Reading: The View From World War II | Essay | Chicago Reader

Reading: The View From World War II 

Marge Piercy's latest novel is disappointing in its lack of historical perspective. It has no point of view other than that of the characters themselves.

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World War II--probably no war in history conjures up such familiar images for us. We know just how the soldiers looked, the weapons--and of course the great historical figures: demonic Hitler, swaggering Mussolini, portly bulldog Churchill, stone-faced Stalin, Roosevelt with cigarette holder, and the anonymous, caricatured "treacherous Jap." The combat movies of the time have spawned an endless series of successors, while military historians and buffs have analyzed and depicted the war's every aspect, until each campaign's become a well-rehearsed platitude and bloody gore's reduced to banality.

World War II deserves something better--something deeper. For this was surely an epoch-making war for the world as well as America. No doubt that sounds like another cliche, but in fact few of us realize just how much the upheaval of the 1940s shaped our world.

For example--just to stay on the military plane for a moment--in September 1939, as war broke out in Europe, the U.S. Army stood at a minuscule 137,000 men, with another 100,000 in the Navy. There was no prewar equivalent to the immense military apparatus that has now become a permanent feature. The Pentagon building, emblem of this apparatus, was constructed during the war under the direction of General Leslie Groves, whose next task was to oversee the Manhattan Project, which gave birth to the atomic bomb. The war seemed to bring about virtual world domination for the United States, a domination symbolized by nothing so much as this new wonder of military science, the bomb--a weapon possessed, then, only by America.

U.S. economic interests engulfed the postwar world, followed closely by American advertising and cultural products, from Hollywood films to international editions of Life and Reader's Digest. A network of U.S. military bases--thousands at its high point--girdled the globe. The new international organizations created during and through the war had their headquarters in America--not only the United Nations but lesser-known institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, housed across the street from one another in Washington, D.C.

Yet Washington could not control the worldwide ferment the war unleashed. In the vast reaches of Asia and Africa, hitherto subjugated peoples began to demand self-determination. The Soviet Union, emerging from the war as a world power, quickly provided a counterweight to U.S. aspirations. Even the bomb, symbol of American predominance, touched off in the victorious heartland a deep sense of foreboding and vulnerability. Already in 1945, for example, just a few months after the war's end, Life was picturing a "36-hour war," with nuclear missiles from an unnamed enemy devastating 13 major U.S. cities.

Within the United States, this period saw the birth of those tumultuous social currents that have marked our era--from its distinctive youth culture to the sexual revolution to the struggles for liberation by blacks and women. The war and its aftermath formed a crucible, in fact, for the basic permutations of value that have characterized our age, for our current social structures and their contradictions.

Something like this train of thought seems to lie behind Marge Piercy's latest novel, Gone to Soldiers, which aims to capture--according to the publishers--"the vast scope and passions of World War II." "This is a time empires are crumbling and empires are being built," says one character. In fact Piercy often juxtaposes her reader's knowledge of the changes the war brought about with her characters' more limited perspective. "After the war, what will they do with it?" someone asks about the immense new Pentagon. Knowing Piercy's work, one can be sure that this novel is motivated by her conviction of the period's historical and political importance.

Piercy has never been an artist's artist, nor have her novels and poems been much favored by literary critics. Formally and aesthetically her writings are not path-breaking--or even outstanding. Where she shines is in the role of artist engage, the writer as rebel and activist. It was in the 60s, after all, that she broke through as a writer, and it was among the people stirred into action in that era that she found both comrades-in-arms and her principal audience. It used to seem that every politically active person had read Dance the Eagle to Sleep, her second novel, the story of a youth rebellion in a fascist America of the near future. Later Piercy's concerns centered more around the oppression and liberation of women. In Woman on the Edge of Time she produced what I consider her best novel--and influenced many people's thinking on women's issues.

