FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

War’s Lasting Wounds

by CHARLES LARSON

My admiration for William Wharton began in 1978 with the publication of his first novel, Birdy, the story of a young man who, well, believes that he is a bird—or at least that he should be able to fly like a bird.  By any measure, it’s an extraordinary novel that received major attention. It’s also very much an anti-war novel at a time when many people were angry at our involvement in Vietnam, though the war described in Birdy is World War II, often described as “the good war.”  Perhaps this is why the movie version, in 1984, switched the war to Vietnam.  In spite of the shift, the movie was impressive, often brilliant, because of the first-rate acting by Matthew Modine (who played Birdy) and Nicolas Cage (his pal, Al), as well as launching their successful movie careers.

Wharton (who used that name as a pseudonym) rapidly published other major novels—Dad (in 1982) and A Midnight Clear (in 1982).  Both of these works (also made into excellent movies) were followed by five more, perhaps a little less inventive and successful.  Until 1994 few people knew the author’s true identity and why he had chosen to use a pseudonym at a time most writers used no such disguise.  Where the novels (especially Birdy) autobiographical?  Then in 1994, Wharton published a memoir called Wrongful Deaths, the tragic story of a terrible automobile accident in Oregon, caused by the controlled burning of farmland.  Wharton’s daughter, her husband, and their two children did not survive a massive pileup of cars.  And although Wrongful Deaths was still published under the name William Wharton, he identified his real name: Albert William DuAime.  Wharton spent several years trying to get a cessation of controlled farm-burning.

Besides being a prolific writer, for much of his adult life Wharton was also a successful painter who lived with his family in France on a houseboat on the Seine.  When he died in 2008, his popularity in the United States had waned but, oddly, this was not true of his fame in Poland where he had published half a dozen additional novels and memoirs.  This is one of those curious instances that happen more frequently than one might realize when a writer becomes more successful in translation than in the shrapneloriginal.  In Wharton’s case, perhaps his following in Poland was also because he wrote so frequently about World War II, with no glorification of fighting but instead with fear and trauma (PTS).  That takes us to Shrapnel, written after he was seventy—for the first time an account of his own activities during the Good War.

Wharton entered the military in 1944, toward the end of the war, when he was eighteen and underwent training at Fort Benning, Pennsylvania. As he observes in the prologue of his memoir: “War for me, though brief, had been a soul-shaking trauma.  I was scared, miserable, and I lost confidence in human beings, especially myself.  It was a very unhappy experience.”  He also states that when his children were still young, he didn’t want them to know about many of the things that happened to him in the war (including about the people he had killed); he wanted to protect them from the worst.  After the completion of training he was shipped to England and subsequently dropped behind enemy lines in France—ostensibly to deliver a radio to French fighters.

That delivery was not successful, yet he was eventually reunited with Americans and became a squad leader in Intelligence and Reconnaissance, which mostly entailed moving ahead of his squadron and searching for German troops.  The litany of his fear is relentless.  He considered desertion.  He hoped that he would get trench foot so he could be sent to a hospital. Much of the time, he says he was scared to death, and as the war continued, became even more frightened that he would die.  He also believes that he was more frightened than others.  He was court martialed a number of times but quickly put back into service because of the circumstances.  He was awarded at least three purple hearts and hit by shrapnel so often that it was impossible for all of it to be removed from his body.  The woman who was his originating literary agent—who discovered Wharton’s work—says that for the rest of his life he tripped metal detectors in airports.  As he wryly observes, “Flying shrapnel in those days [was] almost as common was wasps.”

The question of fighting was not simply one of staying alive but also of doing no harm.  Wharton says that the only heroes of wars are conscientious objectors.  As the war continues and the patrols are increasingly frequent, he asks himself, “How can I get out of this, how can I manage to stay alive and not kill any more people?”  He even remarks that he wouldn’t mind being a prisoner—presumably that would take him out of harm’s way, anything so he would not have to be in a position of authority.  And when the war ends (and he’s only nineteen) he writes of the difficulty of forgetting, of putting it all behind him, which takes us back to Birdy, where Al is asked to visit his friend in an army mental institution and help his friend break free of his strange bird-like behavior.

