"I don't make hell for nobody. I'm only the instrument of a laughing providence. Sometimes I don't like it myself, but I couldn't help it if I was born smart."

1st Sgt. Milton Anthony Warden.
"From here to Eternity"

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Saturday, November 10, 2012

Happy Armistice Day!

As usual I begin with the following disclaimer:
"Veteran's Day" was so-called, officially in 1954. Prior to this, and to this day in parts of the world less ego-centric than America, it had commemorated the end of hostilities in the most catastrophic war the world had seen to date and the beginning of mankind's slow decent into madness.

11:00 AM, 11th day of the 11th month of 1918.
I don't begrudge the vets, I am one. But this day is taken.
Way back in the halcyon days of late-summer, 1975, as a lowly petty-officer third-class awaiting the end of the Antarctic winter, I was reading an article in Playboy (That's the only reason I read it. Seriously, women don't look like that) which was primarily a plug for WW2, a coffee-table book by James Jones which went on sale shortly after.
There I first saw the painting above.
As Jones put it:


"It is a painting at once so bitter and so unreal that it tends to turn into an abstraction, a fantasy"

That's part of the copy that accompanied it in the article and in the book as well.
It was painted in 1944 by Tom Lea under the auspices of Life magazine.
Jones wrote that he'd never seen it reproduced other than in army files (It resides presently at U.S. Army Center for Military History Washington, DC - maintained by tax dollars).
Jones may have been mistaken because this guy managed to stumble across it in a library book in 1962.
As a young lad of nine he'd had the same visceral reaction to it that I'd had - which is sort of like that of Jones as well.
It seems to provoke a universal feeling, almost of disbelief, that it's a work of the imagination, painted at leisure and cannot represent reality - at least not a reality that anyone wants to confront.
Tom Lea hailed from El Paso and it's comforting to think that he worked this up in his studio between shots of whiskey.
Would that it were so.
Lea was employed by Life as a combat artist and what you see to the left is his on-the-spot sketch. The painting was done afterward aboard ship.
He'd landed with the 7th Marine Regiment on the island of Peleiu, one of many shit-hole, coral outcroppings that made up Japan's fleet of "unsinkable carriers".
The 7th occupied the southern end of the beach while the 1st Regiment (under the, fabled-in-story-and-song "Chesty" Puller) took the northern. The 5th was in the middle.
This horrific little battle was one of the Marine Corps bloodiest with 8000 casualties and 1800 deaths. The 10,000 Japanese defending the island were wiped out to a man.
Lea described the scene above thus:

"I fell flat on my face just as I heard the whishhh of a mortar I knew was too close. A red flash stabbed at my eyeballs. About fifteen yards away, on the upper edge of the beach, it smashed down four men from our boat. One figure seemed to fly to pieces. With terrible clarity I saw the head and one leg sail into the air.
I got up… ran a few steps, and fell into a small hole as another mortar burst threw dirt on me. Lying there in terror looking longingly up the slope for better cover, I saw a wounded man near me, staggering in the direction of the LVTs (Landing Vehicle - Tracked). His face was half bloody pulp and the mangled shreds of what was left of an arm hung down like a stick, as he bent over in his stumbling, shock-crazy walk. The half of his face that was still human had the most terrifying look of abject patience I have ever seen. He fell behind me, in a red puddle on the white sand."
 

I'm not sure how to follow that so I won't, other than to admonish any that haven't already that they read Jones' WW2 trilogy:
"From Here to Eternity"
"The Thin Red Line" and 
"Whistle"
You can't pretend to an appreciation of war literature if this is new to you.

Closing with a quote from Jones himself:

"I want to make everybody in the world groan with the inevitability of sorrow."
 

Oh hell, I'll really wrap it up with this photo: "Chesty" Puller cutting the cake at the observance of the 175th birthday of the USMC in Korea, sixty-five years ago today. 
I'm doing this Armistice Day thing early so I can sleep in.
I'm a lazy man.

3 comments:

JEG43 said...

I saw the painting in Jones' book many years ago and seeing it again brought the same feelings - mostly indescribable. But not good.
Fitting to post it on this day. We civilians will never truly know what our country's vets endured.

John Maddox Roberts said...

Even before Jones' book, I saw that painting when it was run in LIFE magazine, must have been the late 50s, or maybe '61, for the 20-year anniversary of Pearl Harbor, lots of WWII-themed stuff that year. It was a real shocker for a kid raised on antiseptic, bloodless war films.

I second the Jones trilogy, especially "From Here to Eternity." I first read it when I was around 14, and have reread it many times since. My brother and I can quote long passages at each other, as we do with "The Wild Bunch."
FHTE is often called a war novel, but it really isn't. It's about the lives of professional military men in the last months of the old peacetime army. And it has the best knife fight ever committed to a novel.
Every Dec. 7, I take it down and read the Pearl Harbor Day sequence, the only real war stuff in the book.

Dan brock said...

"From Here to Eternity" really isn't a war novel but it sets the stage - and introduces the same four (?) character who show up in the subsequent two books.
It's a seriously interesting take on the pre-war regular army.
And absolutely the best knife fight, especially since it was so quick.
Prewitt vs Ike Galovitch. To die for.
The detail I most love is that, during the attack when the planes started flying over, they all ran out of the mess hall with their half-pints of milk so no one would steal them.
The advantages of having been there.
And don't forget Wardens line: "I don't make life hell for nobody. I'm merely the instrument of a laughing providence. I can't help it if I was born smart."

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