Her recent writings have been more broadly popular. The 1982 Braided Lives, a story of mothers and daughters, was something of a bestseller, and Gone to Soldiers is a Book-of-the-Month Club selection. But Piercy has not deserted political concerns and social purposes, and the present book is certainly her most ambitious attempt to encompass the movement of history. She has worked longer on this novel than on any of her others (it was conceived ten years ago), not only in writing but in researching the war era. (She accumulated a data base, she says, some eight times longer than the 700-page novel itself.) The time and work in themselves show the importance Piercy sees in the World War II period.

The cast of characters is wide, and Piercy not only interweaves their lives but also connects them with the world upheaval caused by the war. As their lives change, we see the seeds of the postwar world being planted. Zach, the upper-class playboy and adventurer rising in the wartime Office of Strategic Services (OSS), will surely go on to prominence in the OSS's postwar successor, the CIA. Big-boned Bernice, at first doomed to keeping house for her professor-father, becomes a pilot ferrying planes in a special wartime women's detachment--and realizes she's gay. Others are journalists, sailors, soldiers. One's a teenager--a word that came into general use only during the war. Jacqueline, whose story is at the book's center, is a French college student who evades the roundup of Jews in France, fights in the Resistance until she's captured and incarcerated in a camp, and finally sets off to help found the state of Israel.

This may sound a little pat--and there's more than a little truth to that impression. Piercy has often had problems making her characters come alive, and in this self-conscious historical epic especially, such problems come to the fore. Many of the chapters read almost like essays rather than like creations of real fictional characters. There's Ruthie, the good Jewish girl in Detroit pulling herself up from a working-class background to be a social worker; and Abra, the well-born young New Yorker; and Daniel, who helps break the Japanese code; and others--interesting characters all--but we don't get to know any of them from the inside.

Piercy may be better at creating characters when she's forced to step outside of herself--as when she made the protagonist of Woman on the Edge of Time, for instance, a Chicano woman on welfare. Likewise with Jacqueline Levy-Monot, the French student in Gone to Soldiers. In her diary entries, we see the world through her eyes--the eyes of a romantic, rebellious late adolescent of that particular time and place. But on the whole, an expository quality pervades this novel, and it comes to infect some of the later episodes of Jacqueline's story as well.

Sometimes it's just that the midnight oil is a bit too evident--all those facts so carefully researched about life in the war years have to have their place. A new style of dress here, a detail about a battle in the Pacific there, a conclusion about the effectiveness of bombing in Europe--often it's too evident that an event, a thought, or even a character has been introduced as a vehicle for a tidbit of research. Sometimes it's that Piercy's feminist purpose intrudes too obviously, as she hammers points home rather than making them grow organically out of the characters and their circumstances.

In my book, though, these are more or less forgivable flaws. At least Piercy feels the need to make a point. She may thereby open herself up to accusations of obviousness or awkwardness or "shrillness"--a term seemingly reserved exclusively for politically committed writers--but that's far better than being reconciled to the status quo, a much more common condition among writers in the 80s. The world of fiction is after all a big one, with room for all kinds of styles and subjects.

A much more serious fault than the fact that Piercy doesn't more often step outside of herself is that she doesn't step outside of the period she's writing about. Gone to Soldiers itself bears a strong resemblance to World War II fiction. There are the individual separations and unions brought about by larger events, the brave antifascist fight, the love stories set against a background of war. It's not so much the conventionality that's objectionable but the fact that Piercy has failed to infuse these familiar situations with anything new, with any meaning beyond what they seemed to have at the time. When the characters reflect upon such events as the Detroit race riots of 1943 and the bloody war against Japan, or see the scope of Nazi genocide gradually revealed, what is created is, at most, a sense of what it was like for people then. There's usually no larger perspective, no view beyond the points of view of the characters.

Now many would probably question whether that's a flaw. How could characters, after all, have a perspective beyond their time and place? To show something more might violate the dictates of literary realism.

