A novelist ponders an old dilemma and a reporter recreates a crucial battle
IF TRUTH IS the first casualty of a war surely a significant portion of man’s humanity to man must fall victim, too, before that initial volley. In his fine new novel, An Operational Necessity (Longmans, $7.95) Gwyn Griffin examines the basic moral dilemma facing men engaged in total war.
Late in World War II a German submarine commander orders the sinking of a sluggish old freighter and then to get rid of the telltale debris orders his gunnery officer to machine-gun, attack with grenades and finally ram the flotsam which includes rafts to which survivors are clinging. One of the crew survives and he becomes a principal witness
when the U-boat commander and the gunnery officer go on trial for their lives before a military tribunal at the end of the war.
Emil, the gunnery officer, states the dilemma in his testimony. After pleading that he had to obey orders, could not question them, he says: “I think all killing is wrong and as war is largely killing war is wrong. But 1 did not start the war.”
In the days of the chivalric code the fighting and the dying were presumably done by professionals who came to their work well-plated. At times civilians would suffer if the drunken and licentious soldiery was turned loose for a night on the town; but civilians were not designated as primary targets as they are today. Modern war calls for total involvement; there are no non-combatants if you carry the concept through to its ugly conclusion. Wars are won by killing, and the blood of a mother and child, particularly if the mother works in a defense plant, can help top off the cup held by the Moloch of war just as well as the blood of a soldier. The theory seems to be that when that cup is full the war will end.
Since the last big war we have been examining this obscene proposition with more frequency, some earnestness and quite a bit of official hypocrisy. The procedure is that the winners hold the losers accountable for their atrocities. It is unlikely, therefore, that the men who ordered the 48-hour fire-bombing of Hamburg or the bloody strike against defenseless Dresden will ever be brought to book. But questions are being asked and this novel (it is no tract but a dramatically realized story) asks some of them with force and penetration.
I thought as I read the book of an experience al the end of the last war.
I accompanied a group of soldierscientists taking their first look at Hiroshima after the bomb fell. Our interpreter was a Japanese-American U.S. Air Force sergeant from San Diego. His mother and two sisters, visiting Hiroshima, had been trapped there by the outbreak of war. He asked if he could look for them. He came back with one sister; the mother
and the other girl had been downtown when the bomb fell and they had been atomized. He turned a tear-stained face to one of the officers. “Why?” he asked. The colonel gulped. “It's war, son. We had to.”
An Operational Necessity is not only a good story but a disturbing one.
WALTER LORO talked to 400 combatants from both sides before writing Incredible Victory (Fitzhenry and Whiteside, $7.50) the story of the Battle of Midway, a clash that cut the mighty Japanese navy down to size and pointed the way to victory in the Pacific. Never again could the Japanese navy dare to attempt to smash United States sea power with one blow. And Midway became one of the great names, like Trafalgar, in the annals of war at sea.
Making a neat pattern out of a swirling, often confused naval-air battle 25 years after the event must be like trying to reassemble a flak burst. But within the framework of the conflict we are given a series of battle pictures and personal closeups not unlike those film director John Ford caught with his cameras during the three-day battle early in June 1942. That’s the kind of book it is: Lord has not attempted a definitive history. There are 16 pages of photographs.
He shows us, in his text, a Japanese deck officer on a carrier (it was a battle of flattops) who thinks he sees his mother’s face in a column of water thrown up by a near miss. Over Midway a Japanese pilot tries an incredible stunt — flying upside down a few feet off the airstrip until shot down. On the eve of battle a U.S. pilot belatedly tries to buy $10,000 worth of G.I. insurance.
And when it was over an old war within the U.S. forces erupted again. Pilots of the navy and the army air force (B 17s were on some strikes) came to blows at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Honolulu as they argued about who had won the Battle of Midway. There were times when they seemed as mad at each other as they were at the Japanese. JOHN CLARE
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