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A Year with Steinbeck Book 19: Once There Was a War

In the sixty-plus years since WWII, there have been thousands of hours spent on retelling the war through film, novels, and video games. Most of the retellings come from people whose experience with the war came from memories or stories in history books. Hell, some even merge the two to showcase the reality of the war in all its crimson glory.

 

 

 

 

 

Even John Steinbeck, who went as a correspondent, writes that he ‘attended’ the war, since he did not fight. He also goes on, in this collection of accounts, to say that he had to be mindful of the heavily hand of the censors. Well after the war, when he began to put Once There was a War together, he found that many details escaped him and all he was left with were half remembered stories. All of them true, he swears, but still just outside of his recollection. I guess this leads me to wonder about the power of the propaganda machine and if what we see in film, novels, and video games, are nothing but creative re-imagining of the true horror of war.

I suppose that is where the title comes from: the fairy tale retelling of heroics and victories. The danger of said remembrances can have an adverse in a culture’s consciousness. It dehumanizes those men who fight and those who die. Steinbeck begins his writing Somewhere in England in 1943, “The troops in their thousands sit on their equipment on the dock…The men wear their helmets, which make them all look alike…The have no identity, no personality. The men are units in an army.” It’s not even possible for me to image thousands of men, armed with rifles and fears, ready to face an enemy and possible death.

Steinbeck realizes early on that in order to discuss the soldiers, he must seek out what separates them from the mass of machine men and make them individuals. The remainder of the collection finds Steinbeck seeking the heart of the soldier. It’s an examination of a soldier’s life when he isn’t fighting, but living.

Readers looking for a bit of levity will enjoy the chapters on Bob Hope, Chewing Gum and a good luck goat.





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