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Fred's war

A 40-year-old novel asks unnervingly relevant questions about soldiers in the moral chaos of war.
By Barbara W. Carlson
Winter 2005 11.1.05

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World War II photo

An image from Fred Keefe's World War II scrapbook. (Courtesy Shoreline UU Society)

It hadn’t occurred to me to look for a World War II novel to try to find meaning in the bloody chaos of the war in Iraq. It happened by chance. Fred Keefe, a member of our Unitarian Universalist church in Madison, Connecticut, died last year, and it was then I learned that he had written The Investigating Officer, a war novel that was a best seller when it was published in 1966. I decided to read it because I was intrigued by the reviews I found, and also because I wanted to learn more about this quiet, gentle man. I knew he had been a writer and editor on The New Yorker, and we had talked about someone on the magazine whom we both knew, and he seemed to me to have an uncommon awareness--but I hadn’t really known him. It turned out that few people really knew him, knew him intimately.

At any rate, I read the novel. Its setting is Austria a few weeks after V-E Day: The shooting in Europe is over and the allied forces are raggedly governing crushed people. The novel pivots on the killing of two German prisoners of war by an American lieutenant--an incident based, an author’s note tells us, on an actual event. The investigating officer, Capt. Thomas Rankin, is charged with interviewing witnesses to determine whether a court martial for murder is justified, or if the prisoners were shot while trying to escape.

I was midway through the book--at the same time, reading the papers, watching TV and seeing, actually seeing on television, a wounded Iraqi shot by an American soldier in a mosque--when I began having the unsettling sensation that I was familiar with its characters and happenings. It seemed as though I was reading about Iraq. I was overlaying the war news from Iraq on the book, and I found the parallels between The Investigating Officer and the daily headlines inescapable: the chaos then and now, the tensions between occupied country and occupiers, the shootings--murders--of “the enemy.”

Fred had lived what he wrote about. He was a captain in the armored artillery, and when the war ended in Europe he served as the provisional military officer--in effect, the commander--of three occupied towns in Austria.

Since his death, at age 89, our church has received two photo albums, a scrapbook, and a journal that Fred left. They’re a keyhole to a part of his life--in one album, we see Fred in uniform, leaning against a jeep, with the tentative and rather wistful smile that was so typical of him; soldiers playing cards; a tank beside a flaming hulk of a building; soldiers cradling their rifles as they advance through a smoky field toward a village. There’s a lovely photo of mountains rising on the shore of a dark, still lake, and there are terrible scenes, unbearable to look at, of concentration camp survivors, and corpses. In the journal and the novel, Fred tells in similar stark sentences of the horror of the soldiers seeing Dachau survivors, and of the division commander saying over the intercom, forgetting that it was open, “Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God.”

Fred didn’t talk about his war. In his scrapbook is an interview after the publication of the book that quotes him as saying, “Killing became routine with us, and what horrified me at the beginning left me completely unmoved at the end. I was shocked at the way all of us, myself included, came to take killing for granted.”

We didn’t know this about Fred. Most of us didn’t know about the novel and about the stories he had written with war settings. We knew the obvious facts of his life: that Fred had a long relationship with his late life partner, Don Gregory; that he wrote plays performed as church services (about UU historical figures and about issues--homelessness, censorship, bigotry); that he was “concerned about the growing disparity between rich and poor” and was “very antiwar” (as the Rev. Robert C. Swain, our minister when Fred was active in the church, remembers); that in discussing bigotry “his face would sort of darken, and then he would snap himself out of it, give a laugh and go on to something else” (as a member of our congregation recalls); that there was a hint that there were amazing depths to the man, but there was always the underlying twinkle in his eye” (as another congregation member says); that he cared enough about our congregation in Connecticut and about his winter church in Florida to leave significant bequests to both. His ashes, and those of his partner, are interred in our church memorial garden.

As I read The Investigating Officer, I kept wishing I’d had a chance to talk to Fred about the characters, about those confused and haunting days in Austria, about the combat troops who have an unmistakable look: A nurse in the novel says: “It’s easy to spot the combat look in the hospital. Once you’ve seen it, you can always recognize it.”

I would like to have asked Fred, How do you learn to feel again? How do you come back from that other world to a quieter world? How did war change you? So many questions, and none of them would have suggested what I might really want to know--Who were you then, in war? Who are you now? In the end, there probably wasn’t much more he could have told me about his war, or about Iraq or any war. It’s all there in his book, and in today’s headlines.

