Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Three Soldiers - John Dos Passos

Author John Dos Passos came out of World War I believing that socialism and pacifism offered the world a better way forward. He finished writing Three Soldiers in the spring of 1919, but the novel was not published until 1921. Interestingly, the 1932 Modern Library edition of the novel that I read includes an introduction dated June 1932 in which Dos Passos laments the fact that he did not “work over” the novel much more than he did before it was first published in 1921. It is obvious from the introduction that the author was a disillusioned man in 1932 but that he had not given up on changing the politics of the average American. According to him:

            “…we can at least meet events with our minds cleared of some of the romantic garbage that kept us from doing clear work then. Those of us who have lived through have seen these years strip the bunting off the great illusions of our time, we must deal with the raw structure of history now, we must deal with it quick, before it stamps us out.”

Three Soldiers follows a pattern familiar to anyone who has read even a few war novels, be those stories about WWI, WWII, or the wars in Viet Nam, Korea, Afghanistan, and Iraq. We first meet the main characters as civilians and then follow them through their military basic training, their deployment to the field, into battle, and finally, to the aftermath of their combat experiences. While Dos Passos did take this approach in Three Soldiers, there are strikingly few pages dedicated to actual battle descriptions and the like. Instead, the author focuses more on what happens to soldiers when combat ends by showing his main characters as they recuperate from their wounds in war zone hospitals. In that way, it is easy for Dos Passos to contrast the disillusioned, sometimes physically and emotionally crippled, soldiers there to the patriotic, ambitious boys they were when they eagerly joined the army to serve their country.  

John Dos Passos 1896-1970
This is not an easy novel to read, mainly because each new chapter seems to open with long, dreary descriptions of the cold, wet days that the soldiers wake up to every morning. Those descriptions help set the tone for the mental state of the author’s three soldiers (although the bulk of the novel is really about only one of them) as they finally figure out how na├»ve they have been about how the system really works. Rather than winning promotions and pay increases, they find themselves doing menial tasks and reporting to men who simply gamed the military system better than them. They get bored – and the reader starts getting bored with and for them. Perhaps that is what Dos Passos was aiming for; if so it works beautifully.

Bottom Line: Even to its last two pages, Three Soldiers is one of the most depressing war novels I’ve ever read. The argument that Dos Passos makes for socialism and pacificism is clear enough, but because the author sees everything in such black and white terms, he does not, in the long run, build a very effective case for either.

Bonus Observation: This Dos Passos quote from the 1932 introduction could have easily been written last week:
            “Certainly eighty percent of the inhabitants of the United States must read a column of print a day, if it’s only in the tabloids and the Sears Roebuck catalogue. Somehow, just as machinemade shoes aren’t as good as handmade shoes, the enormous quantity produced has resulted in diminished power in books. We’re not men enough to run the machines we’ve made.”

I can only imagine what Dos Passos would  think if he were alive today when all of us have hundreds, if not thousands, of books at our electronic fingertips twenty-four hours a day?

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