This argument is profoundly misleading. "Realism" is a notoriously slippery term. No doubt there's a sense in which it's "more realistic" to confine oneself to the perspective of a particular time and place; but doesn't hindsight, some historical understanding, confer a more comprehensive reality? What's the point of confining oneself to the past's illusions? And as for literary method, great--and realistic--novelists have used a variety of means to indicate their perspectives on events and characters. Tolstoy in War and Peace, for example, addresses the reader directly; Mark Twain uses irony; and Dos Passos--in that magnificent historical novel, the U.S.A. trilogy--mixes several types of discourse: acerbic biographies of historical figures, "newsreel" accounts of contemporary events, stream-of-consciousness "camera eye" sections, as well as the more traditional stories of characters lives.

Even ignoring the issue of realism, for Piercy to simply perpetuate wartime perceptions and myths some 40-odd years later falsifies the past. And as we shall see later, it obscures the meaning of the present.

Take, for example, the most prominent popular myth of the war: that it was democracy's great crusade against fascism. Yet even before the fighting had stopped, the army intelligence apparatus had introduced a category of security risks whom they called "premature antifascists"--those who had opposed fascism in the 30s. Preeminent antifascists were in process of being purged from responsible posts, as in the 1944 substitution of Harry Truman for Henry Wallace as Roosevelt's vice-presidential running mate. And postwar Europe quickly saw "ex-" fascists and former Nazis restored to positions of power (the now-famous case of Kurt Waldheim was by no means unique) as the great crusade against communism took shape.

Naturally enough, much of this was obvious to people at the time, and some of these perceptions do enter into Piercy's narrative. Liberals of the war years lamented reactionaries' influence in the administration, the prevalence of war profiteering, and so on. But people of the time mostly viewed the war as a progressive campaign, marred but not decisively affected by such flaws. "To fight evil you do not have to be good," someone in Gone to Soldiers says. "If you are simply a little less brutal, that too is an improvement. You don't have to believe your side is just to recognize that the Nazis are the shit of the earth." Piercy would seem to agree with that summation of the war and America's role in it.

Let me be clear. I believe the conventional interpretation of the war, shared by Piercy, is wrong, inadequate. For instance, I think the banners under which the war was fought by "our side"--the Atlantic Charter, the Four Freedoms, the antifascist "people's war"--were largely spurious, masking actual American objectives. But even ignoring the precise truth and meaning of World War II, it must in any case be seen as an epochal upheaval, a world cataclysm in which some 50 million people lost their lives, of which less than 300,000--that's six-tenths of 1 percent--were American. The war shaped the world that came after, the world in which we still live. Gone to Soldiers lacks just this sense of global rupture, with all its horror and grandeur--as indeed it was lacking for Americans at the time, who tended to see the war as a combination of noble crusade and dirty job. In either case it was something to be gotten through quickly, so that life could be restored to a prosperous normalcy.

Piercy's title echoes a song made popular in the 1960s by Joan Baez, "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" In the song, the flowers have been gathered by young maids, who have given them to young men, who have gone to soldiers, who have gone to their graves. "When will they ever learn, when will they ever learn?" asks the chorus. Add to this link with the 60s and the antiwar movement the fact that Piercy has been known as a politically radical writer, and one expects a radical perspective on World War II. Instead we get the same old story. Instead of the, iconoclastic breath of fresh air that the 60s betokened, in this book we get another dispiriting 80s example of making peace with old ideas.

Piercy's vision of the war years is just too cozy and comfortable. The primary reason is the book's rehearsal of old myths, but there are others. Piercy has a predilection for happy endings for her sympathetic characters--almost all of whom are appropriately paired off by the last page--and she frequently concentrates on domestic details.

Because of those happy endings, because her characters are not alienated from postwar society, Piercy seems to accept and even affirm the postwar world--our world. The women in this novel struggle, but a basic success seems well within reach; Piercy appears to espouse a feminism that strives simply for a piece of the existing pie rather than for fundamental change in the social structure. She once expressed a different outlook.

The book's coziness also stems from its focus on "our own kind." This novel is basically about Americans and how they saw the war. (In a postscript, Piercy says she had originally planned to include characters from the Soviet Union, but she doesn't.) Even within the United States, the focus is rather narrow. There are no black characters or Appalachian whites--although both groups poured into urban centers in large numbers during the war years--no Chicanos or Japanese-Americans (and nothing about the wartime racism directed against both these groups); no western or southern or southwestern locales. In fact this is, in the main, a story of Jewish life in America: more than three-quarters of the major characters are Jewish.

