alfred Prufrock, with his "hundred indecisions," (32) is a good example of a modernist self, as is Ernest Hemingway's Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises. To such characters, free will is impotent and freedom is frivolous. Furthermore, John Dewey and other thinkers were concerned about the fate of a society peopled by individuals who "drift without sure anchorage" in social relationships. Dewey labeled this alienated self "the lost individual" (52).
We will find that, as World War II and the Vietnam War came and went, others had similar concerns. The political and moral aims of World War II were quite different from those of the Great War, and even of the Vietnam War, yet fundamental truths about war, the modern world, and the individual remain the same. In the view of many writers, the anomie, fragmentation, and isolation of the individual revealed by World War I has endured throughout the century and has been demonstrated anew with each successive war. Consequently, we find many twentieth-century authors following the lead of the novelists of World War I and using the battlefield as the stage upon which to work out their explorations of what it means to be an individual in the twentieth century, an individual ensnared in the mass culture of the modern industrial world. Thus, I shall argue that for the writers considered in this study war is a sort of intensified experience of and an allegory for capitalism and the modern world. I will claim that their works tend to reduce human aspirations to either naturalistic or existential dramas--naturalistic in that individuals are at the mercy of circumstance or existential in that isolated individuals accept the responsibility of their own freedom with little recourse to tradition or community values. In the process, these novelists often obscure the role of community in the creation and maintenance of individual identity and posit an ambivalent freedom, at best. To understand the disillusionment that is the legacy of the Great War experience, we must first understand the cultural changes taking place in early twentieth-century America.
The culture and society confronting the Great War authors stemmed from changes rooted in the nineteenth century. The latter half of that century saw the closing of the frontier and an increasing number of citizens becoming city-dwellers. Our formerly rural and agrarian nation rapidly became an urban and industrial nation. The proliferation of intercontinental railroad lines and telegraph wires helped open new national markets for industry and agriculture. Small-scale farmers began to be squeezed out by increasingly mechanized agricultural processes, and many rural folk started to feel that they were being controlled by impersonal forces, such as bankers, commodities traders, and railroad barons. As small farms and the small towns they supported declined, displaced or ambitious rural people looking for a better life flocked to the cities to fill the many industrial jobs created by the new markets. This shift in the nation's cultural and economic focus was coincident with a shift in the intellectual atmosphere emanating from Europe--a shift from a faith in a universe controlled by a divine logic of pattern and progress to a despairing suspicion in some quarters that the world is ruled by an infernal logic of chance and circumstance.
The chief agent of intellectual ferment was the publication by Charles Darwin of The Origin of the Species (1859) and The Descent of Man (1871). The evolutionary theory advanced by Darwin shook the traditional religious faith of many--uncertainty and skepticism gained sway. Darwin's notion of the survival of the fittest was then applied to the social realm by Herbert Spencer, and others began seeing capitalism, in the light of Darwinism, as another manifestation of survival of the fittest. As the influence of biological and social Darwinism on American thought spread, a deterministic view of the world began to gain adherents in the general public (Mitchell 528). Modern social and biological determinism denies free will and posits a world of chance, of predictable laws or events combined in unpredictable ways. This is a world in which totally impersonal forces of scientific law, social and natural environment, and economics are the controlling factors in people's lives. Publishing at the same time as Darwin and Spencer was Karl Marx. The Communist Manifesto (1848), with Friedrich Engels, and Das Kapital (1867) did not receive the immediate attention that Darwin's work did, but Marx's economic determinism was certainly influential by the turn of the century. In contrast to Marx's meliorist vision, a more pessimistic strain of determinism was presented by Sigmund Freud in the early part of the twentieth century. Freud sees the individual as a being ruled by psychic forces--generally beyond her or his control. Both Marx and Freud, though, consider conflict to be the natural state of society.