Shrapnel is a brave book.  Pity that William Wharton did not live to see its publication in the United States.  Wharton hated the war but it provided him with a subject that became obsessive.  The wounds of war and of life in general begin early in people’s lives: “a rejection by a parent or loved one such as a good friend, not getting on the baseball team, not being chosen.  The usual failures in the courtship rituals and trials, it goes on and on and sometimes if we’re not careful we can become disabled, unhappy, distressed or depressed by the small wounds we suffer, often without anyone meaning to hurt us.”

Read William Wharton’s Shrapnel and, as you read this powerful memoir, think about all the young men and women in our wars today—the wounds they will carry with them forever, maybe not setting off metal detectors in airports but ricocheting off other people in their lives.

William Wharton: Shrapnel: a Memoir

Morrow, 263 pp., $23.99

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C.  Email: clarson@american.edu.

 

More articles by:

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

November 20, 2017
T.J. Coles
Doomsday Scenarios: the UK’s Hair-Raising Admissions About the Prospect of Nuclear War and Accident
Peter Linebaugh
On the 800th Anniversary of the Charter of the Forest
Patrick Bond
Zimbabwe Witnessing an Elite Transition as Economic Meltdown Looms
Sheldon Richman
Assertions, Facts and CNN
Ben Debney
Plebiscites: Why Stop at One?
LV Filson
Yemen’s Collective Starvation: Where Money Can’t Buy Food, Water or Medicine
Thomas Knapp
Impeachment Theater, 2017 Edition
Binoy Kampmark
Trump in Asia
Curtis FJ Doebbler
COP23: Truth Without Consequences?
Louisa Willcox
Obesity in Bears: Vital and Beautiful
Deborah James
E-Commerce and the WTO
Ann Garrison
Burundi Defies the Imperial Criminal Court: an Interview with John Philpot
Robert Koehler
Trapped in ‘a Man’s World’
Stephen Cooper
Wiping the Stain of Capital Punishment Clean
Weekend Edition
November 17, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
Thank an Anti-War Veteran
Andrew Levine
What’s Wrong With Bible Thumpers Nowadays?
Jeffrey St. Clair - Alexander Cockburn
The CIA’s House of Horrors: the Abominable Dr. Gottlieb
Wendy Wolfson – Ken Levy
Why We Need to Take Animal Cruelty Much More Seriously
Mike Whitney
Brennan and Clapper: Elder Statesmen or Serial Fabricators?
David Rosen
Of Sex Abusers and Sex Offenders
Ryan LaMothe
A Christian Nation?
Dave Lindorff
Trump’s Finger on the Button: Why No President Should Have the Authority to Launch Nuclear Weapons
W. T. Whitney
A Bizarre US Pretext for Military Intrusion in South America
Deepak Tripathi
Sex, Lies and Incompetence: Britain’s Ruling Establishment in Crisis 
Howard Lisnoff
Who You’re Likely to Meet (and Not Meet) on a College Campus Today
Roy Morrison
Trump’s Excellent Asian Adventure
John W. Whitehead
Financial Tyranny
Ted Rall
How Society Makes Victimhood a No-Win Proposition
Jim Goodman
Stop Pretending the Estate Tax has Anything to do With Family Farmers
Thomas Klikauer
The Populism of Germany’s New Nazis
Murray Dobbin
Is Trudeau Ready for a Middle East war?
Jeiddy Martínez Armas
Firearm Democracy
Jill Richardson
Washington’s War on Poor Grad Students
Ralph Nader
The Rule of Power Over the Rule of Law
Justin O'Hagan
Capitalism Equals Peace?
Matthew Stevenson
Into Africa: From the Red Sea to Nairobi
Geoff Dutton
The Company We Sadly Keep
Evan Jones
The Censorship of Jacques Sapir, French Dissident
Linn Washington Jr.
Meek Moment Triggers Demands for Justice Reform
Gerry Brown
TPP, Indo Pacific, QUAD: What’s Next to Contain China’s Rise?
Robert Fisk
The Exile of Saad Hariri
Romana Rubeo - Ramzy Baroud
Anti-BDS Laws and Pro-Israeli Parliament: Zionist Hasbara is Winning in Italy
Robert J. Burrowes
Why are Police in the USA so Terrified?
Chuck Collins
Stop Talking About ‘Winners and Losers’ From Corporate Tax Cuts
Ron Jacobs
Private Property Does Not Equal Freedom
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail