If you’re from my generation, you grew up with the American heroics epitomized by John Wayne in The Sands of Iwo Jima. As a very young man my two favorite books were Battle Cry by Leon Uris and Valhalla by Jere Peacock. This idealist propaganda approach was effectively destroyed by exposure to the journalistic approach to the obscenity of the Vietnam War. Blame television. Add to this the Stanley Kubrick film—Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb—and generally I avoided war stories in text or film for the next fifty years.
Oh, there were certainly exceptions: I did read War and Peace … twice. War and Peace, however, was not a jingoistic American fairy tale.
Just as Blood Meridian put the lie to Roy Rogers, two books I read recently give a far different version of war and death than even John Wayne would be comfortable with.
The first is the story of the Soviet excursion into Afghanistan. Its title comes from the ubiquitous zinc coffins that were used to enclose the bodies or body parts being returned home: The Zinky Boys. Told as a series of observations by an embedded journalist, the main theme is the difference of the story being fronted by the Soviet government and the tragedy of the dead body parts and destroyed families resulting from a futile and criminally negligent filibuster into a sovereign and resolute country.
The unspoken question in The Zinky Boys is whether such a war would be allowed to continue if the truth of the devastation were known.
The second novel is a historical approach to the horror of the unleashing of atomic destruction on the unsuspecting inhabitants of the Japanese city of Hiroshima: Black Rain by Masuji Ibuse. Bypassing any consideration of Japanese politics or the Japanese war machine, Black Rain deals with the common citizens of Hiroshima who experienced a blinding flash followed by fire and devastation: the thought was that America must have some kind of a new bomb. Families are separated, often to die of radiation poisoning before they can be reunited. Charred bodies stack up and the stench, let alone the fear of pestilence, pervades the burning atmosphere. Body parts literally slough off of frightened people. Death comes slowly to those that survived the blast.
There are many other war stories that perhaps will illicit similar responses (All’s Quiet on the Western Front comes to mind) but these two contemporary books should leave a lasting impression on the reader.
Note: Do not be fooled by the action-thriller film of the same name. It’s a different Black Rain.