All these deterministic ideas contributed to the rise of a type of American literature we now call naturalism, which helped spread these concepts well beyond the intellectual community. In this naturalistic version of the individual, the autonomous self is illusory. People are nothing but the expression of their hungers, fears, and environment. Free choice is not possible; we choose based upon economic necessities, upon psychic drives, or upon the indoctrination of our social upbringing. While at first such notions were confined to the intelligentsia, these abstract deterministic ideas began to gain popularity after they seemed to be exemplified on the battlefields of the Great War, impressing soldiers with their own human powerlessness and, ultimately, helping to define the ethos of the century to come. Since then, American war novelists have proven themselves willing to explore the implications of these developments in apocalyptic terms, and in doing so, they have revealed the deep tensions present in twentieth-century American culture.
This study will examine the ways these disenchanted novelists have responded to the Great War's apocalyptic legacy. In particular it will look at the ways they portray the modern individual adrift in the wasteland of the battlefield, which they see as representative of twentieth-century industrial states. While other writers have seen twentieth-century wars as an indictment of society or as a vindication of political programs, the novelists I have chosen to consider have been concerned more with individuals facing the chaos of seemingly random horror than with the destiny of nations and the shape of history. Building on the tradition of naturalism, their novels detail the harsh realities of warfare--its unintelligibility and the soldier's helplessness--and portray various individuals reacting to its challenges. All envision a meaningless world, but some seem to focus solely on the naturalistic elements of individual experiences, seeing nothing but solitary, isolated individuals overwhelmed by circumstance. Others allow rare individuals to experience moments of self-awareness or of existential recognition--moments, often brief, of certainty amid the chaotic flux. Indeed, readers can discern that enlightening this generally stark vision of an oppressive and meaningless world is, occasionally, a ray of hope for humanity in the form of an isolated character's concern for others or his recognition of the value of cooperation and communication with his fellows.
Thus, at one end of the spectrum of responses to the legacy of the Great War, we find naturalistically inclined novelists portraying individuals who are irredeemably at the mercy of circumstances beyond their understanding or control. Unlike the rare self-aware person, most of these individuals believe they are already free; they have no idea of the extent to which their lives are determined by an indifferent universe. Two Great War novels, Thomas Boyd's Through the Wheat and Three Soldiers by John Dos Passos, portray individual soldiers as mindless automatons, cogs in a machine. Writing about World War II, Norman Mailer and James Jones amplify this deterministic motif. Mailer's The Naked and the Dead envisions a meaningless, naturalistic world in which the so-called "rugged individual" is non-existent. Those who aspire to that state, such as Mailer's Sergeant Croft, are inevitably thwarted by circumstance, as Croft is by a hornets' nest. Futility and impotence are the common lot of Mailer's individuals. James Jones works the theme of social constraint and coercion to the full in The Thin Red Line. His characters Bell and Welsh see the individual as insignificant and of little interest or worth to anyone but himself, and his characters Doll and Fife are shown to be nothing but a reflection of the opinions of others. Some twenty years later we find Vietnam War novelists sounding similar themes. Meditations in Green by Stephen Wright presents selves that are under erasure and gradually disappearing. One of these is the main character, Griffin, who is futilely attempting to escape from his memories and his fate. Less pessimistically, John M. Del Vecchio's The 13th Valley sees the self as socially constructed. Each character is a product of his environment yet believes he is distinctly individual. They are all seen as parts of a well-functioning military machine, which fact is essential for their survival, and it is as a community working together that their greatest successes are achieved. Yet, their successes come with a price in an absurd world--central characters end up either dead or insane. And finally, Tim O'Brien's Going After Cacciato gives us socially determined characters capable of limited free choice. One such character is Paul Berlin, for whom felt obligation to the social contract is primary to his decision-making process.
