Wednesday, July 22, 2009

`The Final Aggregate is One'

“Trains lead to ships and ships to death or trains,
And trains to death or trucks, and trucks to death,
Or trucks lead to the march, the march to death,
Or that survival which is all our hope;
And death leads back to trucks and trains and ships,
But life leads to the march, O flag! at last
The place of life found after trains and death—
Nightfall of nations brilliant after war.”

The lines are from Karl Shapiro’s “Troop Train,” from V-Letter and Other Poems (1944), written while the author was stationed in New Guinea with the Army Medical Corps. They came to mind as I started reading Tears in the Darkness: The Story of the Bataan Death March and Its Aftermath, by Michael Norman and Elizabeth M. Norman – especially “the march to death, / Or that survival which is all our hope.”

I’ve seldom started a book with such a sense of dread – not, for once, about the quality of the reporting and writing, which are uniformly excellent, but about the inevitability of the horror to come. The Bataan Death March followed the three-month Battle of Bataan, part of the larger Battle of the Philippines in 1941-42. Some 76,000 American and Filipino troops surrendered to the Japanese – the largest single defeat in American military history. In April 1942, the Japanese marched the Allies 60 miles up the Bataan peninsula with an almost gleeful spirit of brutality. Thousands died of hunger, thirst, gunshot, disease, decapitation, beating and bayoneting.

The reader’s sense of dread is compounded by the ill-preparedness of the American command. Even after the attack on Pearl Harbor, many American aircraft were, as the Normans write, “parked [at Clark Field, Philippines] in neat rows in the open on their ready lines, noses to the runway. From above they looked like toys on a large lawn, silver toys perfectly outlined against the greensward of Luzon’s wide central plain.”

The narrative is graceful and prudently detailed, never hobbled by authorial over-indulgence in minutiae. After the sentence just quoted, we’re put in the cockpit of a Japanese Zero piloted by Saburō Sakai. We’re given a brief digression on Japanese nationalism and Japan’s antagonism toward the West. Then, back to Sakai: “The Japanese airman was astonished. Why, he wondered, weren’t the Americans in the air, `waiting for us?’” The prose is meticulous. I have never seen a bomb explosion described with such scientific, medical and human specificity:

“A bomb blast is lethal science, fluid mechanics meant to maim. First, the shock wave, a surge of air that hits a man like a wall of wind, hits him so hard his cerebrum starts to shake concussively in his skull, swelling at first, then hemorrhaging, rivulets of blood running from his nose and ears, vomit from his mouth. An instant after the shock wave passes, the atmosphere turns hot and dense, high pressure sucking the low pressure from every recess around it, from a man’s lungs and ears and eye sockets, leaving him gasping for breath and fighting the feeling his pupils are being pulled from their sockets. Finally, fluid mechanics turns to terminal ballistics as the blast blows apart the bomb’s casing, sending hundreds of jagged fragments – pieces of white-hot shrapnel, some no bigger than a pebble, others as big as a brick – slicing into anything in their path.”

The narrative backbone of the book is the story of Ben Steele, a cowboy – or “echo of a cowboy,” as the authors put it -- and artist born in Montana in 1917. He enlisted in the Army in October 1940, a month shy of his 23rd birthday, and survived as a prisoner of the Japanese for more than three years. Steele is still alive, age 91. The Normans interviewed him and quote his letters home. They interviewed 400 other participants in the Death March – Americans, Filipinos, Japanese – but their ongoing narrative witness is Steele, some of whose wartime sketches are reproduced. I’m little more than 150 pages into Tears in the Darkness, and I know Steele survives, but the sense of dread is hardly abated. He and his comrades, living and dead, remind me of another poem in V-Letter, “Elegy for a Dead Soldier,” in particular this stanza:

“We ask for no statistics of the killed,
For nothing political impinges on
This single casualty, or all those gone,
Missing or healing, sinking or dispersed,
Hundreds of thousands counted, millions lost.
More than an accident and less than willed
Is every fall, and this one like the rest.
However others calculate the cost,
To us the final aggregate is one,
One with a name, one transferred to the blest;
And though another stoops and takes the gun,
We cannot add the second to the first.”

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