Few who went to France in the A.E.F. in 1917 could have imagined that they were at the beginning of a Fifty-Year War. But after the resurgence of the German Army under Hitler, after the early Japanese victories and the new slogan “Asia for the Asians,”and after it became clear that Stalin was our enemy, not ally, strategists emerged in our military establishment, heady with power, who saw us holding Communism at bay in every hemisphere, whatever the cost. The ensuing struggle between Command in the Armchair and combat veterans like General Gavin is the theme of an ambitious, magnificently vivid novel, Once an Eagle, by a Marine veteran, Anton Myrer: a masculine story and a compelling reminder of where we as a people have gone wrong.
The hero of Once An Eagle is Sam Damon, an all-American boy, big, dedicated, and a natural leader in his hometown in Nebraska. He hankers for an appointment to West Point, but when notified that he must wait for a year, he impulsively enlists for service on the Mexican border, where, as a private, he feels the growing conviction that foot soldiering is where he belongs.
Sam is in the first contingent of American infantry to be paraded down the Champs Elysées by General Pershing. With his sergeant’s stripes and his two musketeers, Devlin, the black fighting Irishman, and Raebyrne, the impudent, garrulous Tarheel, he has what he needs to train the best damn company in the A.E.F.
During the German breakthrough in the spring of 1918, at Brigny, where his regiment is overrun, Damon rounds up a few stragglers, single-handedly captures two machine-gun nests, and reversing the guns, wipes out a company of Prussian Guards. When relief arrives, the officer he most admires, Major Caldwell, promotes him to lieutenant on the spot; and so begins the valorous career of Sad Sam the Night Clerk (he’d worked nightly in a hotel back home), a “mustang” up from the ranks, winner of the Congressional Medal, a legend, and with his Frank Merriwell honesty, a prodding conscience wherever duty takes him. After the Armistice his father-in-law, now Colonel Caldwell, persuades him to stay on in the Army, for both men are apprehensive that Versailles has settled nothing and that the German Army has not really suffered defeat.
For the political side of soldiering Sam Damon has no tact, and it was bad luck that he should have antagonized from their first meeting a Fancy Dan aide of Pershing’s, the suave, power-seeking Courtney Massengale. Massengale would always be one jump ahead of him in rank, and during the tedious tours of duty which Sam (still a lieutenant after twelve years) and his wife, Tommy, experience in the dusty, ragtag Army posts, there is the temptation to chuck the whole thing for some more rewarding occupation. Those humiliating years, so full of the disparagement with which America treats its military establishment in times of peace, are what George Patton and Omar Bradley and George C. Marshall also endured. And like them, Sad Sam Damon was needed for Pearl Harbor.
The battle scenes in this big panorama are some of the finest I have ever read, charged as they are with Sam’s audacity and the fealty which binds him so closely to his men: to Devlin, whom he saves from a courtmartial; to little Brewster, the string bean from Yale whom he inspires; to Brand, his Indian orderly, who saves Sam’s life in the Philippines; and to vinegar Ben Krisler, his dearest friend, who with so many of Sam’s division is sacrificed deliberately by Lieutenant General Massengale. The Army wives, what we see of them, are well sketched, but essentially this is a story about men, and the phony among them is Massengale, a character as potent in scheming as he is impotent in bed, who stands as a symbol of military madness; he is the villain, the flint on which Sam strikes his sparks. Although he has always wangled the choice plums in Washington, Massengale has never led men in combat, until at last he is given command of an Army Corps in the climactic stage of the Philippine campaign. I question in reality if this would ever have been sanctioned by Marshall.
Hans Koningsberger is that rarest of travelers, a painter in words. He is a Dutchman, now dwelling in New York, whose first five novels were written in English. He uses his adopted language with the tubesqueezing economy and elegance of an artist, and in his travel books, Love and Hate in China, which he published after his visit to Mao’s kingdom in 1965, and in his new one, Along the Roads of the New Russia, he is sophisticated, unquarrelsome, and gregarious, liking people, measuring what he sees by what he has read and by what he experiences on the spot, and always vigilant to discover how human nature adapts itself to the inexorable changes of this century.
Last year Mr. Koningsberger entered the Soviet Union through the Finnish portal, driving from north to south along a 2000-mile arc in an old Italian army truck, a resourceful way to explore as it admitted him without question to the truck drivers’ canteens, which of course have the best food, and to out-of-the-way places of which an Intourist guide might have disapproved. It also permitted him to sense the steppes, the forests, and the river villages unhurriedly. He is very good about the steppes, where the air is so clear and dry and one has the sensation of moving through a sea of wheat or of corn — or cabbages — for fifty acres; he wonders why no trees flourish in this black soil where everything else will. This brings him to Stalin’s plan “to change nature” now being revived and to the observation that the most cheerful thing about the somber villages is the well-cared-for horses — “I’ve never seen a sad-looking nag in the Soviet Union.”He speaks of the peasants’ need for private incentive — at least an acre to plant and reap as they please-and of a recent experiment in a kolkhoz where 2000 acres were rented to fourteen farmers to be worked according to their own judgment. The Russian who reported this concluded: “We must not leave the land depersonalized.”