At the other end of the spectrum of literary responses to modern warfare, the individual is seen as a model of a person in what we would now call an existential dilemma--an isolated subject faced with the absurdity of action in a meaningless world. At best, a character in these novels manages moments of self-awareness or existential heroism--accepting existence and the responsibility of his own freedom while finding the power of will within himself that enables him to act without relying upon society. Characteristically, the results are Sisyphean. A good example of this is found in John Dos Passos's Three Soldiers. In this novel, Dos Passos sees the self as isolated and alienated by automaton conformity. His protagonist, John Andrews, makes a bid to stand free and alone, but ultimately, his solitary action proves futile. He is shown to be impotent without the cooperation of his community of friends. We find something similar in two other Great War novels. Joe Bonham in Dalton Trumbo's Johnny Got His Gun and Frederic Henry in Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms demonstrate acute awareness of their dilemmas and make stands for individual freedom that reveal them also to be impotent. If a novel depicts an existential hero and the character is not clearly impotent, he is at least quixotic. In Company K, World War I author William March gives us the unknown soldier who tries to make an antiwar statement--a quixotic gesture--with his dying act. World War II novelist Joseph Heller shows us another quixotic gesture in Catch-22, in which Yossarian finally takes a stand for personal, existential freedom against impossible odds. Likewise, Norman Mailer's Lieutenant Hearn in The Naked and the Dead and James Jones's Private Prewitt in From Here to Eternity attempt to be free and responsible individuals by quixotically tilting with the windmills of the military monolith.
These war novels, then, condense life to a battlefield and reduce the battlefield experience to two stark possibilities for the individual. At least in part, these authors have been influenced by ideas about individualism and community that historically have been influential for American culture as a whole. We can trace this history of ideas from our Puritan ancestors, through John Locke and Thomas Hobbes, the Transcendentalists, and turn-of-the-century progressives to modern-day existentialists and the contemporary sociologist Robert Bellah and his colleagues. In examining this history, we will notice a precarious balance between the individual and his or her community. Some thinkers regard the community as oppressive to individuals, failing them and leaving them with nothing but an appeal to a Hobbesean self-interest. Others believe that the community sustains individuals, making them more responsive to other people and more aware of their obligations to the social contract. This tension between the one and the many that we will find in the historical overview of ideas that follows is the same tension we will discover in the twentieth-century American war novels that are the focus of this study, and many of these same ideas will resurface later in my discussion of the works.
The widespread employment in American war novels, from World War I to Vietnam, of the theme of an alienated individual in an absurd world, a world gone mad, shows the pervasiveness of such a world-view and reflects the tension between the individual and his community that has historically permeated American life. This notion of the isolated individual seems in some ways contrary to American tradition and history and signals a certain bankruptcy of American social thought, a trend away from an awareness of one's place in a community. For the Puritans, individuality was a relational matter; the individual's identity was dependent upon his or her relationship to God and upon that person's position in the covenant community. According to the classic account of Perry Miller and Thomas H. Johnson, "There was a strong element of individualism in the Puritan creed" (182), but at the same time, the Puritans had an organic conception of community. Society was hierarchical and all its "parts [were] subordinate to the whole" (183). The individualism of the Puritans put the onus squarely on individuals in their relationships with God. The Puritans saw the self negatively, as in conflict with God. Max Weber says this belief created "a feeling of unprecedented inner loneliness of the single individual" which ultimately led to an ascetic lifestyle that helped spur the emergence of modern capitalism (104). This Puritan notion of the lone individual was in constant tension with the Puritans' conviction that their community as a whole was in a covenant relationship with God--so much so that individual acts which threatened to disrupt community cohesion were dealt with severely.(2)
This same tension is evident in the next century when we find John Locke, a primary influence for America's founders, insisting upon free, equal, and independent individuals, yet he declares that voluntarily banding together to form political communities for the protection and continued well-being of all is in the best interest of those individuals. The notion of the isolated individual is anathema to Locke. Perhaps Locke's greatest influence on America and Americans derives from his Two Treatises of Civil Government (1690). America's founders drew heavily from these works in composing the Declaration of Independence and in structuring the new nation's governmental institutions. In his second Treatise, Locke responds to Thomas Hobbes's declaration that the natural state of human beings is to be at war with one another and that human life is "solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short" (89). Contrarily, Locke believes that
The State of Nature has a Law of Nature to govern it, which obliges every one: And Reason, which is that Law, teaches all Mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his Life, Health, Liberty, or Possessions. (Treatises 271)We will see that these opposing views of the true state of nature are often echoed in the works of the war novelists I will consider. For Locke, since the individual is naturally free and independent, no one person has the right to constrain the freedom of another. Yet clearly, not all people will obey the natural law and respect natural rights, either out of ignorance or through self-interest. Therefore, the best interest of the individual is served by each person voluntarily consenting to join others in forming a political community based on the principle of majority rule (Treatises 330-32). Tim O'Brien's Vietnam novel, I will show, draws heavily on this Lockean notion of a voluntary social contract. The aspect of voluntary consent is key for Locke. He sees individuals as moral agents possessing "Reason" and capable of making free and responsible choices that will shape their lives and their environments. Locke's insistence upon natural law and natural rights struck a responsive chord in American thinkers, such as Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and George Washington. These founders of our nation then integrated Locke's ideas into the very structure of American governmental institutions, giving the free, independent individual primacy in the new nation--incorporating liberty of conscience within a framework of community and cooperation--thus, institutionalizing the very tension between the one and the many that has historically been felt by Americans.
