The War Complex: World War II in Our Time By Marianna Torgovnick

November 30, 2005

 

The War Complex: World War II in Our Time By Marianna Torgovnick
The War Complex: World War II in Our Time
By Marianna Torgovnick.
The University of Chicago Press, 2005.
209 pages. $25.

In his book Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War, Paul Fussell, World War II veteran and author of highly acclaimed books on the memory of war in the twentieth century, wrote, "The damage the war visited upon bodies and buildings, planes and tanks and ships, is obvious. Less obvious is the damage it did to intellect, discrimination, honesty, individuality, complexity, ambiguity, and irony, not to mention privacy and wit."

Fussell's observation is an appropriate introduction to Duke English professor Marianna Torgovnick's sensitive, articulate, and often moving meditation on the conceptual wreckage wrought by World War II, indeed wrought by the total wars of our time. Her book not only reminds us of struggles to memorialize, to historicize, to proclaim "lessons," to grieve, to remember triumphantly or sadly, but also challenges us by asking whether there is, indeed, a way out of the "war complex." Torgovnick defines this as an "unresolved attitude toward mass death caused by human beings wielding technology in shorter and shorter periods of time, death that proceeds under state or political control and sometimes does not just kill human beings, but vanishes bodies."

The vanished bodies of September 11, 2001, and the mobilizing of evocative symbols of World War II to locate these murders in an enduring martial master narrative led her to select particular lodestars for her meditation. She devotes a chapter each to the dense symbol of D-Day, the complex symbol of Adolf Eichmann, and her own personal struggle with the memory of the Holocaust; includes two chapters on works of fiction that illustrate processes of remembering and forgetting; and finishes up with a conclusion in which she calls for a new "Ethics of Identification."

An enduring theme of her book is the allure of remembering redemptive narratives of war and sacrifice and forgetting that which does not fit into such heroic stories. She believes that D-Day is the "major point of entry into the memory of World War II," and argues smartly that the public impression of huge casualties contrasted with actual numbers--not to mention the oft-forgotten Russian casualty figures on the Eastern front--suggesting that each D-Day death registered "as larger than itself, much in the way the World Trade Center dead registered as larger than themselves--as a synecdoche for us, for the nation."

For argument's sake, I wonder whether Pearl Harbor, rather than D-Day, is our "major point of entry." The USS Arizona Memorial spans the famous battleship, the most sacred relic of the war. The attack haunted generations of nuclear strategists fixated on the horrors of a surprise attack.

It continues to provide dubious justification for various missile defense boondoggles, and in historian Emily Rosenberg's words, "became the most commonly evoked metaphor" to explain the horrors of September 11.

Torgovnick offers insightful reading of the impact of the Eichmann trial, and she reminds readers that the simple-minded phrase "Eichmann is in all of us" serves to "evade the ethical process of identification and empathy ... which requires not blanket identification with anyone and anything at all, but parsing the possibilities of empathy and identification situation by situation."

Readers will profit from her careful reading of how certain memories of war are submerged in Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient and Kasuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day, and from her analysis of the vivid ruminations on remembering and forgetting catastrophe in the writing of W.G. Sebald. Let me turn, however, to questions that arise out of Torgovnick's sense of the impact of total war. I do not think, as she does, that we have consistently denied the horrific reality of the Bomb. Historian Paul Boyer, for example, observes in his book By the Bomb's Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age that "America's long, troubled encounter with nuclear weapons has been cyclical, with episodes of intense political activism and cultural attention alternating with periods of apparent neglect." There are also compelling material remnants of the Cold War, the spaces "that are off the map and the spaces hidden in plain sight," observes independent scholar Tom Vanderbilt. Some, like missile silos and bunkers, are now tourist attractions.

There are also other conveniently forgotten memories of the war, ironies captured well in Studs Terkel's quotation marks in his oral history of World War II, "The Good War." The dissonance between war aims and enduring social realities is captured in the searing oral histories of the Tuskegee Airmen and the new Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site. Strictly censored, observes historian George H. Roeder Jr., were "photographs of those maimed in combat, ... pictures of racial combat on military bases, violent confrontations between G.I.s and their foreign allies, and other evidence of disunity within their own camp." Also suppressed were "photographs of shell-shocked G.I.s, of those killed in jeep accidents, and of victims of Allied bombing raids and U.S. chemical warfare experiments."

Torgovnick believes that enlarging the circle of who counts as "we" is part of the way out of the war complex. Again, for argument's sake, I offer a dark alternative to her hope for an "Ethics of Identification," what she defines as "an ethic large enough to include others as though they were our families or ourselves. The "war complex," in contrast, continues to nurture a murderous ethic of purification and revitalization through the ecstatic experience of mass death. Torgovnick's book is a welcome addition to cultural interpretations of the martial enthusiasms of our time