is director of American Studies at Columbia University. His mostrecent book, Melville: His World and Work, has just been publishedin paperback by Vintage.
It's a peculiarity of academic life that, every fall, I find myselfa year older facing students who somehow remain the same age. Thisposes a problem for anyone who takes seriously John Dewey's dictumthat "knowledge of the past and its heritage is of greatsignificance when it enters into the present, but not otherwise."It's a problem because, with each passing year, I know less aboutthe present in which the students live. I rarely venture into theblogosphere or get through a graphic novel. I know nothing aboutthe music they listen to and not much about how they organize theirprivate lives. So I decided last spring to teach a class on asubject that I figured might bring us together over a matter ofcommon urgency. The subject was war.
For many in my generation (I'm pushing 55), the word "war" isnothing more than a degraded metaphor. I've known it all my life,mainly in slogans like "war on poverty," "war on cancer," and, mostrecently, "war on terrorism." The word recalls Ralph WaldoEmerson's remark that, when "words lose all power to stimulate theunderstanding or the affections," the "fraud is manifest." One ofmy aims in teaching the course was to try to expose the fraud.
We began with Max Weber's essay "Politics as a Vocation," whichargues, with frightful salience for recent events in Lebanon, that"a state is a human community that (successfully) claims themonopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a giventerritory." Since my students had read The Iliad in Columbia's corecurriculum (which began as a "War Issues" course during World WarI), we moved on to Simone Weil's essay on that poem, in which shedescribes the giddy confidence of the Greek invaders: "At the outset... their hearts are light, as hearts always are if you have alarge force on your side and nothing but space to oppose you. Theirweapons are in their hands; the enemy is absent." It's impossibleto read those lines, first published in Paris in 1940, withoutrecalling the early days of the present war in Iraq, when embeddedreporters crowed on Fox and CNN that Saddam Hussein's RepublicanGuard had melted away before the "shock and awe" of U.S. force. Noone, as I recall, said much about their coming back to fightanother day. Weil writes as if she had foreseen not only theirreturn as murderous insurgents but also the crimes perpetrated bythe "liberators" at places like Abu Ghraib: "We see men in armsbehaving harshly and madly. ... We see them triumph over a dying manby describing to him the outrages his corpse will endure. ... Thusit happens that those who have force on loan from fate count on ittoo much and are destroyed."
Leaping over nearly 30 centuries and a thousand wars, we arrived atmodern times via John Keegan's The Face of Battle, which contains amind-boggling account of "long docile lines of young men" at theSomme, "shoddily uniformed, heavily burdened, numbered about theirnecks, plodding forward across a featureless landscape" intomachine-gun fire that killed most of them. For World War II, wemoved on to John Glusman's Conduct Under Fire, a remarkable bookabout his father's imprisonment during the Japanese occupation ofthe Philippines. Before the surrender of Corregidor, MurrayGlusman, a young Jewish doctor from Brooklyn, performed surgery byflashlight in a cave amid the roar of bombers and moans of woundedmen to whom he could not tend even as they bled to death. Sixtyyears later, his son wrote an account of the siege and the infamousBataan "Death March"--a book filled with blood and horror. Yet mystudents and I were particularly struck by one intimate detail: twotoothless POWs sharing a single set of dentures so they could taketurns eating.
We did our best to extract general ideas from such particulars. Wetalked about war's mythmaking power--about how General MacArthuremerged with a high postwar public reputation, while, to many ofhis men who waited in vain through the siege for his counterattack,he was a blowhard and a fake. We talked about the paradox of modernwar--how, on the one hand, modern technology (long- distance guns,bombardment by air) makes killing impersonal and thereby less anaffront to conscience, while, on the other hand, killing has become,since the Enlightenment, more a trial of conscience than it hadbeen for Greeks, who regarded it as a test of valor, or formedieval Christians, who glorified it as delivering justice toheathens.
Reading about Vietnam was like staring into a mirror. In PhilipCaputo's memoir, A Rumor of War, we read about men who called innapalm strikes upon shadows in the brush but who could not bringthemselves to kill when they cornered an enemy soldier and saw theterror in his eyes. We read an interview with Lyndon Johnson inwhich he envisioned postwar Vietnam as a neo-New Dealelectrification project: "I want to leave the footprints of Americathere," he told the interviewer early in 1965. "I want them to say,`This is what the Americans left: schools and hospitals and dams.'"Sounding very much like George W. Bush talking about the UnitedStates as the world's engine of democracy, LBJ insisted that "thedesire to be independent is as color-blind as aggression"--thatAsians, no less than Americans, yearn to be "free."
