There is one true thing (among many) in Richard Bausch’s new novel, Peace: human nature tends this way or that, but war is the great leveler that assaults all who are drawn into its cauldron:
In the locust wind comes a rattle and hum
Jacob wrestled the angel
And the angel was overcome
You plant a demon seed
You raise a flower of fire
See them burning crosses
See the flames higher and higher
~ “Bullet the Blue Sky”, U2
It’s raining. Fourth day straight as Corporal Robert Marson follows his sergeant and what is left of their patrol on their mission to track the retreating German forces in the waning days of WWII.
On the first day, there were twelve men.
On the second day, three men were hospitalized with dysentery.
On the third day the patrol, while turning over a hay cart for inspection, uncovers a German office rand a woman. The German kills two before Marson “put[s] him down.”
This is the fact of death in war. Ultimately it is only a number, ever lessening or mounting. The number killed rises. The number of days left on your tour of duty counts down.
The woman has a bullet put through her head at point-blank range by Sgt. Glick. No one protests immediately, but on the fourth day the execution begins to gnaw at them. Seven men. Six “witnesses”. Why is Marson not a witness as well? He had not seen the actual shot, only the vision of the woman falling over backwards on the side of the road, and her legs kicking up like a rag doll.
They begin to talk about it after Glick reported a woman had been killed “in the cross-fire”. Asch believes that Glick should be reported. Marson is non-committal. Joyner believes they should let it alone. When they meet an old Italian local with another hay cart, they are suspicious, but nothing is hidden.
Glick orders Marson, Asch and Joyner to patrol up over the “hill” and see what they can see. The old man (Angelo) will be their guide. The hill turns into a mountain. These four play out the rest of the story and the moral dilemmas of wartime on their journey up the mountainside. Asch is a Boston Jew and Joyner assumes that being Jewish, he’s from New York. Joyner is one of those people who is religious one level, yet full of contempt for those who don’t share his values. Yet he remains complicated, and despite his unyielding nature and anti-Semitism, Bausch writes him with an even hand.
And there Joyner was. He could talk about the moon shining on water, and yet obscenity flowed from him like the little beads of spit he kept throwing off. He would spray it out from between his teeth. This punctuated his talk, like a nerve-tic.
Asch’s father was a German Jew who had fought for the Kaiser in WWI. Joyner is an anti-Semite who is in the battle against Germany, and their policies of extermination. Angelo has been to America, though the soldiers remain deeply suspicious of him. The ironies abound.
A flash-back to Palermo where they had arrived in Italy, before the action. Marson wonders how he will react to battle. Will he be brave? Will he “turn and run”? He knows one thing:
He had read the Crane novel about the civil war, and Crane’s conclusion – that his fictional soldier had seen the great death and it was, after all, only death – seemed utterly false to him, dangerously, stupidly, romantic.
Exactly. The thing about “the great Death” is that at bottom it is only “death”, sure. But it is your death, and therefore final. Finality is of no little import. In Palermo Marson and Asch meet 15-year old Mario and the novel takes on a lighter tone.
This is the Peace before the killing begins. The calm before the storm.
It turns out that Mario has also been to New York (like Angelo). They talk some baseball, and when Asch tells Mario that he is from Boston, and the Red Sox are his favorite team, Mario replies:
“I’m fucked to hear it. I am devoted to the New York Yankees.”
Marson and Asch (a real cold-eyed cynic) talk about the nature of war, politics, religion, God, and death. And increasingly, about reporting Glick. Asch is bringing Marson around on this subject, and even Joyner begins to waver, however reluctantly. Asch asks Marson if he believes in God. Marson replies that he does. Asch:
“I think it’s all one thing. I mean one reason for all of it – the religion and the philosophy and all of the rest.”
“Do you mean all religions are true?”
“They’re all there for the same true reason, yeah. It’s all trying to explain the one thing. Why we have to die. It’s all a puny attempt to deal with that fact.”
Coming to understand death, and its meaning for each of us requires that we first understand our lives. As he leaves for the war, Marson has this revelation:
It was a warm twilight and the stars were beginning to show above the tree line behind the house. It came to him that he had taken this scene, this street, these people, for granted, had simply accepted all of it, and them, as his world. He had a thought: this is the surround. Just the word, surround, in that sentence, seemed freighted with new meaning. It could not be spelled any other way, was not the word surroundings. It was a different word. It was his life itself, containing his home, these parked cars, this house, this sky. Twelve thirty-six Kearney Street, Washington D. C. The surround.
It caught his breath.
This is just another way of seeing our connection, our place in relationship to all mankind. Life is a series of impulses, disconnected events, thoughts, layered upon layers. We move through, taking for granted what our existence means to ourselves and to others. Taking for granted is a survival skill. For how can we live that conscious connection unendingly? Peace comes when we feel and accept, make second nature that connection.
His father’s last piece of advice to his son is “Do your duty”. Duty is a short word, and it can be a hollow word. It can be a word used by people who know not or suspect nothing of its true meaning. But it’s a large word, an encompassing word, and to do your duty requires courage. Not the courage of the blind, but the courage of the visionary.
For all the arguing about what duty requires of us, the lower duty or the higher duty, in the end Marson has an even more difficult moral decision to make. And in doing so, Marson achieves the peace that is so elusive for us all.
Morning had come, light spreading across the low sky, The corporal got to his feet and started back toward the road. Just before he reached sight of it, and the others, he stopped, feeling something rise in him…
It was peace. It was the world itself, water rushing near the lip of the bank from the storms, the snow and the winter rain…
He could not think of any prayers now. But every moment felt like a kind of adoration.
Then the feeling dissolved, was gone, like a breath.
We can’t live there, but we can remember and briefly touch the place that we will return to someday.