Steinbeck on the Nature of a Soldier

When we boys were growing up Boomer in the 50s, we were never far from war. Like the Romans two millennia ago, we were the sons of a people whose two greatest achievements have been warfare and engineering, the latter being assiduously applied to killing enemies and whomever else gets in the way. “Playing war” was a frequent outdoor activity until sixth grade when riding bikes across the countryside and unsupervised sports gained ascendency, but until then we stalked and hid and threw “dirt bombs” and killed the “Nazis” or “Japs” with our toy rifles.

Joseph Alois Schumpeter wrote: “Created by wars that required it, the machine now (creates) the wars it requires.” I heard one of the Kennedy Brothers—I cannot recall which one—quote this decades ago, and the words have never left me because they may be the most accurate, potential epitaph that might be carved onto America’s tombstone.

Mother Culture was and continues to be a powerful ally of the machine by having encouraged our playing war, filling books, movies and TV with tales of war, and then adding to her arsenal of warmongering by creating video “games” that allow otherwise clueless boys-to-men to graphically, violently, and safely kill enemies with impunity.

Our playing at war as something heroic was ironic given that many of us were held to unyielding expectations by fathers who had been terribly traumatized in battle, expectations that their three- or seven- or 15-year-old sons must act like men, expectations communicated through clenched teeth or china-rattling shouts, often reinforced with untempered smacks from calloused hands, or worse, a father’s disdain applied to the soft underbelly of a child’s’ ego.

“Many Boomer boys grew up and had their own war in which to be traumatized …”

Many Boomer boys grew up and had their own war in which to be traumatized, but unlike our fathers’ war, many of us rejected Mother Culture’s expectation to kill. I was one such young man; however, then and still, I honor without reservation those of my brothers who made the contrary choice, and I still grieve the pain and ultimate sacrifices that were made. Perhaps what I feel when I visit or see images of Arlington or the names inscribed on the Viet Nam Memorial is not unlike survivor’s guilt.

What prompted my writing this post was a scene in the novel East of Eden by John Steinbeck regarding the nature of a soldier. John Steinbeck in World War II suggests that the author had some firsthand knowledge of combat despite his assignment as a journalist. In the following excerpt from the novel, Civil War Veteran Cyrus Trask is speaking with his son, Adam:

Cyrus explained softly to Adam the nature of a soldier. And though his knowledge came from research rather than experience, he knew and he was accurate. He told his son of the sad dignity that can belong to a soldier, how he is necessary in the light of all the failures of man—the penalty of our frailties. Perhaps Cyrus discovered these things in himself as he told them. It was very different from the flag-waving, shouting bellicosity of his younger days. The humilities are piled on a soldier, so Cyrus said, in order that he may, when the time comes, be not too resentful of the final humility—a meaningless and dirty death. And Cyrus talked to Adam alone and did not permit Charles to listen.

Cyrus took Adam to walk with him one late afternoon, and the black conclusions of all of his study and his thinking came out and flowed with a kind of thick terror over his son. He said, “I’ll have you know that a soldier is the most holy of all humans because he is the most tested—most tested of all. I’ll try to tell you. Look now—in all of history men have been taught that killing of men is an evil thing not be be countenanced. Any man who kills must be destroyed because this is a great sin, maybe the worst sin we know. And then we take a soldier and put murder in his hands and we say to him, ‘Use it well, use it wisely.’ We put no checks on him. Go out and kill as many of a certain kind or classification of your brothers as you can. And we will reward you for it because it is a violation of your early training.”

Adam wet his dry lips and tried to ask and failed and tried again. “Why do they have to do it?” he said. “Why is it?”

Cyrus was deeply moved and he spoke as he had never spoken before. “I don’t know,” he said. “I’ve studied and maybe learned how things are but I’m not ever close to why they are. And you must not expect to find that people understand what they do. So many things are done instinctively, the way a bee makes honey or a fox dips his paws in a stream to fool dogs. A fox can’t say why he does it, and what bee remembers winter or expects it to come again? When I knew you had to go I thought to leave the future open so you could dig out your own findings, and then it seemed better if I could protect you with the little I know. You’ll go in soon now—you’ve come to the age.”

