By Richard Bausch.
171 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $19.95.
Of all the grim theaters of conflict in World War II, none were more dismal and murderous than Italy in the winter of 1944. As American forces slogged and scrambled their way north, the Germans gave way with brutal reluctance, while Italian partisans fought Fascists, and others welcomed the “liberators” or just sullenly watched. The war took place in a world of ambush, treachery and uncertainty. This is the setting for Richard Bausch’s 11th novel, a short, bleakly brilliant one-act drama depicting the futility and moral complexity of combat.
If they talk about war at all, veterans quite often recall one moment of revealing horror, when civilized behavior lurched out of kilter and the sheer nastiness of what ordinary men were doing to one another was suddenly illuminated. “Peace” begins with such a moment. A unit of American troops stops a farmer’s donkey cart full of wet straw on an icy road somewhere near the town of Cassino. When the cart is rolled over in the search for contraband or weapons, an escaping German soldier and his whore tumble out. The German shoots two of the men and is killed in turn by Robert Marson, the novel’s central character. The woman curses and claws at her captors. The unit sergeant places a carbine to her forehead and casually murders her. All Marson sees, when he looks around, is “the curve of her calves, the feet in a man’s boots where they jutted from the grass.”
This is the defining event of the novel, the central image and the insistent moral conundrum as the men march on into the freezing rain. “Robert Marson thought about how they were all witnesses. And nobody could look anybody in the eye.” Was such an act necessary or indefensible? Should it be defended or denounced? Or conveniently forgotten? As a matter of history, several similar crimes were committed by Allied soldiers in this conflict and the perpetrators never brought to justice, as Rick Atkinson related in his masterly account of the Italian campaign, “The Day of Battle,” published last year.
The question of how to preserve justice and personal integrity amid war’s insanity is the central concern of Bausch’s novel. “How you live your life,” as Marson puts it. “What you do while you’re here.” One senses some inherited autobiography here. Marson is the grandson of German immigrants; his comrade, Asch, is the grandson of a German Jew who fought for the Kaiser in World War I. Bausch has dedicated the book to a father who “served bravely in Africa, Sicily and Italy.”
As in his earlier fiction, Bausch is adept at capturing the cadences of everyday American speech, and the questioning of ordinary, decent men. His tense, economic prose chimes with the precise, laconic language of soldiers. The worst writing about war is either black-and-white or Technicolor. The best, like this, is in shades of gray, evoking the personal equivocations, the doubts, the discomfort and the sheer, crushing boredom and fatigue that constitute the real nature of war. Marson faces death in a titanic struggle against Nazism, but what obsesses him is the blister on his heel, the image of the dead woman’s legs in the grass.
Bausch’s war is real, but his characterization of the warriors is less assured, sometimes veering close to stereotype: Joyner, the brash teenager from the Michigan sheep farm, with the foul mouth, the barely suppressed racism and the sturdy heart; Asch, the tender Jewish boy with chubby cheeks; Marson himself, a former star athlete and Roman Catholic self-interrogator, trying to keep command, trying to pray.
The members of this typecast crew stagger grimly over a frozen mountainside on night patrol, stalked by a sniper, guided by an elderly Italian peasant who may or may not be waiting for the moment to betray them. In the near distance, they hear volley after volley of gunfire, the retreating Germans methodically murdering the Jews in a local village. Asch, distraught at what he can hear and imagine, recites the Mourner’s Prayer for the dead and vows to report the woman’s death if he gets back alive.
“I’m gonna report a murder.”
“... After this?”
“Yes. ... Especially after this. Especially after this, goddamn it.”
The message is a little thumping, standing in contrast to the subtlety with which Bausch draws the internal struggles of three very different men attempting to appease their consciences and stay alive. At night, Asch and Marson sit hunched together over a miserable fire in the sleeting rain, searching for some kind of peace to share. The moment recalls the two German soldiers in gentle communion in “All Quiet on the Western Front”: “We are two men, two minute sparks of life; outside is the night and the circle of death.” At the novel’s climax, Marson must also find out whether the spark of his own humanity is bright enough to stay alight in the freezing deluge of combat.
Great writing about war — by Primo Levi, Erich Maria Remarque, Wilfred Owen — asks the same questions. What would you do? How can you bear witness? How can you preserve dignity and humanity in an inhuman struggle? These are the most (perhaps the only) important questions in conflict, and they always have been, whether the battle is fought in Amiens, Anzio or Abu Ghraib.
Ben Macintyre’s latest book is “Agent Zigzag: A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love, and Betrayal.”