Later, we see a more radical, yet quite influential, concept of the individual formulated by Ralph Waldo Emerson. In his 1836 essay, "Nature," Emerson proclaims a universal duality--"Nature and Soul." Everything that is "NOT ME," including "my own body," is Nature (I 8). For Emerson, the Soul is the self, and the self is "part or particle of God" (I 10). Harold Bloom sees Emerson's position as "his Gnosis" and considers that Emerson's "truest achievement was to invent the American religion." This religion "was named 'self-reliance'" (145). The emphasis in Emerson's works is on the individual, and he is quite aware of the historical tension between the self and society that the war novelists I will discuss have written about. This is made clear in his 1841 essay, "Self-Reliance." Emerson sees society as in a "conspiracy" against the individual, urging him toward the "virtue" of "conformity." "Self-reliance is its aversion" (II 29). For Emerson, the gnosis of the self is the only worthwhile goal in life. As stated at the end of his 1837 address, "The American Scholar," he believes that the needs of society will be realized best when all recognize their own self and its union with God, the One, the "Over-Soul" (I 69-70). Emersonian independence leads to isolation from the community, but he cautions, "your isolation must not be mechanical, but spiritual, that is, must be elevation" (II 41). His interpretation of isolation is just the opposite of the "mechanical" isolation the war novelists observe. Indeed, they often use that very metaphor to describe their individuals, likening them to automatons or machine-parts. Emerson sees personal identity in terms of the individual's realization that she or he is, in truth, not isolated at all but, rather, an expression of the Over-Soul, which is the one enduring identity we all possess. Emerson and his exalted vision of the individual had a vast influence upon his time, but even before he wrote, others were expressing their concerns about the American individual.
The tension between American individuals and their communities was a primary focus of the Frenchman Alexis De Tocqueville, who observed the antebellum era of Jacksonian democracy prior to writing his influential study Democracy in America (1840). Tocqueville's treatise on America was intended to assist the emerging European democracies in their struggles for liberty. In an often quoted passage, he identifies "Individualism" as something novel and distinct from pure selfishness.
Our fathers were only acquainted with égoïsme (selfishness). Selfishness is a passionate and exaggerated love of self, which leads a man to connect everything with himself and to prefer himself to everything in the world. Individualism is a mature and calm feeling, which disposes each member of the community to sever himself from the mass of his fellows and to draw apart with his family and his friends, so that after he has thus formed a little circle of his own, he willingly leaves society at large to itself. (98)Individualism, he says, "is of democratic origin" (98). Tocqueville fears that in a democracy the individual will become so isolated from others that he will in the end confine himself "entirely within the solitude of his own heart" (99). Such isolation, he feels, will make it easy for a despot to assume power. We will discover generals in Mailer's and Jones's novels heeding this point that Tocqueville makes and, in fact, counting on it to advance their own pursuit of power. Yet, Tocqueville believes that Americans have protected themselves through their free political institutions, which remind citizens that they are part of a community. Tocqueville also remarks favorably upon the thousands of voluntary public associations to which Americans belong. He sees these associations as further protection against isolation and, indeed, essential for the maintenance of civilization. Furthermore, Tocqueville says that Americans combat the pernicious effects of individualism through their belief in the usefulness of virtue. For Americans, virtue, rather than being an abstract, noble concept, is intimately intertwined with an individual's own self-interest as it is reflected in her or his dealings with others. Tocqueville calls this the "principle of self-interest rightly understood" (123). Tocqueville, though, did not foresee the mass culture of the twentieth century.