In The Investigating Officer, the Germans killed were former officers of the SS, the elite and brutal Schutzstaffel “protective squadron.” Captain Rankin asks a sergeant if the SS men are treated differently from other prisoners. The sergeant says, “You bet your sweet life they are, Captain. They’re the real tough babies, the cream of the crop. They’re the ones who gave us the hardest time in combat, so they get special handling further up the line.”

Special handling. We’ve seen that. In the narrow, fear-filled streets of Iraqi cities. At Bagram in Afghanistan. At Abu Ghraib. At Guantanamo. We’ve read that the military is investigating twenty-six deaths of prisoners in U.S. custody in Iraq and Afghanistan as homicides. And we’ve heard soldiers accused of abuse say they were obeying their commanders.

A theme of The Investigating Officer is the influence of officers on the men serving under them. Maj. Gen. John B. Ganlon, the former commanding officer of the 115th Infantry, the novel’s fictional division, has been transferred to Asia, but his felt presence is an ominous leitmotif. He’s flamboyant, charismatic.

Capt. Rankin is new to the division and hasn’t known Ganlon. He is shown a film of the general addressing the men of the 115th Infantry at the end of their first year of training. The general is telling the men that “tyranny was once again rampant and . . . the United States had taken its place beside the embattled democracies of Europe and would be there until the finish.” The book’s narrative continues:

Here the general paused, and the camera closed in on his tanned, defiant face. . . . There was a moment of absolute stillness, and then the eyes widened, the lips parted, and a pointing index finger jabbed at the air. “And I want every goddam one of you to be there at the finish!”--the voice split the silence in a fierce bellow. . . .

“You’re going to shoot until shooting becomes a reflex action. You’re going to learn to kill--to kill for the joy of killing--because that’s the way the world is right now, and that’s the way it’s going to be for a long while to come.” He stepped back to the rostrum and leaned over it solemnly, clenching its edges with both hands. “Yes, men, that’s the way it’s going to be for a long while to come. . . . There are killers--and there are corpses.” A brief pause followed, a tense hush. Then, like a cobra striking, he thrust his head forward over the rostrum and snarled, “And, by God, you’re going to be killers!”

For the reader today, questions hang in the air--what happens to soldiers taught, by God, to be killers? What is the responsibility of a commander when a soldier shoots an unarmed “haji” (the dehumanized enemy who was a “kraut” in World War II, a “gook” in Korea and Vietnam)?

The oratory of the fictional Gen. Ganlon is startling. But then last February, newspapers carried a story about Lt. Gen. James N. Mattis, who commanded the First Marine Division in the 2003 Iraq invasion, and who is, said The New York Times, “a revered figure among marines for his fierce demeanor and warrior ethos.” He was in the news because he had said,

“Actually, it’s a lot of fun to fight. You know, it’s a hell of a hoot. It’s fun to shoot some people. I’ll be right upfront with you, I like brawling.

“You go into Afghanistan, you got guys who slap women around for five years because they didn’t wear a veil. You know, guys like that ain’t got no manhood left anyway. So it’s a hell of a lot of fun to shoot them.”

When asked about Mattis’s comments, his fellow Marine, Maj. Gen. Peter Pace, now chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that when Mattis led his division in Iraq “his actions and those of his troops clearly show that he understands the value of proper leadership and the value of human life.”

Key characters in The Investigating Officer are Rankin, the investigating officer; First Lt. Floyd Maddox, the much-decorated hero who shot the German prisoners; and Dr. Otto Wernath, an elderly Austrian interpreter at division headquarters.

When Rankin is first questioning Maddox, we get a glimpse of Maddox’s conflicted emotions. Rankin asks if there was anything about the prisoners’ behavior that indicated they would escape.

Rankin put the question matter-of-factly. . . . He hadn’t intended the query as one designed to trick the lieutenant, and it was only when the silence grew prolonged that he raised his head.

Lieutenant Maddox was looking at him with undisguised hostility, his eyes drawn inward, his lips tightly compressed. . . . [F]or an instant Rankin had an inkling of the potential fury that lay behind the boyishly likable face.

Another glimpse: Lt. Garnes, a nurse who was breaking off her engagement to Maddox, talks to a colonel about the night before the shooting:

“I told [Maddox] it was definitely over. The end. . . . When he finally got it through his head that I really meant it he looked at me in a funny kind of way and said, ‘Is it because I’m not a hero anymore, Liz? . . . During combat, you liked me well enough. You liked having a great big hero all to yourself, didn’t you? . . . How about it, Liz? Do you want me to go out and kill a few more krauts for you? Would you fall for me again if I did?’ . . .

“It wasn’t what he said so much, Gus. It was the way he looked. . . . He acted awfully strange, somehow. As if he was seeing everything from a great distance and doing everything in slow motion. I’d never seen him like that before.”

A day into Rankin’s investigation, Dr. Wernath, the interpreter, invites Rankin to his apartment. They talk, obliquely, about the investigation.

Dr. Wernath studied Rankin compassionately before going on. “How do you feel, Captain, about one person taking the life of another? . . . Now and then, I think it is important to examine the morality of a problem, to turn it inside out”--here he made a clumsy scooping gesture with one hand--“to find out, if such a thing is possible, precisely where what is right becomes what is wrong. . . . It is something we must decide at one time or another. Is it not so?”

“Yes, I suppose it is,” Rankin said. . . . “There are times when it is necessary to take a life in order to save others.”

“Or oneself.” The doctor took a sip of brandy. . . .

[Rankin said:] “In a war, of course, it is different. Then, men are under orders to kill.”

“Ah, yes. That makes a difference. In such cases, then, do you agree that killing is justified? That no blame is attached?” The old man seemed to be having difficulty seeing Rankin, and his voice had turned thick again and unnecessarily loud.

“I can’t speak for myself,” Rankin answered quietly. “I’ve never killed anyone in combat. But I’ve been told that for most soldiers the feeling of blame is remote. It lies somewhere outside themselves.”

Today in Iraq soldiers are being charged with murder. The details of the charges become numbing after a time; there is a sameness in the fury of their acts and in their lawyers’ comments--that the soldiers were heroic, like Maddox; that they had lost comrades in the fighting; that they were in the thick of a confusing, lawless war.

Incidents from the Iraq war:

  • Second Lt. Ilario Pantano, a Marine, was cleared of charges of murder in a pre-trial hearing. The prosecution said that in a raid north of Baghdad, Pantano ordered two suspected insurgents to search their car (to show there were no booby traps--although the car had already been searched), then shot them in the back more than fifty times and placed a sign over their bodies, “No better friend, no worse enemy”--the Marine motto coined by Gen. Mattis. Pantano said he shot the men because they made threatening moves; he said the fusillade and the sign were intended to “send a message.”
  • First Lt. Jack Saville, a West Point graduate, was found guilty of forcing two curfew violators to jump into the Tigris River at gunpoint; prosecutors said one of the men drowned. Saville was sentenced to forty-five days in military prison and forfeiture of $2,000 of his military salary each month for six months, and it was recommended that he be discharged from the Army. Before sentencing, Saville apologized, said his poor decisions “adversely affected U.S.-Iraqi trust,” and said God had forgiven him. He was also convicted of a lesser assault charge for doing nothing to prevent another Iraqi from being forced into the river in Balad. A witness said that before the Balad incident Saville laughed and said it was part of a bet with another platoon over who would do such a thing first.
  • The Marine accused of shooting and killing a wounded Iraqi in a mosque was acquitted; a sergeant convicted of murder for shooting a wounded teenager was sentenced to three years in prison; four soldiers have been accused of murdering four Iraqis--one of them a man riding in the back of a garbage truck whose driver was assigned to clean the streets.
  • Cpl. Dustin Berg, a National Guardsman from a farm town in Indiana, shot and killed an Iraqi police officer and then shot himself in the stomach to forestall an investigation; he said he feared for his life when he shot the Iraqi. He was sentenced to eighteen months in prison and a bad conduct discharge from the Army. At his trial, he said, “You can’t explain what it does to you when you take somebody else’s life. There is no punishment, there is nothing anybody can do that can take away the nightmares that come every night when I lay my head down to go to bed.”

It is a searing scene--an officers’ party, where the officers are drinking heavily, and a Capt. Pelletier is telling about rounding up German prisoners after concentration camps had been liberated. He says,

“[F]rom where we were waiting in the field we could see the concentration-camp prisoners we’d released straggling along to the rear. . . . We’d captured quite a few German soldiers by this time, and the men kept bringing them in to me for the routine search before they were sent down the road to the rear of the column. Only this time they never got to the rear. . . . They were what those concentration-camp men were waiting for.” Captain Pelletier stopped to take a sip of cognac. . . .

“What they’d do,” Captain Pelletier went on with glassy-eyed, dogged fluency, “was to gang up and pick off the German soldiers as they left the field. . . . Some of them they killed with rocks, some they jumped on and strangled. . . . There was one German I remember--a big, good-looking bastard over six feet tall. They didn’t try to jump him because he was too big, and the rocks they hit him with just seemed to bounce off. . . . [H]e went about a hundred yards along the road before he stumbled and fell down. Right away a man who’d been sitting on the edge of the road waiting got up and ran in on him. He was carrying a big fencepost over one shoulder, and he whammed it down on the soldier’s head. . . . No one said a word. . . . [W]e didn’t do a thing about it. We didn’t want to. . . . And when it was finally over, after they’d pulled the soldier’s arm clear off his body . . . --even then I wasn’t thinking what a terrible thing it was I’d witnessed. You know what I was thinking? I was thinking how goddam long it takes to beat the life out of a human being.” By the time he had finished speaking, Captain Pelletier . . . had withdrawn into some private world where pain and guilt and loyalty were hopelessly interlocked.

[Rankin] wanted to say something . . . although he realized that Captain Abrams and Captain Pelletier neither expected it nor thought it necessary. . . . They knew that he knew what they were trying to tell him: that you can become immune to violence and murder, so totally immune that it is possible for the death of two more men to have no impact or meaning.

In this same terrible drunken party, the military government officer, Maj. Berringer, is talking with Rankin. Berringer tells about a disheveled girl screaming that a soldier had raped her. But it turned out it wasn’t the rape she wanted to report--the soldier had stolen her wristwatch and she wanted it back.

Tilting his head to one shoulder, the major roared with laughter. “Oh Lord, Lord,” he moaned. . . .

Rankin started laughing . . . and as he laughed he realized he couldn’t tell what was funny and what was tragic any more. The line between the two had dissolved.

Major Berringer sat up abruptly in his chair. Like a window slamming shut, his lean jaw dropped into its familiar strained lines. “How do you start making things right, Captain?” he demanded, turning to Rankin. “Tell me, where in the name of God do you begin?” His voice was full of fire, and his eyes burned like live coals, but his face had the cold, waxen look of death.

The Investigating Officer did not tell me why a decent man shoots an unarmed Iraqi in his home or a helper on an authorized garbage truck--only that these things happen in war. But Fred’s novel, which became as real to me as the news from Iraq, did--fiercely--show me the meaning of the war in Iraq and other wars: that they are the same, that people taught to kill will kill, that too much death and fear and too many torn bodies become, after a while, meaningless.

And it made me ask, what would anybody do? What would I do? I have never had a gun pointed at me, I’ve never been in a war; I have just a few memories of the tangential fringes of war, when I was a reporter from Connecticut on assignment in Israel. The memories that seem to stay with me are pictures of emptiness--not the picture of ragged soldiers with dirty bandages swathing their heads, not the smell of a dead donkey under a grape arbor--just emptiness.

In 1967, just after the Six-Day War in the Middle East, I was driving on the road that stretched along the top of the Sinai. South of the road was desert--nothingness, not even birds; to the north of the road was a railroad track and the twisted, charred wreckage of a train; and between the railroad and this road were boots. At intervals, soldiers’ boots. About an hour along this empty desert road, in the sand, the body of an Egyptian soldier, a corpse, swelling in the sun, the buttons on the uniform shirt pulled tight against the bloated body. Farther on, a couple of other bodies. Years later, I had a strange Daliesque dream of bodies scattered in a bleak landscape--the Sinai.

In The Investigating Officer, an Austrian woman who is a translator for the Americans tells of her parents being killed in a bombing raid. The planes were Russian, but, she says, “It does not matter. In a war, what difference does it make who kills, or who is killed? . . . I felt no great shock when they were killed, no sadness. It is true. I felt nothing. . . . It is a terrible thing not to feel. . . . Yes. It is the worst thing of all.”

The numbness, emptiness, annihilation. The annihilation of cities and homes, families, the capacity to feel. The sense of “not feeling” pervades Fred’s book and leaves a heavy sorrow that recalls yesterday’s headlines--and 1967. If I can’t forget, after so long, the emptiness of the Sinai, a mundane scene, really, where I was only an observer--what is it like for the soldiers who are afraid? Who are shot at? Who live in fear and fatigue and fury day in, day out? Who know they may be killed tomorrow--or may have to kill?

Isn’t it time we all began to understand that all wars are the same, that the chaos and killing and vengeance and fear drive out the good in people--and leave nothingness? And how do you annihilate nothingness? “Tell me,” said Maj. Berringer, “where in the name of God do you begin?”

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