Friday, October 27, 2006

The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit put the war behind him. Why can’t we?

"...Wilson’s description of Mahoney’s death is as brutal and moving a description of the madness of combat as can be found in postwar fiction. But what happens to Rath as a result of that day in Karkow? Not much. It does not destroy him, or leave him permanently traumatized. The part of Rath’s war experience that leaves him truly guilt-ridden is the adulterous affair that he has with a woman named Maria while waiting for redeployment orders in Rome. In the elevator of his midtown office, he runs into a friend who knew Maria, and learns that he fathered a son. He obsessively goes over and over the affair in his mind, trying to square his feeling toward Maria with his love for his wife, and his marriage is fully restored only when he confesses to the existence of his Italian child. Killing his best friend, by contrast, is something that comes up and then gets tucked away. As Rath sat on the beach, and Mahoney’s body was finally taken away, Wilson writes:

A major, coming to squat beside him, said, “Some of these goddamn sailors got heads. They went ashore and got Jap heads, and they tried to boil them in the galley to get the skulls for souvenirs.”
Tom had shrugged and said nothing. The fact that he had been too quick to throw a hand grenade and had killed Mahoney, the fact that some young sailors had wanted skulls for souvenirs, and the fact that a few hundred men had lost their lives to take the island of Karkow—all these facts were simply incomprehensible and had to be forgotten. That, he had decided, was the final truth of the war, and he had greeted it with relief, greeted it eagerly, the simple fact that it was incomprehensible and had to be forgotten. Things just happen, he had decided; they happen and they happen again, and anybody who tries to make sense out of it goes out of his mind.

You couldn’t write that scene today, at least not without irony. No soldier, according to our contemporary understanding, could ever shrug off an experience like that. Today, it is Rath’s affair with Maria that would be rationalized and explained away. He was a soldier, after all, in the midst of war. Who knew if he would ever see his wife again?..."

Getting Over It...