As I have already mentioned, at the turn of the century, the social, cultural, and personal effects of capitalism and our increasingly industrial society were of great concern to many intellectuals. Thorstein Veblen's 1899 critique of American consumerism The Theory of the Leisure Class was widely read. In 1909 Herbert Croly, later the founding editor of The New Republic, published The Promise of American Life. Croly decries the "economic individualism" of Americans, proclaiming that Americans are in "bondage" to the cash value of their work (409-10). Ultimately, according to Croly, true individualism is a function of social value. True individuality is measured by and is achieved by the qualitative excellence of the individual's pursuit of "an exclusive interest," "a disinterested object" (411). Excellent, constructive work benefits the community as a whole while reuniting the individual with his peers (412). Therefore, Croly proposes economic reforms which he feels will abolish "selfish acquisitive motives" (415) and promote the emancipation of the individual (427-41). Prior to World War I, many progressive intellectuals shared Croly's concerns about the corporate, acquisitive nature of American culture and its effect on individuals and their communities, including John Dewey, Randolph Bourne, and Walter Lippmann. Dewey, for example, believes that "lost" individuals are vulnerable to pressures being "brought to bear to effect conformity and standardization of American opinion" because they lack the spontaneity of thought that derives from a "communal life" (83). Such concerns were shared by many World War I novelists--John Dos Passos, in particular.
I have already discussed the disenchantment and alienation fostered by the Great War, and shortly before mid-century, we find that Erich Fromm fears the coercive power of the community in a world that alienates individuals. In this he is somewhat at odds with Tocqueville, who sees a certain conformity as "virtue," as America's saving grace. Fromm contends that modern individuals seek an escape from freedom. He believes that, generally, the "modern industrial system" and, particularly, "its monopolistic phase" contributes to the formation of individuals who feel "powerless and alone, anxious and insecure" (240). People who feel like this, he says, are susceptible to any means of relieving themselves of such feelings. According to Fromm, the primary socially acceptable ways to escape this feeling in the modern world are submission to authority and conformity (134-35). Writing immediately prior to World War II, his concern is that conditions in America are ripe for individuals to resort to the mechanism of escape that he calls "automaton conformity," a notion that twentieth-century war novels explore time and again (185). He warns that democracy cannot survive if individuals are content to be cogs in a huge machine--which is Tocqueville's concern writ large. This warning reverberates throughout the novels of Mailer and Jones.
During and since World War II, the anxious, alienated, isolated individual has frequently been discussed by existentialist philosophers, most notably by the French novelist-philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre. Existentialism has an important place in this study. When I refer to a specific thinker's particular formulation of existential ideas, I will identify that person in the text. Otherwise, when I speak of existentialism, it is in the following general sense. For the existentialist, the primary fact is existence--the individual exists. The world is meaningless and absurd. One might say that existentialism has a naturally Hobbesean framework in that it posits a world in which the individual is in constant strife with the universe and possesses only his or her own resources upon which to call. The people Fromm describes as automatons mindlessly "conforming to accepted patterns" are in bad faith with themselves, are not authentic (134-35). The authentic individual is the person who accepts the responsibility of her or his own freedom. As Sartre formulates it, "'to be free' does not mean 'to obtain what one has wished' but rather 'by oneself to determine oneself to wish' (in the broad sense of choosing). In other words success is not important to freedom" (621-22). For example, the prisoner is always free to try to escape; actually succeeding is irrelevant to his freedom to choose to try. The individual achieves authenticity by choosing to be engaged with and committed to her or his own project or, as Martin Heidegger conceives it, by having concern for her or his future (Bryant 61). The self creates itself and whatever meaning a meaningless world has for itself. For the existentialist, any salvation of society must begin with the self--a nation populated by individuals in bad faith is nothing but absurd.
