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War at its Worst: For Esme, with Love and Squalor

(To read the entire "War at its Worst” series, please click here.) 
 
Inspired by this post over at The Red Animal Project, I re-read J.D. Salinger’s Nine Stories, and discovered his war literature.

In short, it’s amazing.

I already loved Salinger, but like Melissa Cooper, I hadn’t quite realized how deeply Salinger’s experience in World War II affected his writing. For one thing, it’s pretty clear that Salinger suffered from PTSD. (In the parlance of the time, “battle fatigue”.) If he didn’t, his characters certainly did. There’s not really much to add that Melissa Cooper or Wikipedia hasn’t already said. (Except, maybe, that Catcher in the Rye might be considered a World War II novel.)  

Instead, I will add “War at its Worst” to the mix. Unlike past “War at its Worst” posts, the “worst” in this case isn’t a besieged city, a terror stricken retreat, babies dying in a hospital, or a violent massacre of men and horses. In this case, the worst is a young man who has become “battle fatigued” (or ruined) by war. I’ll let the passages speak for themselves:

“...he was a young man who had not come through the war with all his faculties intact, and for more than an hour he had been triple-reading paragraphs, and now he was doing it to the sentences. He suddenly closed the book, without marking his place. With his hand, he shielded his eyes for a moment against the harsh, watty glare from the naked bulb over the table.

“He took a cigarette from a pack on the table and lit it with fingers that bumped gently and incessantly against one another. He sat back a trifle in his chair and smoked without any sense of taste. He had been chain-smoking for weeks. His gums bled at the slightest pressure of the tip of his tongue, and he seldom stopped experimenting; it was a little game he played, sometimes by the hour. He sat for a moment smoking and experimenting. Then, abruptly, familiarly, and, as usual, with no warning, he thought he felt his mind dislodge itself and teeter, like insecure luggage on an overhead rack. He quickly did what he had been doing for weeks to set things right: he pressed his hands hard against his temples. He held on tight for a moment...

“When he let go of his head, X began to stare at the surface of the writing table...He reached behind the debris and picked out a book that stood against the wall. It was a book by Goebbels, entitled “Die Zeit Ohne Beispiel.” It belonged to the thirty-eight-year-old, unmarried daughter of the family that, up to a few weeks earlier, had been living in the house. She had been a low official in the Nazi Party, but high enough, by Army Regulations standards, to fall into an automatic-arrest category. X himself had arrested her. Now, for the third time since he had returned from the hospital that day, he opened the woman's book and read the brief inscription on the flyleaf. Written in ink, in German, in a small, hopelessly sincere handwriting, were the words “Dear God, life is hell.” Nothing led up to or away from it. Alone on the page, and in the sickly stillness of the room, the words appeared to have the stature of an uncontestable, even classic indictment. X stared at the page for several minutes, trying, against heavy odds, not to be taken in. Then, with far more zeal than he had done anything in weeks, he picked up a pencil stub and wrote down under the inscription, in English, “Fathers and teachers, I ponder 'What is hell? I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love.” He started to write Dostoevski's name under the inscription, but saw--with fright that ran through his whole body--that what he had written was almost entirely illegible. He shut the book.”

Finally, Sergeant X reads a letter and opens a package from a young girl he met in England, before he deployed to the war. And he thinks...

“You take a really sleepy man, Esmé, and he always stands a chance of again becoming a man with all his fac — with all his f-a-c-u-l-t-i-e-s intact.”