nthposition online magazine

Culture wars/war cultures

by Ron Singer

[ bookreviews ]

A paradox inherent in good anti-war novels is that they reveal their own impotence. A famous example is All Quiet on the Western Front. Remarque's humanization of the foot soldiers on both sides in World War I was so telling that the book was banned in Germany and Australia during World War II, and by the French until 1962. Although Goebbels kept a copy of the novel in his secret stash, when Remarque fled Germany, the Nazis beheaded his sister. Thus did this famous anti-war novel stoke the violent hatred it was meant to forestall. Politicians always seem to want to fight new wars, so they do not want the citizenry to read gut-wrenching descriptions of the horrors of combat, let alone dissections of the usually specious, ill-reasoned "causes" in the name of which the butchery is carried on.

Another reason for this paradox is that a good anti-war novel plumbs the underlying, real causes of war, from the economic to the political, and on down into the deeper psychological and cultural. One might infer that the deep causes of war are impervious to culture - to books, paintings, movies etc.

If Hamlet had lived in our time, he might well have called fiction our "abstract and brief chronicle". In their sweep and implications, the two novels at hand cover almost an entire war-plagued century. The Great Ponds narrates a local dispute over fishing rights between two villages within a single Nigerian clan, which the author calls the Erekwi. This dispute escalates into a total disaster for the disputants and their widening circle of allies. By the end of the book, the local conflict has turned into an allegory of WW1. Battle Songs follows four bare-knuckle brawlers from the Pennsylvania coalmining country to the Korean killing fields, from which only one will escape alive. This novel recalls another key matrix of 20th-century conflict, the so-called Cold War.

The biographies of the two authors, both still living, ripple in complicated ways through other battles of our times. Amadi (b.1934) belongs to a small Nigerian nationality that has traditionally been oppressed by the larger Igbo one. After studying science at the University of Ibadan, he became a teacher, then served as a captain in the Federal army during the Biafran (i.e. Igbo) secession/Nigerian civil war from 1967-70. Having completed The Great Ponds (1969), his nuanced, balanced anti-war novel, he proceeded to write a pro-Federal apologia in the form of a memoir, Sunset in Biafra (1973). In the 1980s-90s, he held two ministerial portfolios, one of which was education, in the Rivers State local government, situated at the heart of the region where oil conflicts between the Federal government and his own nationality (and others) rage on today.

Zolbrod (b.1932) comes from the same socio-cultural-geographical background as his four protagonists. He went through basic training for the Korean War, but did not serve. Instead, he went to college and graduate school, then became a professor and prominent folklorist, specializing in Navajo culture. "Retiring" after 32 years from Allegheny College in Pennsylvania, he taught for 12 more years at Crownpoint, a regional campus of the Navajo Nation's Dine College, simultaneously working as an advocate for the tribe. Having grown up in a culture of brawlers, Zolbrod has in recent years become a participant in conflicts between the Navajo nation and the Arizona and federal governments.

Thus, beyond their ages, an interesting commonality between these men is that they have divided their working lives between writing and education. That they have taught and helped shape educational policy for many years may or may not be related to their passionate views about public affairs - notably, war.

Another commonality is the authors' evolving, complex visions of war. Battle Songs was initially written in reaction to the Viet Nam War. The book was slated for publication by a small press that was bought out by a larger one, which, in turn, cancelled the contract. A few years ago, Zolbrod's daughter, a literary editor, persuaded him to revisit the novel in light of Iraq, and to self-publish it. Drawing on his subsequent work with the Navajo and other "non-Western" cultures, Zolbrod significantly revised Battle Songs. For instance, he transformed the original bleak Remarquean ending into one in which the surviving character experiences a one-world apotheosis prompted by a mountain-top experience in Japan. If, in his novel and memoir, Amadi presented both sides of the philosophical debate about the justice of, and necessity for, war, Zolbrod questioned his own earlier view that war was so deeply rooted in human nature and culture that it would never end.

In some ways, these two excellent novels could not describe less similar cultures. Jared Diamond argues in his essay about revenge killing between the Ombal and Hamda clans of Papua New Guinea (The New Yorker, 21 April, 2008) that wars conducted by national states subject soldiers to the terrible ambivalence of having been raised to follow ethical laws ("Thou shalt not kill") that they are now required to suspend. The more sensitive soldiers in Battle Songs experience this ambivalence, but the clans about which Diamond and Amadi write have no such ambivalence. In the precisely defined circumstances under which the Erekwi, and the Ombal and Hamda kill, it would be wrong not to fight.