In Moscow he goes to the Novodevichevo cemetery to ruminate on how the Russians look upon death, he visits the Turgenev Museum in Orel and Yasnaya Polyana, Tolstoy’s fastidiously restored country house, and rightly guesses that these shrines are a sign of inextinguishable piety. His chapter on the idealism and rebelliousness of the young people is illuminating, as is his speculation of what will happen when the Russians get the cars they yearn for. He works in vignettes, and in place of maps and itineraries he uses the human touch. As with other fine travelers, Freya Stark and Alan Morehead, I trust his judgment and enjoy his company.
Summertime Island by Erskine Caldwell, a short story in extended form, is a morality play in primitive colors that make the gorge rise. The old pro knows exactly what he is doing and does it well. The setting is a sandbar island on the Mississippi where for three days in June a likable teen-ager named Steve is taken on a camping trip by his Uncle Guthry. Their aim is to catch and stuff themselves on catfish taken on a manyhooked trotline, and with them go Troy Pickett, who owns the truck which transports their tent, canvas cots, and supplies, and Duke Hopkins, a Negro schoolteacher, who will help with the boats and the dirty work. Along with his truck, Troy contributes a supply of good red bourbon and a ceaseless flow of abusive profanity; his education, if one can call it that, stopped at the fourth grade, and in his boastful, bullying, whoremastering way he is the embodiment of all that is wrong with the poor white, South and North. Uncle Guthry is well aware of the ignorance and inferiority that are eating off Troy, and as far as he can he acts the part of the pacifier in Pickett’s vindictive persecution of the young black, who is anathema to the bully because of his learning and his restraint. As if they they did not have enough trouble in camp, the island on their second day is invaded by another party, two burly whites and a pretty, seemingly tireless young tart who is out to seduce everyone with the exception of Troy.
The island and the catfishing are described by one who knows, and the outrage of Troy’s persecution is akin to the beatings, the bombings and killings we have seen accelerated since 1954. The moral is clear for those who need it, but whether they can or will read this book I question.
An American reader may wonder why it is of interest and importance for him to submerge himself in such a foreign and demanding book as The First Circle by Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn. The answer is simply that this is the most powerful and ironic denunciation of Stalin, the most eloquent affirmation of a man’s capacity to stand up under punishment that has been written by a Russian. The novel has been withheld from publication in the Soviet Union; but the author, who was permitted to publish a short book about his penal servitude, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch, still resides in Russia, and no matter how much the Kremlin hates to see its dirty linen in public, I doubt that he will suffer the fate of Pasternak.
In the First Circle of Dante’s Hell the souls of the pre-Christian philosophers were doomed to exist throughout eternity, a form of graduated punishment without reprieve. Solzhenitsyn has used the metaphor to identify those scientific centers which under Stalin were staffed largely with political prisoners—captured German scientists, Russian war veterans who were imprudent, and highly trained engineers who had been falsely accused. Such a prison institute was known colloquially as a “sharashka,” meaning “an operation based on bluff or deceit,” the prisoners who worked in it were known as “zeks.”Solzhenitsyn himself was imprisoned during the great purge and eventually did time in a sharashka, and the experiences of Gleb Nerzhin, a political prisoner and the hero of the novel, are said to resemble closely the author’s own. It is quite certain that the sense of outrage and poignancy which inform the narrative could not have been written by someone on the outside.
The story begins in the Mavrino Institute in the outskirts of Moscow on Christmas Eve of 1949; a community of some 280 zeks are working here on a most pressing scientific project, the development of a scrambler telephone with an absolute encoder which has been ordered by Stalin in a fit of petulance. The delivery date has long since passed, and Stalin, who is now about to celebrate his seventieth birthday, unwell, suspicious of everyone, his mind slipping, is being pampered by Beria, by Abakumov, the Minister of State Security, and by his household slaves; and down the line those in charge of the Mavrino quake at the thought of his asking for that telephone.
In no time flat the reader himself becomes a living part of the zek community, and though the names are unpronounceable and sometimes confusing, the individuals stand clear. The sharashka prisoners are better fed than those in Siberia; they are given medical attention and good cots because of the work they are expected to produce. Their terms are long, from ten to twenty-five years, and their links with the outside, save for what they can see between the bars, are minimal — they are promised a single night’s reunion with their family once a month, but are lucky to get it once a year. Denied the gentler forms of intercourse, these men, stripped of everything except brains and dignity, are sardonic, angry, or wily in their reaction.
They expunge the enmity of the war: they philosophize, they reminisce about the days before they were imprisoned, they tease, they are gloriously abusive of Stalin, and when tormented by their guards or taskmasters, they stand up for themselves in words that blaze.
When Nerzhin, the mathematician — good mathematicians being then in short supply-is offered a new assignment with the bribe that he will be given an apartment in Moscow and the conviction will be removed from his record, the prisoner’s sense of outrage at what he has been made to endure pours out like lava:
“ They’ll remove the conviction from my record!” Nerzhin cried angrily, his eyes narrowing. “Where did you get the idea that I want that little gift? ‘You’ve worked well, so we’ll free you, forgive you.’ No, Pyotr Trofimovich!” And with his forefinger he stabbed at the varnished surface of the little table. “You’re beginning at the wrong end. Let them admit first that it’s not right to put people in prison for their way of thinking, and then we will decide whether we will forgive them”
For its revelation of what Russians have suffered, for its sardonic and tender revelation of human nature under stress, this book is a milestone.
The fluid, idiomatic translation by Thomas W. Whitney is superb.