The Sorrow of War by Bao Ninh – A Review

9781573225434_p0_v2_s600x595The Sorrow of War
Bao Ninh
trans. Phan Thanh Hao
Riverhead Books, 1993, pg 233

If you are coming to Bao Ninh’s The Sorrow of War after seeing his interviews in Ken Burn’s The Vietnam War, as I did, you may have the impression that you are picking up a war novel. It certainly is that, but it is also something more: an exploration of the toll war takes years after.  Ninh’s comments during the documentary made it clear he had doubts about the wisdom of the heavy losses the Vietnamese suffered during the war. Reading the novel, it’s clear he has been unconvinced for a long time. Published 15 years after the end of the war, it is a raw book that has no illusions about patriotism or heroism.

The Sorrow of War is three novels: a story of war;  the struggle to survive PTSD; and the aftermath of war. Each is interrelated, obviously, but in each he gives you different registers that show a narrator who has survived not only years of war and a post war that only reminds him of war, but who is  completely damaged. Structurally, Ninh has written the novel as a series of unconnected episodes, moving between the war, his days as a relatively happy youth, and the nightmare of the war. The narrative arc for much of the book isn’t that important. Instead the glimpses of the war and his PTSD laced nightmares are woven throughout. The narrator is giving you impressions of a dazed mind. Much of it is quite clear, but in a very narrow view as if his mind is hyper attuned to precise details. In survivors accounts you often see an attention to the immediate detail as the intensity of the experience sharpens their memory. This pervades much of the book and gives it an impressionistic feel, as if we are watching a mind attempting to process what has happened.

When, the narrative is pieced together, The Sorrow of War has the typical arc of innocence, to experience, to dissolution. The innocence is not one of heightened patriotism. The novel follows Kein, a reluctant soldier, naive to its horrors, but at the same time indifferent. What little excitement he has, is quickly lost when the war starts after the Gulf of Tonkin. He spends years in the war, loosing all his comrades in devastating battle after another. It is a savage war that has no quarter, even when he liberates the Saigon airport in 1975 one of his friends dies pointlessly at the hand of a civilian. For Kein, though, the war is not over. He is part of a MIA and graves registration team that goes through the country looking for the dead and missing. Even after the war, the war hasn’t ended, and highlights the complete devastation that the war left. It is from this nearly 15 year long immersion into killing comes the compulsion to drink and write. In general, the arc works well, except for one small issue I’ll come to latter.

The story arc I’ve pieced together is not linear at all. Moreover, Ninh frames the story in several layers of narrator. There is the author of the fragmentary war stories. Maybe it was someone like Kien, perhaps it is meant to be autobiographical. The unknown author, the one who has created the Kien stories lives in an apartment with a mute woman and writes and drinks. Then he disappears, leaving his novel scattered over the apartment. Here we get a new narrator. He doesn’t know where the Kien narrator has gone. He pieces the novel together. The pages are unnumbered and each page seems independent of the other, he says, which gives the book its fragmentary structure. It is a mostly successful literary device. Given the already fragmentary nature of the book and its continual sense of the futility, to have the author disappear, one more casualty of the war, only seems fitting. The final narrator also provides a closure on the war without having to resolve anything. Did the Kien narrator die? Is war so traumatic there are no survivors? It certainly eliminates any kind of heroic uplift.

Those who survived continue to live. But that will has gone, that burning will which was once Vietnam’s salvation. Where is the reward of enlightenment due to us for attaining our sacred war goals? Our history-making efforts for the great generations have been to no avail. What’s so different here and now from the vulgar and cruel life we all experienced during the war?

Is Ninh’s approach successful? I ask because although the first 2/3 of the novel is fragmentary, impressionistic, the last 1/3 is a pulsing narrative that follows Kien and his girlfriend as war breaks out. It is the longest sustained writing of the book and it is horrific, detailing an American bombing of a troop train, and his grilfriend’s rape at the hands of some train workers. It could be easy to dismiss this as laziness on the part of Ninh: an author who couldn’t sustain the full novel. However, Ninh is a better writer than that. He has used different registers to suggest a mind unable to focus on a coherent narrative. Kien can describe specific traumatic events, but he has no overarching sense of story. Why else does the organizing narrator say he had a hard time putting the book together? A war that long and brutal with that many dead is too difficult to make sense of. This is something Hemingway even picked up on in The Soldiers home 70 years before. Personal experience needs to be welded to a larger narrative or it fragments, as it does for Kien.

The Sorrow of War is a successful novel. The only element that seems a little much is the rape. Kien’s reaction to it, definitely complicates the man, but it has, given its placement in the book, the effect of dropping something as traumatic into the middle of the story without really exploring it. That aside, Ninh has constructed a solid novel of war and aftermath that is as brutal, dark, and hopeless as any of the classics of the genre.

