Once There Was a War…and a Literary Genius (a book review, of sorts)

I recently finished reading Once There Was a War by John Steinbeck. As an author, I always find it helpful and refreshing to visit the classics on occasion to appreciate the great literary voices of the past. Steinbeck is one of my personal favorites. He wrote in a simple, straight-forward way—I’ve never had to struggle to read any of his books. His messages are clear and universal, his language is rich, and his characters jump off the page.

Steinbeck truly tapped into the human aspect of the subjects he wrote about—from the Great Depression through World War II to the moral decline of America—his ability to connect to the everyman—from the laborers and migrant workers to the average middle-class American—was a big part of what made him an incredible writer and a successful author.

During the second half of 1943, Steinbeck became a war correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune and was stationed in England, Africa, and Italy during the height of World War II, living with the troops and accompanying them during operations. And his collection of WWII dispatches is no different in nature than his fictional works, since he was able to connect with the soldiers, individually and collectively, at a very personal and human level.

His articles are unique and fascinating, and go beyond what happened on the battlefield. He wrote about superstition, vegetable farming, music, gambling, and even discussed his appreciation for Bob Hope’s wartime efforts, which gave me even more respect for the legendary comic. There’s a story about a magical elf, believe it or not, who had genie-like powers that were witnessed by several soldiers, including Steinbeck himself. Through a series of several dispatches, he described an incredible mission where five allied soldiers with plenty of luck out-witted and forced the surrender of 87 German troops on an island off the coast of Italy. Truly remarkable stories from beginning to end.

In the introduction to Once There Was a War, which he penned approximately fifteen years after the actual dispatches were written, he made a keen observation about World War II, and war in general, that I’d like to share:

The war I speak of, however, may be memorable because it was the last of its kind. Our Civil War has been called the last of the “gentlemen’s wars,” and the so-called Second World War was surely the last of the long global wars. The next war, if we are so stupid as to let it happen, will be the last of any kind. There will be no one left to remember anything. And if that is how stupid we are, we do not, in a biologic sense, deserve survival. Many other species have disappeared from the earth through errors in mutational judgment. There is no reason to suppose that we are immune from the immutable law of nature which says that over-armament, over-ornamentation, and, in most cases, over-integration are symptoms of coming extinction.

To me, that last sentence is very eerie. It stuck with me. How much have we really learned from World War II? We still have enough weapons of mass destruction on Earth to destroy it many times over. Since the writing of

John Steinbeck

Steinbeck’s introduction, we’ve encountered terrorism, which has introduced a whole new threat to the world, one that is very unpredictable and can happen anywhere without warning. So it’s not like war can be abandoned altogether—we need to fight for our freedoms. But could doing so eventually lead to another world war? One that would make Steinbeck’s prediction to come true?

Possibly the most prophetic concern Steinbeck voiced was that of over-integration. Although probably not exactly what Steinbeck had in mind, the Digital Age has certainly made global integration very convenient—with the

click of a mouse button, you can be anyway at any time. Global business and transactions can be conducted with ease, which I’m sure makes unfair business practices even easier, and you have to wonder how much of our global economic crisis would’ve even been possible without such advanced technology.

And how much does technological integration affect us on a human level? People spend much more time interacting with their computers and cell phones and tablets, than they do with actual human beings. If you need to interact with someone, just sent a text and leave a message on their Facebook wall. Not that I can talk, here I am writing a blog on my laptop, which I’ll post on WordPress, which will automatically update my FB Fan Page, which will automatically update my Twitter account. Someone halfway around with the world, will have an app to automatically convert my tweet to Mandarin or Ukrainian, and then they’ll retweet while adding the hash tag of #AmericanIdiot. And I’ll monitor all this via my iPhone 4s.

Love used to make the world go around, now it’s technology. And it is incredible technology that has provided us with many conveniences and luxuries, which I’m not taking for granted. But one has to wonder, have we created a monster that we won’t be able to control for much longer? I certainly hope not.

As I think about what triggered this silly little rant, I remember that it was caused by an excerpt from an introduction written by a literary master some 54 years ago. When an author’s words can be so thought-provoking many decades later, there’s only one way he can be described.

Sheer genius.

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2 Responses to Once There Was a War…and a Literary Genius (a book review, of sorts)

  1. deb reilly says:

    Hardly a “silly little rant” Jeff. The sentiment is pertinent and beautifully written. Bravo.

    I hope we will evolve to a level that will make enormous military budgets unnecessary. But that will be born of mutual generosity and respect, not the blood lust that shouts “Kill him! He deserves it!”

    Almost 3000 human beings lost their lives on September 11.
    “After more than 10 years of war in Afghanistan, the U.S. reached a milestone on Wednesday when the 2,000th American died in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, CNN reports” (June 11, Huff Post).
    According to the Washington Post, 4474 Americans lost their lives in Iraq. The following link shows their faces: http://apps.washingtonpost.com/national/fallen/

    So approximately 6474 American soldiers were sacraficed. That figure doesn’t include the citizens and soldiers of Iraq, Afghanistan and the rest of the world who have lost their lives in the name of 9/11.

    • Jeff Swesky says:

      Thank you, Deb! A poor choice of words on my part. What, in my mind, I had implied about my “rant”, was that these are two very big and serious–and complicated–subjects to try and tackle at the end of a book review. But I’m glad you connected with it. To quote an old song from Megadeth: “Military Intelligence – are still two words that don’t make sense!” Yes, let’s hope for evolution and not more devolution. Thanks for your reply.

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