American authors such as Edward Albee, Bernard Malamud, and William Styron have drawn on existentialist thought in their works. Also, Norman Mailer has remarked upon the bad faith he saw everywhere in America in the years following World War II. He observes that "One could hardly maintain the courage to be individual" in these "years of conformity and depression. A stench of fear has come out of every pore of American life, and we suffer from a collective failure of nerve. The only courage . . . has been the isolated courage of isolated people" (Advertisements 338-39). Mailer and several other war novelists have examined the isolating and alienating effects of war and have looked for the existential hero who possesses this "isolated courage." Their vision of community is negative in that they see society stifling the individual and fostering inauthenticity. For them, the always tenuous relationship between individuals and their communities has not produced Tocquevillean "virtue" but, rather, failed compromises and dark portents of the future.
As a new century dawns, many Americans look back to the post-war decade of the 1950s as America's golden age. It seems a less complicated, less contentious time. Indeed, historian Godfrey Hodgson contends that the decade was marked by a political and social consensus he has dubbed the "liberal ideology" (491). This "ideology" consisted of a commitment to anti-Communism and free enterprise (73), confidence in the country's ability to solve its social problems without conflict (74-75), a belief in America's classlessness (82), and faith in the constancy and efficacy of economic growth (89). Not only was there consensus in the 1950s, but many analysts, such as Fromm, the existentialists, and David Riesman, saw a great deal of social conformity in American life as well. Riesman, in The Lonely Crowd, his widely-read 1950 study of the tension between individuals and their communities, sees one's "peer-group," reinforced by the mass media, as being a primary influence on one's behavior and identity formation (22). He calls modern individuals "other-directed," meaning that they take their behavioral cues from those around them and conform to the expectations of their contemporaries. According to Riesman, we moderns are controlled by "anxiety," which is the tool we use to read the cues from others (26). Furthermore, historian Loren Baritz argues that Americans have had a long-standing love affair with technology that reached full flower in the late 1950s and early 1960s and continues to today. Baritz contends that technology "demands rationality in place of individuality" and promotes the growth of impersonal bureaucracy (48). The result is the conformity that Riesman and others see and about which they are concerned.
The consensus Hodgson identifies could not last, though, as inflation, the catastrophe of the Vietnam War, and black Americans' demands for civil rights gave the lie to the "liberal ideology" and exposed the limits of American technology. Nor could complacent conformity go unchallenged any longer. It became as unpalatable to the youth of the 1960s as it had been to the young soldiers of the Great War. One Berkeley graduate student, Jack Weinberg, stated the students' position succinctly in 1964 when he said of their campus, "This is a knowledge factory. . . . This is mass production; no deviations from the norm are tolerated" (Hodgson 293). Baritz, I believe, reveals the source of the students' discontent when he argues that the universities have become bureaucratic institutions designed for training technicians, rather than centers for teaching people to think critically (128-29). A precursor to the student unrest of the 1960s was the Beat movement of the 1950s, although hardly a "movement" at all. One of its foremost spokesmen, Allen Ginsberg, went on to be a major guru of the so-called "hippie" counter-culture of the ‘60s. When asked to identify the "heart of the movement," Ginsberg replied, "Well, there was the return to nature and the revolt against the machine" (Hodgson 324). We will find this very dynamic of the individual in conflict with the dehumanizing, technology-driven society in which he lives played out to some degree in each of the Vietnam novels I will consider, particularly Meditations in Green.
In America, much of the societal upheaval of the 1960s and 1970s was a reaction to the shattering of the "liberal ideology" and to the subtle demand for social conformity. Individuals began attempting to assert themselves in order to protest the assumptions of political consensus and to resist peer pressure and media influence. By the end of the decade of the 1960s, polarization was complete and a counter-culture had arisen. Ironically, many of the distinguishing marks of the counter-culture--their clothes, their hair, their symbols--soon became the norm of the mainstream. Yet, despite the contentiousness between the cultural poles, disillusionment was widespread, and individuals in all walks of life began to lose faith and trust in America's institutions. Voter turnout has been in a steady decline in the last quarter of the century, for example. Many people became confused and disheartened by the clash between a Vietnam and Cold War rhetoric that painted Communism as the destroyer of individual liberties and governmental actions which seemed expressly designed to squelch individual freedoms on the home front. The turbulent crosscurrents that this contradictory state of affairs created in the hearts and minds of soldiers, and by extension, in the very fabric of American life have been examined by many of the novels that have come out of the Vietnam War.