Amadi's opening describes life in a village called Chiolu, where individuals belong to a happy, intact, organic, highly regulated, fishing, farming and gathering group. Religion, politics, economics, family life and so on all mesh in this village's hierarchical society: gods on top, then the eze, or chief; then the leading warriors and counselors and the dibia, or "juju man"; then down through the male age groups; and all the way on down through the female orders, parallel to, but simultaneously beneath, the male. In this well-oiled system, every last person has their place and their appointed tasks, and all are subject to the same set of mores, which range from dress codes to the intricacies of social behavior.

Within Chiolu society, conflict is normally mild and ritualized, expressing itself through wit combat, both within and between the genders, and through formal wrestling matches that chart a boy's physical growth to manhood. When war erupts, the Chiolu shift into another ritualized, culturally sanctioned mode of behavior. At the start of the conflict, taking their lead from their moderate, wise eze, Diali, and constantly seeking guidance from the gods via their careful conduit, the sensible, modest and humane dibia, Achichi, everyone knows how to act, what they may and may not do. The warrior Olumba schools his disciple, Ikechi, telling him, "Never play with the gods, my son. They are powerful and should be respected. I would rather face a whole village in battle than have the weakest of the gods after me (9)." As the war proceeds, victories are celebrated by dances at which everything down to the cup from which a warrior has earned the right to drink, is regulated by tradition.

Chiolu enters what initially seems a just and necessary fight for the fishing rights to one of the great ponds, Wagaba. These rights were won in a long-ago conflict, after which their ownership gradually became the status quo. But now it is challenged. The antagonist, Aliakoro, another village within the Erekwi clan, is the mirror image of Chiolu. The Aliakoro, too, have their eze, their dibia, leading warriors, and so on. However, the mirror is slightly distorted –by covetousness, which somehow dims the luster of the Aliakoro: their eze is not quite so sage; Wago, their leading warrior, lacks seasoned judgment; and so on. And consider their dibia, Igwu. During his adolescence, Igwu began to be plagued by some disorder in his make-up, his agwu, which temporarily rendered him dysfunctional. (We would see this as something like adolescent-onset bi-polar disorder.) "There was only one way to pacify his agwu - Igwu had to become a dibia." (106) Clever Amadi has set a rhetorical trap for his readers, drawing us on to root for the culturally purer Chiolu, a stance we will come to regret.

Like the Erekwi villagers, the young bloods in Zolbrod's Pennsylvania coal country are bred to war. But theirs is not an intact, happy culture. Whereas the Erekwi are ennobled by work and play, the Pennsylvanians are brutalized by the mines and by the boozing and brawling in which they seek refuge. Violence is as ritualized in Pennsylvanian culture as it is among the Erekwi, but in the mining towns the violence seems constant and compulsive.

"Back in the coal country, there was always one guy in every town who could lick all the rest. Every once in a while, after a dance, someone gets the notion that he can knock off the top man. So they go out behind the dance hall and fight. If the top guy wins, well, he's still the top guy. But if the challenger wins, then everybody wants to take a crack at him. At first there are a lot of fights, because everybody thinks he can lick the new topper." (21)

Even marriage here can be war. The most sensitive of the four protagonists, Dick, recalls being shuffled back and forth between his separated parents, both of whom would question him, "wondering how much progress the other had made in their war with each other (109)."

Unlike the Chiolu, the Pennsylvanian boys are drafted into a distant war the real causes of which they have no inkling. Their distant leaders are as capricious as Greek gods, as inscrutable as the Judeo-Christian one. As their terrible experience of the Korean War (in which a million died) proceeds, their anguish is intensified by the ethical ambivalence mentioned by Diamond. Not that their physical sufferings aren't bad enough, combat in the terrible cold of the Korean peninsula against an implacable enemy who seems to come at them in overwhelming numbers. Zolbrod is as graphic as possible in describing the physical horrors of this war:

"As he drew closer, he smelled an odor that reminded him of the smell of newly scattered manure that covered the fields of Butler [Pennsylvania] every Spring. The room was thick with that strong, warm odor, which hung like smoke and filled his nostrils at once. ...And now he saw the man who lay there, naked, his face up, his eyes slightly closed, his mouth agape and nearly toothless, covered to the waist with a sheet. His skin was dark, almost black, but of a darkness not of the Negro race. It was the darkness of skin charred, burned away by some corrosive force. ... This man's skin was taut and scaly, and some of its flakes had actually fallen away from his body and now lay in small, translucent circles at his sides." (123)

These sufferings are intensified by the abiding perception that the war makes no sense. We see this senselessness through multiple lenses, including the naive point of view of Ben, an ultimate warrior who is mentally handicapped.

