War, Anti-war, Orwell, and Ehrhart

Kim Worthy, James Clawson,Kelsey Caitlin (kimwort1@idt.net)
Sun, 7 Sep 1997 17:58:03 -0400

>During my own naval career, I learned that it was the military person who
>usually hated war the most,
>because we knew the costs.

>Marcella Ruland
>formerly LT USN

Marcella Ruland's final sentence compels me to mention my discovery last
week of a great book on George Orwell overlooked by the giants of
scholarly thought on masculine ideology--Susan Jeffords (Hard Bodies; The
Remasculinization of America) and Susan Griffin (A Chorus of Stones; The
Eros of Everyday Life). It's The Orwell Mystique: A Study in Male
Ideology, by Daphne Patai (University of Massacusetts 1984). (Over the
last couple months I become an Orwell worshipper, rapidly consuming and
reconsuming Homage to Catalonia, and then rapidly Down and Out in Paris and
London, Such, Such Were the Joys, A Clergyman's Daughter, and Burmese Days.
Here was a writer who understood anarchism, true socialism: the plain
desire for equality of condition and the removal of anyone's right to tell
others what to think, do, or say. So what if there were dribbles of
unexamined sexism; I came to Patai's book certain she was a fanatic,
overreacting to them. Given Orwell's greater contribution, we need not
hold him responsible for them. I was wrong. ) Patai's contention that
Orwell's whole body of work arises out of a desperate fear of resembling
that most beastly of creatures, a woman, is impeccably, clearly,
brilliantly argued.

Orwell was wounded in the Spanish Civil War and tells us how filthy a
business war is. But he clearly contributes to the myth of war's glory,
through masculine ideology. War may stink, and it may be sickening

To meet within the sound of guns,
But oh! what peace I knew then
In gazing on his battered face
Purer than any woman's!...

As Patai points out, the convention that the male bonding of war is a thing
of unsurpassed beauty works even when the writer hates war. (Patai's
conclusion is extremely valuable, by the way: that Orwell's belief in the
naturalness of man's superiority to woman and that therefore the world
cannot change, war will always exist, accounts for his despair and
pessimism in Animal Farm and especially in 1984.)

I don't mean to pick on former Lt. Ruland, but Like Homage to Catalonia Ms.
Ruland's appeal to having "been there," implying that those who have
experienced war have most authority to condemn it because "we knew the
costs," indirectly heaps more glitter onto the mystique that sends kids
into uniform.

The war myth like other myths help people overcome fear of participating in
killing and risking death or injury by assuring them that this type of
event is eternal. The myth of war supports the participant in giving up
his or her own identity for acquiescence in an activity that is an
essential rite of manhood. Women are not immune either. I would add that
female consumers of war stories whether at Dad's knee or in great writing
or films desire the glory intended for men, imaginatively inserting herself
into the male hero pattern of separation, initiation, and return.

Victory is not needed to perpetuate the myth. "Playing well," as Patai
says, borrowing the language of sports, counts; and the rhetoric of
"sacrifice" always works to impose the war myth, as there is no term that
signifies a completely pointless devastation without honor or virtue.
Even in the case of a lost war, then, through the "first-person-triumphant"
narrative a participant in battle who comes out of it loudly deploring war
may ironically reproduce the war myth. The traditional initiatory
structure handed down generation to generation is still being transmitted
to the young. It encourages them to find their destiny in bloody
destruction, regardless of fine details such as who "we're" fighting,
where, or why.

Poet and writer William Erhart's war "story" is exceptional. His doesn't
end with the doublethink of deploring war while contributing to its
mystique. For him the experience has became "integrated into a
posttraumatic existence" as Kali Tal says of his writing in her invaluable
book Worlds of Hurt (Cambridge U. Press,1996). Erhart relentlessly
examines those details.

Read his autobiographical novels Vietnam Perkasie, Passing Time, and Busted
and another prose work, Going Back. The historian and former POW Bruce
Franklin, author of one of my favorite books, M.I.A. or Mythmaking in
America: How and Why Belief in Live POWs Has Possessed a Nation (Rutgers
University Press,1992), says of Erhart, "Among the hundreds of authors
whose works I have assigned in dozens of courses of American public and
private universities since 1961, I have not even heard about any other
author having the kind of effect I have witnessed...One bright, articulate,
and conservative young man, who had attended a military school and was
planning to be a career military officer--and who had been arguing
vociferously with me all semester--seemed especially upset. Suddenly he
blurted out: 'I've never read a book like this [Passing Time]. It's
changing my whole life.'..." And so on (Viet Nam Generation, Vol. 7, Nos.
1-2: 66).

Kim Worthy