Sunday, June 03, 2007

Disasters of War

I just finished reading Gunter Grass's World War II memoir, "How I Spent the War" in the June 4 New Yorker. Thank God it's online, so people seeing this can read it for themselves.

I don't know how I managed to never read anything by Grass over the last 40-plus years. When I was at San Francisco State in the mid-60's I saw lots of students carrying copies of "The Tin Drum" around for some class or other, and isolated phrases about Grass like "the conscience of postwar Germany" bounce around in odd corners of my memory. That's a possibly true but incomplete description of Grass, who over the years, has carefully cultivated a prodigious mastery of the writer's craft. He's a better writer than Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and like Solzhenitsyn has something very, very important to tell us.

Grass's melancholy tale of his induction into the Waffen SS at age 16, very late in the war (September, 1944), of his lucky and completely accidental survival of the collapse of the Reich, of the corpses hanging from trees, the irrelevance of bravery in the face of superior firepower, the sudden deflation of adolescent bravado and naivete under the avalanche of war's overpowering reality, conveys a tremendous sadness which I would imagine has increased rather than diminished with time. Every word of this extremely intimate and wholly subjective memoir is chosen to serve as an indictment of the futility and pointlessness of modern war.

Has there been a war in modern times that could not have been avoided? Has there been one that should not have been?

Grass's war was the same one my father, ten years older than the German author, got caught up in. Pop also entered the conflict late, arriving in France in February of 1945, and mostly dealt with thousands of confused, desperate, hungry refugees and families on the road, and axis soldiers, mostly German but also from various other countries, looking for someone to surrender to. His trip across France and Germany by boxcar and foot ended with his witnessing the opening of the Dachau death camp.

He returned home traumatized and demoralized, intimitaely acquainted, like Gunter Grass, with the depths of depravity to which the race is capable of sinking under the iron reality of war. He was angry, sometimes sullen, and somewhat unpredictable for a couple of years, but after a while he recovered. I guess he decided what he had gone through was worth it, that he, his country, and his comrades in arms had accomplished something.

But for survivors on the other side, the postwar held nothing but the lingering, bitter taste of disaster. Grass's accomplishment in describing Germany's collapse, and the pathetic final attempts of the Wehrmacht to defend itself, lies in his ability to deliver an emotionally overpowering work using bland and objective language. He simply lays out his experiences of the war's last days in the coolest deadpan, and the measured calm of his tone amplifies the devastating effect of the narrative.

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