So what's wrong with that? Why not a novel about the Jewish experience during the war? And after all, the focus of the book is a French, not an American, girl.

But the problem is that Jacqueline Levy-Monot's European saga not only places the American stories in a broader context but serves as the book's moral center. Piercy contrasts Jacqueline's story of danger with her other characters' more mundane adventures and greater distance from the war. Her heroism while fighting in the Resistance and imprisoned in a death camp is a vivid counterpoint to others' more ordinary efforts. For Americans the war may have been just an exciting event, an interruption in their lives, or a means of self-aggrandizement or self-development. But through this more heroic character Piercy approaches a grander historical and ethical drama. Jacqueline's development from innocent schoolgirl to fierce fighter and hardened Israeli settler clearly is meant to provide purpose and meaning to what would otherwise be a hodgepodge of lives and events.

This novel, then, doesn't just happen to focus on the Jewish experience during World War II--it locates the meaning of the war in the sufferings and resistance of the Jews. The moral center of Piercy's narrative--Jacqueline's story--mirrors Piercy's understanding of the moral meaning of the war. And it is precisely this aspect of the book that I want to criticize.

The Nazis' genocidal attack upon the Jewish people was a historic crime whose horror still staggers the imagination. And yet, vast as it was, this monstrosity was peripheral to the causes of World War II, which had more to do with the participants' national and imperial ambitions. The war in Asia obviously had no relation to the European genocide. But in Europe, too, Germany did not go to war in order to consolidate a right to kill Jews, nor did the United States, Britain, and the Soviet Union fight Germany in order to stop the killing. Nazi plans to exterminate large numbers of Jews did not even take shape until 1941 or 1942, well after the war had begun, and although these designs were known to Western governments from early on, they took no steps either to publicize or prevent the atrocity.

But more important than Piercy's interpretation of history is the present-day meaning, the impact of her decision to center her novel on Jacqueline, Jewish survivor and Israeli pioneer. At the books end, a still-to-be-founded Israel beckons as challenge and emblem of emancipation, which will recompense and give meaning to the horrors of the war.

Today it's hard to see that image as anything but a badly tarnished fraud. As Israeli soldiers shoot down unarmed Palestinian demonstrators and drag people from their homes to deliberately break their bones through beatings with two-by-fours and rifle butts, it's very difficult not to see the Israeli state as a symbol of oppression, not liberation. Seen in this way, Gone to Soldiers is an apologia for Israel as that nation faces international opprobrium for its acts.

This may seem unfair to Piercy. After all, her book was completed before the current upheavals in Gaza and the West Bank, and I'm sure that she is as dismayed as many others by the means employed to try to suppress the Palestinian uprising. But concentrating on the methods obscures the underlying issue: the fact of Israeli rule over a subject people. It is this subjugation that the Palestinians are revolting against; but if one supports Israel's right to be where it is, then one must support the methods necessary to sustain its rule--as Israel justifiably responds to its U.S. critics.

The issue, in other words, is Israel itself, a Jewish state erected in Palestine. This new state was seen as recompense for the terrible crimes committed against European Jews during World War II. But how do these wrongs justify taking over Palestine and depriving an indigenous people of its national rights?

Decades of bitter acrimony have marked the interaction of Arab and Jew in the Mideast. But regardless of all the particular cases and outrages, the basic fact remains: in a third-world area traditionally under colonial domination, the victorious powers of World War II set up a state for European settlers, who immediately began to drive out the native inhabitants. The new state was to be "Jewish"--that is, one in which full citizenship was only open to those who passed certain criteria of birth and origin. If the determining factor had been a white skin, no one would have hesitated to call such a state racist; it's hard to see how the criterion of Jewishness changes the principle. (Considerations like these led the United Nations in the early 70s to condemn Zionism--the doctrine of a Jewish state--as a form of racism.)

