One of the last, and best, classes I took at Dartmouth was called War and Peace in the Modern Age. Though taught in the government department by an expert on nuclear weapons, it turned out to be one of the closest things to a comparative literature course that I took in my four years of undergrad. Nearly all of the course readings were first-person accounts of warfare, often in novel form. Here’s a bit of what the syllabus had to say about the assigned works:
The readings are generally personal accounts that I assign to convey to you – to the extent possible – first-hand descriptions of what war is like. The biographical accounts of what took place in several wars are designed to help you develop a mental picture of war as a process conducted, for the most part, by people your own age. I hope the readings give you a sense of war through the eyes of 20-year olds.
Still, after reading My War Gone by, I Miss it So (which devoted fans of The Wander Years [hi mom and dad] will remember as the book that inspired me to go to Bosnia – you can read about that here) about halfway through the term, I started to wonder why it was important for anyone to have that “sense of war,” not necessarily as future policy makers, or writers, or military officers – not even as voters – but rather, simply as human beings. Of what value is it truly to expose ourselves to the frontiers of the human condition? I felt doing so was important to me, but could I make that case universally? Over the past four years, I’ve had a handful of “eureka” moments when the case for the “direct experience,” the exposure of our selves to the limits of humanity, has been abundantly clear. But the logic tends to slip away as quickly as it arrives, and I’m left again with nothing more than my personal conviction, the conviction that this exposure helps define what it means to be alive, and that finding this definition is one of life’s greatest goals. Recently, a dear friend gifted to me an out-of-print collection of some of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s essays and news dispatches. Besides writing The Little Prince, Monsieur de Saint-Exupéry spent time as a war reporter, covering among other things the Spanish Civil War for a handful of French newspapers. More than just answering the question of whether The Little Prince was an isolated incident of genius, his reports from the Spanish fronts bring us closer to understanding the significance of human consciousness:
Human events display two faces, one of drama and the other of indifference. Everything changes according as the event concerns the individual or the species. In its migrations, in its imperious impulses, the species forgets its dead. This, perhaps, explains the unperturbed faces of these peasants. One feels that they have no special taste for horror; yet they will come back from that clump of trees on the one hand content to have administered their kind of justice, and on the other hand quite indifferent to the fate of the girl who stumbled against the root of the tree of death, who was caught by death’s harpoon as she fled, and who now lies in the wood, her mouth filled with blood.
Here I touch the inescapable contradiction I shall never be able to resolve. For man’s greatness does not reside merely in the destiny of the species: each individual is an empire. When a mine caves in and closes over the head of a single miner, the life of the community is suspended.
His comrades, their women, their children, gather in anguish at the entrance to the mine, while below them the rescue party scratch with their picks at the bowels of the earth. What are they after? Are they consciously saving one unit of society? Are they freeing a human being as one might free a horse, after computing the work he is still capable of doing? Ten other miners may be killed in the attempted rescue: what inept cost accounting! Of course, it is not a matter of saving one ant out of a colony of ants! They are rescuing a consciousness, an empire whose significance is incommensurable with anything else.
Inside the narrow skull of the miner pinned beneath the fallen timber, there lives a world. Parents, friends, a home, the hot soup of evening, songs sung on fast days, loving kindness and anger, perhaps even a social consciousness and a great universal love, inhabit that skull. By what are we to measure the value of a man? His ancestor once drew a reindeer on the wall of a cave; and two hundred thousand years later that gesture still radiates. It stirs us, prolongs itself in us. Man’s gestures are an eternal spring. Though we die for it, we shall bring up that miner from his shaft. Solitary he may be, universal he surely is.
Addendum: The more I learn about it, the more I realize how significant an event the Spanish Civil War was, despite the prevalent narrative about very little happening in the world between the World Wars. At the very least, it inspired some great literature and art, including Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia and Hemmingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. And while I’ve never been a student of art history, Guernica is one of the first paintings I can remember learning about.
Addendum: On the subject of war reporting broadening our understanding of humanity and all its definitions, I can’t help but to include this passage from Anthony Loyd’s My War Gone by, I Miss it So:
As darkness fell a young woman staggered weeping up the street and collapsed into the arms of those sheltering behind the Swedes. Friends managed somehow to extract the story of what had happened to her – the rape – and told the Swedes that her paralyzed father still lay in the apartment block. We went with a Swedish patrol to find him, carrying him back to the other Muslims for his final night of life. The idea of some things is enough to jam your mind, let alone seeing the reality. If you read about it in the newspaper you may not feel it, you may fall for the empty sterility of the phrase ‘ethnic cleansing’ without ever understanding what it really was: persuasion through terror. After the war had finished one of the columnists who wrote about Bosnia without ever having been there offered the opinion that ‘ethnic cleansing’ was a good idea as it led to the definition of peaceful borders similar to those between Britain and Scotland. He seemed very pleased with this comparison. Perhaps if he had his youngest child raped beside his death bed, he would have a different view.