Tuesday 21 August 2012

Shrapnel - William Wharton

'tales I never told'

William Wharton is best known as the author of the novel Birdy, winner of a National Book Award and later turned into a film by Alan Parker starring Nicholas Cage (back when he used to do proper acting) and Matthew Modine (two other novels of his were subsequently filmed - Dad and A Midnight Clear - both starring Jack Lemmon). It is hard to get much biographical information about the man himself, I have only just learned for instance that his real name is Albert William Du Aime, but it has often been assumed that his novels are partly autobiographical. One quirk of his writing career was an unusual popularity in Poland which lead to many books being published only in that language (including a sequel to Birdy). One of those was this memoir which has now been published in English thanks to The Friday Project. Many of those who served in the Second World War (and indeed in any conflict) came home with experiences and memories that they had little wish to share despite the frequent enquiries of their families and loved ones. Wharton was no different. Having volunteered to fight in that war and eventually come home injured after the Battle of the Bulge he kept many of his experiences a secret until he finally felt compelled to put them down on paper. What he produced was one of the most refreshingly honest accounts of war I have read, written with a deceptively light touch that still manages to make an impact. There is a feeling throughout of a man who can't quite believe that he is being asked to do what he does, or that he continues to find himself in a position to be asked.

One evening in New York I had dinner with Kurt Vonnegut. He asked me, 'How was your war?" I flippantly responded by recounting the number of court martials in which I had been involved. It was not a good answer. 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.
It was not a pleasant experience writing this book either. When dug up, the buried guilts of youth smell of dirty rags and old blood. There are many things that happened to me, and because of me, of which I am not proud, events impossible to defend now: callousness, cowardice, cupidity, deception. I did not tell these stories to my children. My ego wasn't strong enough to handle it then, perhaps it isn't even now, when I'm over seventy years old. We shall see.

That extract comes near the beginning of the book, a confession of sorts, and a neat precis of what is to come. In short chapters Wharton takes us from basic training through to his homecoming after victory and his almost anecdotal form makes the book engaging and compelling from first page to last. It is shot through with that humour that comes from those that survive by the narrowest of margins and are then able to look back on the absurdities of war. We meet an early draftee who uses his college education to get out of the army, not by avoiding the draft but by repeatedly and methodically urinating on his mattress (with the aid of an alarm clock) to gain a diagnosis of enuresis and an honourable discharge. We see how Wharton and many of his colleagues look for any opportunity to make their lives easier and, the ultimate goal, to get out of fighting altogether. Trench foot provides one of those avenues, the prospect of a few toes being lopped off 'a small price to pay if we get to snuggle into a warm cosy hospital bed, miles away from this insane scene, and more importantly, have a chance to live.'

This war to me is something like whooping cough or measles you try to get through, or maybe more like chicken pox where you aren't supposed to scratch or you'll have big craters all over your face and body. I'm trying my damnedest not to scratch.

Wharton by his own admission is a bit of a coward ("the difference between being scared and being a coward is having other people find out.") but he also acts with remarkable relaxation in some of the most extreme circumstances. In one of his first actions of the war he is selected for a mission that sees him parachuted behind enemy lines on his own to deliver a radio to the French resistance, a suicidal mission that he somehow survives, setting the tone for several close escapes in the future, and one of many examples of ways in which those in command are happy to send soldiers on patrols and missions that will almost certainly end in their deaths.

Death of course makes many an appearance, as much in those instances when soldiers narrowly escape it as when they finally succumb. Wharton finds an entirely fresh perspective on it when he is reunited briefly with the man who had been the school bully responsible for flushing his head down the toilet.

It's a terrible shock to see someone who's been such a menace in your childhood... who took so much joy from your life, lying there empty, bloody, spattered with dirt particles and shrapnel pitted into his skin... Some things are hard to live past.

Wharton's honesty is particularly powerful when he opens out from his own personal failings to those of the liberating forces as a whole. He and we become witnesses to the terrible behaviour of military force, to the things you might expect from conquests of the past like rape and pillage. The Russians may have been cast as the villains by the American top brass but Wharton is clear that the behaviour of American troops was just as bad. He himself stole gemstones from jewellery, gradually building up a substantial nest-egg which he hides in a German gas mask ready for the time when victory sends them home. His plan is only foiled by an extraordinary attack on their camp from a group of Hitler Youth. But what the book is always building towards is an incident in which he reports a massacre by their own troops - '...a really bad way to end a war. If there's a good way to end a war I don't know what it is, but this was a bad way to end one.' It is an episode that forces Wharton to examine his personal morality and despite having described himself as 'sort of an incipient psychopath, or at least, a misanthrope' it yet again places him in opposition to those in authority.

That opposition is probably what saved his ego when writing this memoir. Always the first to point out his own weaknesses and failings he is also careful to portray those in command as either weak, misguided or ultimately cruel, with a total disregard for the lives of the men underneath them. Wharton's occasional connections with those around him belie his casting as misanthrope, he may be ashamed of his conduct in war but there are moments of atonement. At the end of it all however it is his frankness and ability to hold up his hands that not only saves his telling but makes it such an interesting story.


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