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100 Books about War from Warscapes Weekly

I’ve been reading Warscapes Weekly for a while now and they have consistently put together some good collections of stories and essays from war torn areas. They have now put out a list of hundred books about war. The list tilts towards the current and for my tastes has a little too much from journalists, but it is an intriguing list and I found a couple I was interested in reading in the future. I have even read a few of these (Homage to Catalonia, Catch-22, War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning,The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War, Berlin: The Downfall 1945, The English Patient, The Story of Zahra, No-no Boy, Testament of Youth, War Against War, Autumn of the Patriarch ) or tried in a couple cases (Forever War, Journal, 1955-1962, Reflections on the French-Algerian War). I think the the omission of Eugene Sledge’s book is large, but no list is perfect.

Dispatches
by Michael Herr, a visceral and lyrical memoir about the Vietnam war

Memory for Forgetfulness
by Mahmoud Darwish, unique prose-poem sequences that evoke the Israeli invasion of Beirut in 1982.

Homage to Catalonia
by George Orwell (1938) Journalist and novelist George Orwell’s personal account of experiences and reflections during the Spanish Civil War.

Hiroshima
by John Hersey (1946) Told through the memory of survivors, this is a journalistic account of what happened on the day that the United States dropped an atom bomb on Hiroshima, Japan.

Catch-22
by Joseph Heller (1961) Now celebrating 50 years, this novel follows Captain John Yossarian and several other characters as they navigate bureaucracy, absurdity, injustice and greed during World War II.

Gravity’s Rainbow
by Thomas Pynchon (1973) A sprawling epic novel about the deployment of V-2 rockets by Nazis during World War II.

Pity the Nation
by Robert Fisk (1990) An epic account of the Lebanese civil war and the crisis of Israel and Palestine during the eighties through the eyes of a fearless journalist.

Regeneration Trilogy
by Pat Barker (1991) A novel based on real-life accounts of British army officers being treated for shell shock during World War I.

Black Hawk Down
by Mark Bowden (1999) An account of the urban battle that raged in Mogadishu, Somalia in 1993 between US Special forces and Somali militias headed by warlord Mohammed Farrah Aidid.

My War Gone By, I Miss It So
by Anthony Loyd (2001) An English journalist’s memoir about his experiences in Bosnia and Chechnya.

 

 

 

Photos – America Remembers the Spanish American War

I always find it fascinating how wars are remembered and what wars are worth remembering. The other weekend I was in Walla Walla Washington drinking wine and I came across this monument to the Washington soldiers who fought against Spain in the Philippines. I don’t remember every seeing a monument to this war. It is one of the US’s lesser known wars and I wondered what was it about the war that made the Walla Walla commemorate it? Perhaps, as you can see from the photo, nothing has come along to displace it. Walla Walla hasn’t changed too much over the years and perhaps it is just luck to be there. I don’t know if it’s location next to the church was the original placement, but seems odd.

Blazing Combat – A Review of Banned War Comics

Blazing Combat
Fantagraphics Books, 210 pg
(Download a 3 story excerpt from the publisher)

I have a penchant for reading these things, especially if it was banned in some way or another as Blazing Combat was when it was published in 1966. Of course I wanted to see what would get it banned, but also how war is represented. Can something interesting be said in the comic form that hasn’t been said already. While I read with relish the works of Joe Sacco or Spiegelman’s Mouse, it has been a while since I’ve read a war comic that follows the more traditional format of a war comic: short vignettes about soldiers, usually with heavy interior monologues, noting the hardship but at the same time the purpose as something hideous, but necessary.

Perhaps half of the stories fall into that category: soldiers in combat fighting a surviving because that is what one does. Usually the tension is not about glory in a campaign, but about entering action as a cocky youngster and coming out a humbled survivor, or  a veteran doing what he has to do and hoping to survive once more, with the understanding that it is the enemy who cannot survive. While it is possible to inject a note of triumphalism that suggests glory is one’s goal, comics often, because of their lower profile, can question this more than movies (here I’m specifically thinking of films and comics between 1945 and 1980). Blazing Combat, to its credit, avoids that trap and there is seldom a note of triumphalism.  Instead, as the editor notes in the interview at the end of the book, it is more about soldiers talking to soldiers, the phenomenon I’ve noticed in survivor accounts where one does not dwell on the horrific, instead it is the shared experience, which the survivors know were horrific, that is the means of understanding. When I read the description of the book as banned for its anti war stance I thought I wouldn’t see anything that suggested dutiful ambivalence. But it is that shared expression that can have its own power. Unfortunately, too, it can come across as triumphal.