For a long time after the violent formation of Israel, there was a widespread conspiracy of silence concerning the Palestinians. Israel, the United States, and other countries pretended that they did not exist as a nation or a people--that there was only a conflict between Israel and the Arab governments of the region, along with a continuing "refugee problem." When the Palestinians began to assert themselves in the late 1960s, Israeli officials finally had to make their views explicit. Minister of information Yisrael Galili asserted that: "We do not consider the Arabs of the land an ethnic group nor a people with a distinct nationalistic character." In 1969 an Israeli court ruled that Palestinians "are not a party in the conflict between Israel and the Arab states." The position was stated most flagrantly by prime minister Golda Meir: "It was not as though there was a Palestinian people . . . and we came and threw them out and took their country away from them. They did not exist."

In the intervening years the Palestinians have at least proved they exist. In the meantime, too, Israel has consolidated its grip on the territories seized in the 1967 war: the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. It is in these lands, overwhelmingly inhabited by Palestinians, that the face of Israel's relation to this people has been revealed most sharply. Here the military rules; demonstrations, strikes, leaflets--any forms of protest--are illegal. Those apprehended can be held for an indefinite period without charge; when they are tried, it is by military courts where the judge's decision is final--no appeals are allowed. The proceedings, in Hebrew, frequently are not translated into Arabic.

Many have expressed outrage at the current Israeli policies: collective punishment, demolition of homes, deportation of those considered troublemakers or leaders. Yet all these are long-standing practices. In December 1970, a UN special committee on Israeli practices in the occupied territories found great "evidence of mass deportation and the creation of conditions which leave no option to the individuals except to leave the territory." The report went on: "There is a policy of collective and area punishment being imposed indiscriminately on the civilian inhabitants in the occupied areas. . . . [taking] the form of destruction of houses, curfews and mass arrests."

A recent New Yorker article by David Grossman gives a small indication of what Israeli rule means for the Palestinians day by day under "normal" conditions. The speaker is a woman student at Bethlehem University on the West Bank: "We never know if there will be classes tomorrow, or if they will allow us past the checkpoints on the way to the university. In class, we are afraid to express our opinions freely, because we are afraid of spies." ("We live under pressure," she continues, "but that is really what creates the motivation for us to keep at our studies. . . . We must educate ourselves in opposition to what the occupation wants us to be. . . . We will fight with the help of education and thought.") Now that Israel has entirely shut down the schools in the West Bank and Gaza, Palestinians have set up their own underground schools.

The use of torture against detained Palestinians has long been an open secret. In With My Own Eyes (1974), the lawyer Felicia Langer--that rare thing, an Israeli who defends Palestinians--detailed the beatings and torture to which prisoners in the occupied territories were routinely subjected. Last October, the Landau Commission in Israel acknowledged that torture had been taking place--but by granting that a certain degree of "physical pressure" was admissible this governmental commission seemed to pave the way for the more open practice of torture. Amnesty International, in its recent report on the torture of children, listed Israel as one of the countries known to engage in this practice.

South Africa is another. Indeed one is bound to compare the Palestinians' uprisings with the blacks' in South Africa. Another comparison that springs to mind is German-occupied Europe during World War II. There are good reasons for making both these parallels. On the one hand, there is an army of occupation, with its contingent of secret police and informers, attempting to stamp out in a subject population feelings of nationalism and attempts at resistance. On the other, there is the attempt to create a permanently subjugated body of laborers, people without rights, marked off by an essentially racist criterion. Another parallel with South Africa is the way in which this sort of oppression breeds revolt. Among South African blacks, as now among the Palestinians, a generation grows up feeling it has nothing to lose; it will confront the enemy's guns and armor with nothing but a stone.

Marge, Marge, Marge! You've felt outrage at the subjugation of women. You've celebrated Jews' resistance to the horrors of Nazism. How can you take a character who embodies both these struggles and send her off, as in a righteous quest, to dispossess and oppress another people? Your readers deserve better of you.

Gone to Soldiers by Marge Piercy, Summit Books, $19.95.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Richard Laurent.

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