Thursday, February 7, 2013

Steinbeck and Greene On Respect For Enemies

These two passages seem like they ought to be put together somehow.  The first is from Steinbeck, the second is from Greene. Although the first is non-fiction and the second is fiction, they both deal with the same thing: soldiers who found themselves lamenting the deaths of their enemies, and who admired their enemies' fighting.  The two passages remind me, in turn, of Josiah Royce's Philosophy of Loyalty, where he claims that soldiers may be loyal to their fellow soldiers but also to the same spirit of loyalty in their enemies, even though they are not loyal to their enemies themselves.  I am also reminded of William James's point in "The Moral Equivalent of War" where he says that no one would repeat the American Civil War, but, just as surely, no one would erase it from history.  The conflict engenders virtues and sacrifices that it would be just as wrong to seek as to destroy.
“Some years ago my neighbor was Charles Erskine Scott Wood, who wrote Heavenly Discourse.  He was a very old man when I knew him, but as a young lieutenant just out of military academy he had been assigned to General Miles and he served in the Chief Joseph campaign.  His memory of it was very clear and very sad.  He said it was one of the most gallant retreats in all history.  Chief Joseph and the Nez Percés with squaws and children, dogs, and all their possessions, retreated under heavy fire for over a thousand miles, trying to escape to Canada. Wood said they fought every step of the way against odds until finally they were surrounded by the cavalry under General Miles and the large part of them wiped out.  It was the saddest duty he had ever performed, Wood said, and he had never lost his respect for the fighting qualities of the Nez Percés.  ‘If they hadn’t had their families with them we could never have caught them,” he said.  “And if we had been evenly matched in men and weapons, we couldn’t have beaten them.  They were men,” he said, “real men.”
And here's Greene:
“Trouin said, ‘Today’s affair—that is not the worst for someone like myself.  Over the village they could have shot us down.  Our risk was as great as theirs.  What I detest is napalm bombing.  From three thousand feet, in safety.’  He made a hopeless gesture.  ‘You see the forest catching fire.  God knows what you would see from the ground.  The poor devils are burned alive, the flames go over them like water.  They are wet through with fire.’  He said with anger against a whole world that didn’t understand, ‘I’m not fighting a colonial war. Do you think I’d do these things for the planters of Terre Rouge?  I’d rather be court-martialled.  We are fighting all of your wars, but you leave us the guilt.”
These are things that I, who have never had to fight a war, can only gaze at from afar, with wonder, and sadness, and gratitude.


John Steinbeck, Travels With Charley In Search Of America, (New York: Penguin, 1983) 159-160.  
Graham Greene, The Quiet American, (New York: Modern Library, 1992) 196-197.

1 comment:

  1. "How much respect a noble man has for his enemies!" Nietzsche, ( _On The Genealogy of Morals_)