What got the book  banned, though, are the stories of futility that show nothing in war has any value. One story shows  takes place during the Spanish American War and shows two Americans are shown talking about how they can’t wait to see combat, which is juxtaposed with an American killing a Spaniard in hand to hand combat and walking away in horror. In another, the WWI British ace William Bishop is not noteworthy for his skill as a pilot. There were others such as the Red Barron who were as good and are remembered still to this day. What sets him apart is he survived the war. In other words, fame is pointless if you don’t survive. And in the most scandalous for the time, a story follows a Vietnamese villager who tries to save his land from an American patrol. The outcome does not make the Americans look good. It is especially prescient since it was written in 1965.

As a work of comic or social history it is interesting. As something to read and enjoy it is a little tedious. How many times can you read a five page story about a youngster learning the hard way what war is? If you want to see an approach to war in comic form that tried something different, this is your book. However, if you want entertainment (or great insight), not so much. But I think that its name says it all: Blazing Combat. Typically this has a connotation of excitement and adventure, and sometimes that bleeds into the stories, because it is difficult to create a war comic that even in its most nihilistic, is not partly about glory. If humans are capable of saying, Vive la Muerte (Long Live Death) as they did at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, it is possible to enjoy the action of Blazing Combat, even if the name is ironic.

I will say the art for a comic is actually quite interesting and shows and good range of styles, though it is still in the comic vein.

Battlescapes: A Photographic Testament to 2000 years of Conflict – A Review

Battlescapes: A Photographic Testament to 2000 years of Conflict (General Military)
Alfred Buellesbach and Marcus Cowper
Osprey Publishing, 2009 220pg

Battlescapes is a beautiful collection of photos taken on the battle fields of Europe showing what they look like now. It’s a truism to say that the older the battle field the less field has obvious marks of the battles fought. At best, there are monuments places over the last hundred and fifty years. Often, as the text makes clear, the monuments say more about those who erected them, than those who fought the battle. If one did not have the accompanying text the photos would just look like lovely photos of fields full of crops or freshly plowed waiting for the coming season’s planting. It is all very bucolic and without the text you wouldn’t know that 100,000 died here, 50,000 there. It is only the more modern wars, especially World War I where you see the evidence of war. This is partly because the fields have been preserved, but it is also due to the intensity of the industrial war that reshaped the land so thoroughly and left large sections of it unusable, which the French called the Red Zones where the mix of biological waste and unexploded ordinance made for dangerous going. It is that intensity that make the images of the World War I battle fields the most interesting, especially those of the Italian front where they fought even more pointless battles in the Dolomites. The photos of the Dolomites are stunning and it is a wonder why anyone would bother. Moreover, while the old battle fields often have markers that have more to do with an growing sense of nationalism, and less to do with the battles, the markers for World War I have an ironic gesture, massive sentinels to massive waste and dedicated only shortly before the start of the next one. It makes for a good companion to Nigel Jones, The War Walk: A Journey Along the Western Front .

It is unfortunate, though, that such beautiful photos obscure what really happened. It is not the fault of the authors, it is the way nature erases what humankind destroys.

Off the Wall – Political Posters of the Lebanese Civil War – A Review

Off the Wall: Political Posters of the Lebanese Civil War
Zeina Maasri
I. B. Tauris, 168 pg

Every war has its own aesthetic. As bad as it sounds to equate art and style which often had a connotation of beauty and goodness to war, the need to solidify group membership, demonize the other, and provide a vision of the future with its implicit sense of triumph, lend themselves to symbolic interpretation through art. The poster in the modern industrial world is a cheep, quick and disposable medium that has been one of the most common ways to mix art and war. Even if a faction could not afford radio or TV, the poster was available, and that ease of production has left many enduring images that shape the impressions of a war. For Americans, the Uncle Sam I Want You Poster from World War I or Rosie the Riveter from World War II, are as important to the iconography of those wars as a trench scene or raising the flag on Iwo Jima.

It is with these ideas in mind that Zeina Maasri approaches the 150 posters that make up the richly printed collection from the Lebanese Civil War. Maasari finds in the posters reflections of an aesthetic and a politics that were unique to Lebanon. While she notes that the posters may seem at first similar to the propaganda posters of the wars of the 20th century whose goals were to inspire and demonize, the posters in Lebanon, due to the sectional nature of the conflict, were more focused on establishing control and marking territory. Since the lines between combatants were not always marked out clearly, the posters became a means of showing areas of control and describing who was in power. At the same time, the posters performed their traditional role of forging group cohesion. Moreover, Maasari points out that politics in Lebanon for at least the last half of the 20th century was marked by factional dynasties that provided leadership for each group, and whose leaders passed leadership from father to son; thus, the posters often served the dual role of emphasizing the role of the leader as the head of the faction and reminding the view of the faction’s strength. Finally, religion is an important element in many of the posters, especially as the Shiites moved away from the traditionally left leaning parties to the religious.