In the 1980s, perhaps exhausted and disillusioned by the preceding two decades of turmoil, Americans turned to Ronald Reagan and embraced his vision of traditional American economic individualism which focused on the "I" and shunned the "other." Still, in the midst of the Reagan and Bush administrations, sociologist Robert Bellah and his colleagues found many enthusiastic readers for their studies of American individualism, Habits of the Heart (1985) and The Good Society (1992). In response to the alienation and isolation of individuals, as observed by naturalists and existentialists alike, both studies offer proposals very much in the tradition of the Tocquevillean notion of "virtue," focusing on the interdependence and interconnectedness of individuals, in which, they contend, many Americans no longer believe (Habits 16). Bellah and his co-authors point out that America was founded on the Lockean paradigm of free individuals under a government limited to providing "a minimum of order for individuals to accumulate property" (Good 67). They feel that Americans have trouble understanding the roots of their disaffection because we "still have a Lockean political culture, emphasizing individual freedom and the pursuit of individual affluence . . . in a society with a most un-Lockean economy and government" (Good 79). Bellah and his associates maintain that
A less constricted understanding of freedom and justice would enable us to see how they are connected with the common good. Freedom finds its fulfillment not merely in independence from but in active engagement with the society that creates us. Justice finds its fulfillment not simply in the formal rules that enable individuals to compete but in the commitments that members of a society make to ensure one another the minimum necessities of life. This view of freedom and justice morally embraces the reality of interdependence and does not hide from it. (Good 245)According to Bellah and his colleagues, today's institutions tend to overwhelm the individual, who can no longer clearly see their relevance and who is inclined to try to ignore them. They feel that we need to be more trusting so that we can pay closer attention to what is happening--not just in our families and local communities, but in the world at large, the universal community. Then, we must act, with an awareness of both our social responsibility and our need to be accountable. John Del Vecchio echoes this call for community in his Vietnam novel that I will discuss.
A major assumption of the following study is that concern for others is a positive value, a moral good. This assumption is based upon and rooted in what Bellah and his collaborators call our biblical and republican traditions (Habits 333, 335). The influence of these traditions is pervasive in American culture, indeed in most Western societies. The concern for others is derived from the fact that both traditions place the highest value on human life, which leads both traditions to counsel us to care for one another, to value one another's humanity.
This concern, however, is, as we have seen, in tension with the Hobbesean impulses of individuals, and the war novels analyzed in this study dramatize this tension. Warfare is waged by communities of men, military units, that consist of individuals. In Saving Private Ryan the members of one unit, one "community," sacrifice their lives to save a member of another "community" because it serves the interests of a still larger "community" to which both units belong. The members of each unit (community) are fiercely loyal to their own units, but ultimately their loyalty belongs to the larger community, the United States, which is in need of reinvigoration and renewal. Above all, we see that the needs of the community supersede the needs of the individuals, and this fact is acknowledged and acquiesced to by each individual soldier, if for no other reason than to maintain his self-esteem in the eyes of his peers. This study, then, will examine various war novelists' depictions of individuals, ranging from those totally unaware of their absurd dilemma to those keenly aware of their predicament. The central focus will be on the ways individual characters, individual soldiers, resolve or fail to resolve the tensions that arise between their insistence upon their own autonomous individuality and the needs of their communities.
1. Critics are divided over whether or not Fleming actually does achieve the "quiet manhood" he exults in at the conclusion of The Red Badge of Courage (135). Return to text
2. For example, Roger Williams was banished by the General Court in 1635 for, among other "offenses," challenging the civil magistrates' authority over matters of conscience (Harris 2982). Return to text
Copyright © Patrick Paul Christle, 2001
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