Before the course could decently end, we had one more war toconsider--the present one--which had loomed over us all along.After a discussion of the rights and responsibilities of the pressduring wartime, one of my students startled me. She's among the fewpeople I've met at Columbia who actually has friends in themilitary--in her case, high school friends from back home in SouthCarolina. She told me that, when news first broke about Abu Ghraib,she found the actions there repulsive--but that she also felt angeragainst the press on behalf of her friends. With these revelations,she thought, their chances of being kidnapped and tortured or blownup by an IED would increase. The insurgents would be inflamed bythe images of naked prisoners and snarling dogs. Her rationalityfavored freedom of the press and full disclosure of what our sidewas doing in the war, but her gut favored silence and, ifnecessary, suppression, to protect her classmates. It was theclosest we came--and it was not very close--to experiencing thereach of war, which left this young woman unsure how to balance herloyalty to her principles against her loyalty to her friends.
Iwant to believe that the course achieved something like what I hadhoped for. It made me feel less remote from my students and, Ithink, they from me. But that was not because we had found sharedknowledge. It was because we discovered our bottomless ignorance,living together as we do in an insulated present amid a few relicsof the cataclysmic past. I found myself thinking of the cabinet inmy living room that once stood in my mother's childhood home inBerlin, from which she shipped it to England before Kristallnacht.It spent the war in a London warehouse, somehow spared by theincendiary bombs that burned up the buildings surrounding it. Forme, this squat piece of furniture has a kind of talismanic quality;when I open it, I am filled with memories of my grandparents andparents, who had their lives changed though not, in my family'scase, destroyed. Somewhere in storage, I still have the jumpingjack that my father built and attached, with a pair of cowbells, tothe rail of my oldest brother's crib, where, set to leaping andflailing, with bells clanging, it was meant to drown out the soundof bombs during the Blitz. I try to imagine that soniccompetition--but, of course, I can't.
No doubt my students have their own war tokens--a letter, perhaps,from a grandfather wounded at Normandy or from a great-uncle lostwhen waves of Chinese soldiers poured in after MacArthur's advancetoward the Yalu River. Or they have heard stories about sit-ins andwalk-outs from their baby-boomer parents, whose war reminiscencesbegin and end, like mine, with how they avoided going to Vietnam.But none of these traces leads back to the thing itself.
The course helped us feel the incompetence of words to convey theexperience of war and, even more, the fraudulence of films inwhich, as one student wrote in his paper on how D-Day has beenrepresented in the movies, dead soldiers "fall like toys off ashelf ... into water or out of the frame." And the course left usfeeling uneasy about the modern university, in which students spenda few years and faculty spend most of their lives. It's been a longtime since any leading U.S. university has had much to do withpeople who actually have experienced war.
When I was a young teacher in the 1980s, I knew a few who did bringsuch experience to their teaching--not by displaying or exploitingit, but by incorporating it in what they taught and why they taughtit. I think, in particular, of my late Columbia colleague JamesShenton, who had served as a medic (he was a pacifist and sorefused to carry a gun) in the Battle of the Bulge. He spoke withgreat intensity about Walt Whitman's memoir, Specimen Days, inwhich the poet recounts his Civil War service as a nurse in a Unionhospital where he held the hands of young men undergoing amputation,read to blinded young men, and took dictation for farewell lettersfrom those closing in on death. I always felt that Shentonunderstood Whitman's America better than I could and that, somehow,his own experience of war underlay both his knowledge and hisdevotion to the young. His generation--yes, I know I sound likeTerkel or Brokaw--is now going or gone, and it is not exactly thefault of my generation that fate spared most of us from thecrucible. But it is no advantage, either.
For the vast majority of students and faculty in places likeColumbia--it's different for support and maintenance staff, who aremore likely to have friends or family in the line of fire--war isan utter abstraction rather than an imaginable fact. Perhaps thedeepest divide in our country today runs between those for whom thewar is a relentless threat to loved ones and those for whom it is aTV show to be switched on and off. At places like Columbia, theformer is our most underrepresented minority group.
After the course was done and we broke for summer, I walked aroundcampus seeking some memorial or plaque honoring the sons ofColumbia who have died in their country's wars. I searched thechapel, the building that houses the president's office, and thehall where most college classes meet. I haven't found anything yet.Even colleagues who seem to know everything about the universityhave not been able to tell me where to look.
By andrew delbanco