“I don’t want to,” said Adam quickly.

“You’ll go in soon,” his father went on, not hearing. “And I want to tell you so you won’t be surprised. They’ll first strip off your clothes, but they’ll go deeper than that. They’ll shuck off any little dignity you have—you’ll lose what you think of as your decent right to live and to be let alone to live. They’ll make you live and eat and sleep and shit close to other men. And when they dress you up again you’ll not be able to tell yourself from the others. You can’t even wear a scrap or pin a note on your breast to say, ‘This is me—separate from the rest.’ “

“I don’t want to do it,” said Adam.

“After a while,” said Cyrus, “you’ll think no thought the others do not think. You’ll know no word the others can’t say. And you’ll do things because the others do them. You’ll feel the danger in any difference whatever—a danger to the whole crowd of like-thinking, like-acting men.”

“What if I don’t?” Adam demanded.

“Yes,” said Cyrus, “sometimes that happens. Once in a while there is a man who won’t do what is demanded of him, and do you know what happens? The whole machine devotes itself coldly to the destruction of his difference. They’ll beat your spirit and your nerves, your body and your mind, with iron rods until the dangerous difference goes out of you. And if you can’t finally give in, they’ll vomit you up and leave you stinking outside—neither par of themselves nor yet free. It’s better to fall in with them. They only do it to protect themselves. A thing so triumphantly illogical, so beautifully senseless as an army can’t allow a question weaken it. Within itself, if you do not hold it up to other things for comparison and derision, you find slowly, surely, a reason and a logic and a kind of dreadful beauty. A man who can accept it is not a worse man always and sometimes is a much better man. Pay good heed to me for I have thought long about it. Some men there are who go down the dismal wrack of soldiering, surrender themselves, and become faceless. But these had not much face to start with. And maybe you’re like that. But there are others who go down, submerge in the common slough, and then rise more themselves than they were, because—because they have lost a littleness of vanity and have gained all the gold of the company and the regiment. If you can go down so low, you will be able to rise higher than you can conceive, and you will know a holy joy, a companionship almost like that of a heavenly company of angels. Then you will know the quality of men even if they are inarticulate. But until you have gone way down you can never know this …”

They moved restlessly off through the trees. Cyrus said, “So many things I want to tell you. I’ll forget most of them. I want to tell you that a soldier gives up so much to get something back. From the day of a child’s birth he is taught by every circumstance, be every law and rule and right, to protect his own life. He starts with the great instinct and everything confirms it. And then he is a soldier and he must learn to violate all of this—he must learn coldly to put himself in the way of losing his own life without going mad. And if you can do that—and, mind you, some can’t—then you will have the greatest gift of all. Look, son,” Cyrus said earnestly, “nearly all men are afraid, and they don’t even know what causes their fear—shadows, perplexities, dangers without names of numbers, fear of a faceless death. But if you can bring yourself to face not shadows but real death, described and recognizable, by bullet or saber, arrow or lance, then you need never be afraid again, at least not in the same way you were before. Then you will be a man set apart from other men, safe where other men may cry in terror. This is the great reward. Maybe this is the only reward. Maybe this is the final purity all ringed with filth …”


(The preceding excerpt is from East of Eden by John Steinbeck, (c) 1952 & 1980; no copyright infringement is intended nor is there an intent on the part of the blogger to monetize the use of the excerpt)

(The featured image is a Pixabay image; no copyright infringement is intended nor is there an intent on the part of the blogger to monetize the use of the images in this post)

Categories: War

One thought on “Steinbeck on the Nature of a Soldier

  1. My wife just finished East of Edan. She didn’t mention this. I have a good friend who is a Quaker and still councils young men in the military who want to quit. He gave a presentation to our Kennett Rotary where he said Vietnam scared all of us. The soldiers most of all, but the Tumps, Clintons and George Bush who were draft dodgers and the ones who went to Canada. None of us handled this well.

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