“Beautiful War: Studies in a Dreadful Fascination”
Author: Philip D. Beidler
Price: $34.95 (Hardcover)
Although Beidler’s last book, “The Island Called Paradise,” is a collection of essays about Cuba, America’s wars have been his main concern from the beginning of his career. Beidler devoted an entire book to discussions of Vietnam War literature, and several collections discuss World War II, “The Good War,” and its cultural aftermath.
Here he takes on the subject from a different angle, in a series of essays about the depiction of war “in its relations to art, history and memory.” He is exploring why we are fascinated by war, why “people make art out of war.”
He acknowledges the famous quotations about the beauty of war: General Lee said “It is well that war is so terrible, lest we should come to love it so much” and Patton “is “famously supposed to have remarked …compared to war, all other human actions shrink to insignificance.”
But this is not Beidler’s position. At all. His descriptions of what happens to human bodies when machined-gunned at the Somme or blasted by artillery shells or incinerated at Dresden make it clear he is no romanticizer of armed combat, and this is not to mention the mental/emotional consequences, whether called shell-shock or combat fatigue or PTSD.
Yet the question remains: why and how do we continue to make art out of this “irredeemable hideousness and monstrosity”?
The opening essay on Shakespeare and war may be my favorite. He posits that this was a pivotal historical moment. Beginning in the Renaissance, representations of war moved from the mythic, as in King Arthur’s Camelot, to an instrument of power in the newly formed nation-state. Henry V’s most famous speech then, his beautiful “band of brothers” oration on St. Crispin’s Day, serves as poetry and history and propaganda and inspiration and we are still using that speech to this very day.
Beidler writes best, I think, when writing about literature. The essay linking “Mrs. Dalloway” and “The Great Gatsby” entitled “The Great Party Crasher “made me think freshly about novels I thought I knew well. In both books, Beidler points out, there is a character, recently back from the war, shell-shocked, desensitized, suicidal—Septimus Smith in “Dalloway” and Jay Gatsby AND Nick Carroway in Fitzgerald’s novel.
Beidler uses Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five” for a different purpose. The character Billy Pilgrim (and POW Kurt Vonnegut) were not injured at the fire-bombing of Dresden but nevertheless were driven mad. When they emerged the next morning there was literally death everywhere, more bodies than one could imagine.
Beidler touches on a scene where, a few days later, the POW’s are at a nearby inn, and at bedtime the innkeeper says: “Good night, Americans…Sleep well.”
They won’t and we shouldn’t, is the point.
Another essay, shifting from literature to other arts, examines World War I paintings by John Singer Sargent, especially a wildly contrasting pair.
One is “Gassed” where a file of soldiers, gassed, as the title tells us and the yellow in the air suggests, shuffles off the battlefield, “The blinded leading the blinded.” There is also a large painting of the British “General Officers.” Their uniforms are clean, and the predominant color here is pink--the pink in their cheeks.
There are essays on Crimean War paintings by Lady Butler, on Ralph Vaughn Williams’ music, and on the iconography of revolution in the historical museum of Havana.
The last essay in the volume, “By the Numbers: Americans, Vietnamese, and the Figures of Sacrifice,” goes in a slightly different direction. Beidler dashes through a summary of the best Vietnam War writings and films, dwells on some horrifying statistics (3.8 million Vietnamese killed), then closes with a short and bitter discussion of American war crimes, the “little known . . . and now no longer available source maintained in the National Archives with the title ‘Vietnam War Crimes Working Group’ . . . nine thousand pages of incident reports and testimony.” My Lai was one.
In his “Conclusion,” Beidler writes that wars now seem endless and art will always be made from them but someone else will have to explain it. He has had enough. He is through. Goodbye to all that.
To which I can only say: Thank you for your service.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” A shorter form of this review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio.