Once There Was a War

Continuing my self-motivated Steinbeck education, I decided to read Once There Was a War thinking it’d be a quick breeze, much like The Pearl or The Red Pony. It’s quick, sure, because it’s fewer than 250 pages, but it’s not as breezy. I don’t actually mean that as an insult, though. The story doesn’t flow because it’s not actually a story — it’s a piece of fascinating nonfiction.

Once There Was a War is a collection of Steinbeck’s brief dispatches from England, Africa, and Italy, during World War II. He begins the book with a beautiful introduction to put the whole thing in context, meekly apologizing for what he left out and what he put in more than once and what the censors erased without his consent. I probably wouldn’t have even noticed any of these things had he not pointed them out, but the fact that he did is endlessly charming, as well as completely additive in terms of the way the book reads. Omissions are probably things that we shouldn’t know anyway, or things that the soldiers have forgotten. Repetitions are things that we should keep in our minds and hearts as we piece together their experiences on the battlefield.

This is the first time I’ve ever read something of his that is fact-based, and it oozes Hemingway. That’s high praise in my eyes, and I decided that if I had access to a time machine, I’d want to go back and figure out a way to get both of them in the same room together to talk shit out in their terse, laconic styles. Or maybe they would have gabbed away, being in the presence of another known Declarative Sentence Writer. Steinbeck did not experience combat in this war, as far as the book retells, so perhaps he did not experience the same horrors that The Old Man did, but he sure knows how to write about them. His paragraphs are simple, elegant, and never awkward even when they’re repetitive; it’s hard always to say the same of Hemingway, even at his most emotional. The book is also structured in such a way that I imagine it mirrored the experiences: lots of preparation (England), anxious and fast-paced waiting (Africa), and finally, dark and interminable combat (Italy). Whereas For Whom the Bell Tolls gets inside the head of one leader, and The Things They Carried gets inside the heads of many low-ranked soldiers, Once There Was a War gives life to everyone else, the reporters, the people on the streets completely dependent upon the good guys. Two chapters in particular stand out in my mind: One, about a driver called Big Train Mulligan, details this guy’s enigmatic network of lady-friends and places-to-crash all over Europe; another, about an alcoholic goat with a Commander’s rank that was called William. With these humorous and almost unbelievable characters, described through anecdotes from the soldiers, Steinbeck does a pretty great job of getting inside the good guys’ heads, too.

I’ll leave you now with the usual selection of my favorite quotes, but know that they’re out of context. Steinbeck was better at relaying the unrelatable to the layman:

p. 27 // “When the uneasiness is running it is the waiting that hurts.”

p. 81 // “Directed understanding and tolerance ordinarily begin with generalizations. Our troops approaching England are told in pamphlets what the British are like, where they are tender and where hard, what words, innocent at home, are harsh and ugly on the British ear. This has much the same effect as telling a friend, ‘You must meet Jones–wonderful fellow. You two will get along.’ With a start like that, Jones has got two strikes on him before you ever meet him.”

p. 138 // “Modern war is very hard on its tools. While in this war fewer men are killed, more equipment than ever is wrecked, for it seems almost to be weapon against weapon rather than man against man.”

p. 150 // “Green troops … have been trained to a fine point, hardened and instructed, and they lack only one thing to make them soldiers, enemy fire, and they will never be soldiers until they have it.”