"...anyone who threatened to harm his friends was the enemy. He hated the Chinese not because they were Communists - he did not know what Communism was and he didn't care - but because they might kill Fran or Dick or Sam (60)." In Dante's Hell, the agonies fit the crimes. Here, the agonies are endured by pawns of distant criminals who are indicted by the author, but never brought to trial.

As the battle songs become louder, however, cultural differences fade. Step by horrible step, the fight over the pond spins out of control. For as long as possible, the Erekwi try to contain war within the patterns of their culture. For instance, Chiolu's champion, Olumba, takes on an ordeal against a god as a way to decide the dispute without mass bloodshed. But the Aliokoro violate the terms of the ordeal, and interlocking alliances within the clan cause the war to escalate. Eventually, the violence spirals beyond the culture's normal limits, spawning wonjo, an actual and metaphorical plague thought to have been sent by the disgusted gods. Ultimately, Wonjo destroys the culture by destroying all its members.

By the end of The Great Ponds, every village in the clan has experienced horrors comparable to those suffered by Zolbrod's four friends. The Chiolu discover a terrible truth: a culture can only contain, can only manage, a war until it reaches a certain point, and the nature of war is to spiral beyond that point. Ironically, the last indignity the Chiolu suffer is to win the war, when Olumba survives the ordeal, but to lose the pond, anyway, because Wago drowns himself in it, making all fishing there taboo - forever. In a sense, the culture, itself, has in its last grasp snatched away the prize for which it has destroyed itself.

Ironically, too, Zolbrod's less happy, less holistic culture eventually provides a basis for inner peace. By means of a mountain-top experience, Sam, the only survivor from the Pennsylvanian quartet, re-learns essential ethical and spiritual truths about war and life. In the company of a black American soldier and two Japanese, Sam climbs the formidable Mount Hodaka. There, he rescues Neko, one of the Japanese, who has revealed himself as Sam's implacable enemy because his parents were both killed, and his own face disfigured, by the Hiroshima bomb. By risking his life to save Neko's, Sam, who has witnessed the worst of war, is at least partly cured of his war trauma. As the other Japanese, the spiritually advanced Takashima, explains, "You and he are at peace... And now you are his friend forever (218)." At the novel's eleventh hour, Sam has resolved the central conflict between ethics and war.

So Battle Songs ends with an apotheosis, and renewed hope, for the survivor. The Great Ponds also ends with an apotheosis, but of a very different sort. Amadi has spared no one from the widening circle of wonjo. By now, all the wells in Erekwi have been filled with the bodies of plague victims, the survivors being too few and weak to bury them. Then, suddenly, the point of view of the novel soars upward to a sort of Pisgah view of the whole, war-sick world. The final sentence snaps the rhetorical trap on the reader: "But it was only the beginning. Wonjo, as the villagers called the Great Influenza of 1918, was to claim a grand total of some twenty million lives all over the world (192)." So much for our allegiance to Chiolu and its just cause.

In the end, neither book offers much in the way of hope. To Zolbrod, war is an extension of a violent culture, but its roots lie deeper, in human nature. "We might wonder if we don't all come into this Middle Earth dreaming of battle songs, ready at the most subdued, understated cue to sing them" (103). The book's revised ending asserts that the moral imperatives of one-world spirituality have redemptive power, but it is left for the reader to decide whether such redemption seems plausible. Battle Songs casts a sinister light on Viet Nam and Iraq, both of which have repeated the Korean tragedy of huge losses inflicted and suffered in the name of dubious, unclear motives. The zweikampf of the so-called Cold War has now been succeeded by a multitude of horrendous conflicts in the name of a multitude of plausible causes.

To Amadi, even a culture with organic vigor, if that culture accommodates war, is a doomed culture. As the conflict spreads, wise eze Diali reflects on its futility, musing that "a time will come when there will be little or no fighting (92)." He makes this observation dispassionately, towards the middle of the novel, but by the end there is no fighting only because there is hardly anyone one alive to go on fighting. If Amadi meant for The Great Ponds to warn the indigenous people of Nigeria, and perhaps beyond, about the prohibitive costs of war, the warning has been heeded intermittently, at best, in Nigeria, in Africa, and beyond. By showing why wars happen, and how they unfold, these two fine novels also show why war is so hard to end.