From these elements which Maasri outlines in a series of insightful chapters that mix the history with posters, the reader can understand not only what the posters mean but their context. Providing context is not a simple task when describing the Lebanese Civil war. The shifting allegiances, numerous parties, and different leaders make it difficult to follow the evolution of the war and the posters. However, Maasri provides a brief introduction to each faction (although she might have noted their general tendencies, such as left, right), a chronology of the war, and an in depth discussion of the posters. Her discussion is broken up into four themes, leadership, commemoration, martyrdom, and belonging, each of which is given its Lebanese context. The chapter on leadership is probably the most helpful, since it is difficult to know who all the iconic leaders are. It also helps to understand how the parties were led by dynasties. The chapter on martyrdom probably is of most interest outside of the civil war. While Maasri sticks only to the war, the concept of martyrdom is comes up in the news, and her explanation of how the various parties developed the posters from almost simple funeral announcements for soldiers killed in battle to symbolic representations of the dead, complete with drawings of the act.

Most of the posters are available on-line at the American University of Beirut, but unless you can read Arabic or the occasional French, it will be hard to understand what is going on in the posters. If you are even a bit interested in the subject the book is worth a read. The only draw back of this otherwise well written book is the first chapter which is an example of everything that is wrong with modern academic writing. I read it, but it was painful and, worse, not really needed. Maasri’s analysis of the posters explains her thesis quite well and is much more palatable. You would do well to read the the chapters after the theory section and pay special attention to her detailed analysis of most of the posters. You will come away with a detailed understanding of the symbols of the factions in the civil war, so of which, like those of Hezbollah, still are effective.

Heroes and Cowards: The Social Face of War – A Review

Heroes and Cowards: The Social Face of War
Dora L. Costa & Matthew E. Kahn

I didn’t like the title to begin with. A book about war, especially one by social scientists, should not be called Heroes and Cowards. One, because hero is over used, and cowardice, like heroism, is so fluid it is hard to really say what is heroic at times. Yet the second bit of the title suggests the book will delve deep into what it means to be a soldier, or more accurately, what a soldier’s experience is, since what it means to be anything doesn’t explain much it just an analysis placed on experience. Had the authors stuck to the second part of the title the book might have been a more interesting read. Unfortunately, it is a sociological study that tries to be prescriptive when the best that can be hoped for is the descriptive.

What the authors of Heroes and Cowards attempt to do is explain why some soldiers deserted and why others did not. Unlike historical works that use diaries, letters, and other primary sources as a tool to determine why their subjects behaved in a certain way, they used a data set culled from government enlistment, pension, and other records that represented over 30 different regiments who fought for the Northern side. While the data set is impressive and is useful for explaining trends among soldiers such as enlistment rates, distance from where they lived to the enlistment location, and ethnic make up, the research really doesn’t seem to be particularly useful. For example, in one analysis they noted that desertion rates among soldiers who were all from the same area and, therefore, new each other, versus those who were drawn from a larger group and did not know each other, were 8% for the former and 10% for the latter, suggesting group cohesion means less desertion. At another point in the book doing a similar comparison the numbers seem to flip. In either case, the I don’t know if percentages are really that different. Wider variation in numbers would have made these numbers more telling and meaningful.

The authors are at their best when they take a look at the literary evidence available in journals, letters, etc and use it to illustrate what they think the data show. The literary evidence, though, has the advantage of saying why soldiers deserted or not. The statistical can only say that they deserted and perhaps it was for this reason. While knowing desertion rates and other statistical data is important as part of a whole picture, it turns the war into a numeric puzzle that is incomplete at best. A descriptive history of war is, in an industrial era, natural, but it also takes away context and turns motivation into a mathematical equation: recruitment is high here + tight-nit community = strong cohesion.

Finally, the authors at times seem to over apply the term desertion. Writing about one battle they note that when one unit began to running from the front and cross paths with another unit, the second unit began to run also. The authors called it desertion, but that is too simplistic a read of how battles tend to function. Fortunately, their statistical analysis wasn’t that detailed so they could analyze a moment like that.

Heroes and Cowards: The Social Face of War has some relevant information even if it doesn’t seem statistically interesting, but to make it through the book it is best to skip over some of their analysis or you may become mired in an analysis that isn’t particularly astounding.