World War I: Fragging Officers and PTSD?

The sequel to my historical novel, The Lincoln Deceptionis set at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919.  Accordingly, I’ve been doing some considerable reading about World War I and the peace treaty that proved to be “The Peace to End All Peace,” as some have it.  Recent forays into two American novels about The Great War have proved fascinating and surprising.

In Three Soldiers  (1921), John Dos Passos drew on his own extensive experience of the war.  In 1917-18, he drove an ambulance in Northern Italy and then in Paris.  His novel is unreservedly antiwar and steeped in a matter-of-fact social realism combined with the occasional romantic over-writing of a young man.  (Dos Passos was 25 when the book was published.)

John Dos Passos

John Dos Passos

Early passages in Three Soldiers record the dehumanizing nature of military training.  I found he had violated Stallard’s First Law of Fiction:  that the greatest risk in portraying a boring situation is that you will succeed, thereby boring the pants off the reader.  [Credit to Wayland Stallard.]  Happily, things heat up when his characters near the battlefield, but no one is allowed to be heroic in the world of Dos Passos.  Battle sequences are phantasmagoric, unreal, and largely bereft of opposing soldiers, though there’s plenty of fear, disorientation, and hostile artillery bombardment.  The core of the book, it seemed to me, was the American soldiers’ experience of France — French culture, French people, and the brutal losses endured by the French, who had the entire bloody mess in their front parlors for four-plus years.

It’s not a great book, but a powerful one well worth reading.  For me, the shocking part occurs during a battle when one of the three featured soldiers stumbles upon an American officer he has not liked throughout the book.  The officer, wounded, asks for help.  No one else is around.  The soldier lobs a grenade at him and blows him up.

Wow.  This was 1921!  My own coming of age coincided with the Vietnam War, which I did not experience due to a high lottery number in the draft.  During that war, I was fascinated by reports of “fragging” of American officers and sergeants by their own soldiers; tossing fragmentation hand grenades into the officer’s sleeping quarters.  It seemed a shocking measure of the unwisdom of that war, the alienation of the men supposed to fight it, and (possibly) the inexperience of Army leaders.

It turns out that such incidents have been documented back into the early 1700s, though pretty rarely.  Soldiers, after all, are armed and have been trained to use weapons.  They can certainly turn those weapons on their own leaders — e.g., the Russian Revolution of 1918.  By including such an episode in Three Soldiers, involving true blue Americans, Dos Passos assured the controversy that his book ignited.

Willa Cather

Willa Cather

Willa Cather won the 1923 Pulitzer Prize for Literature for her World War I novel, One of Ours.  As a huge fan of her My Antoniaand a considerably smaller fan of Death Comes for the ArchibishopI was intrigued that she had won a big prize for a novel I had never heard of.

Her experience of the war had to be very different from that of Dos Passos.  When America entered the contest, she was 44, an established novelist and managing editor of McClure’s Magazine in New York.  As near as I can tell, she stayed in America during World War I, but traveled to France in 1920 and toured battlefields from the war.

Perhaps not surprisingly, most of One of Ours doesn’t involve service in the army, but rather concerns a coming-of-age on the Nebraska Plains.  The hero, Claude Wheeler, feels and understands more than the wooden-headed and wooden-hearted farmers all around him.  Naturally enough, such a sensitive flower of a person makes a hash of his life.  He fails to finish college, slinks back to the family farm, and marries a really wrong woman.  I was psychically screaming “No, No” at Claude at several parts of the book.  Nebraska farms are familiar territory for Cather, and her characters and setting are compelling and engaging.

When Claude finally gets into the war, he blossoms.  Like Dos Passos, Cather emphasizes the impact on American soldiers of an extended exposure to France, French people, and an entirely different culture.  When Claude finally dies in action — that disclosure doesn’t spoil the book for you, believe me, because it’s crystal clear throughout the book that Claude’s not going to survive the novel — his death is both heroic and meaningful.  In short, it’s the sort of borderline sappy, sentimentalized battlefield death scene that would have caused Dos Passos to reach for his revolver.

BUT, then Cather threw me a curve.  The novel wraps up with a brisk review of how the home folks deal with Claude’s death, and adds this amazing (to me) passage on what we now would call PTSD.  Claude’s mother thinks:

One by one the heroes of that war, the men of dazzling soldiership, leave prematurely the world they have come back to.  Airmen whose deeds were tales of wonder, officers whose names  made the blood of youth beat faster, survivors of incredible dangers — one by one they quietly die by their own hand.  Some do it in obscure lodging houses, some in their office, where they seem to be carrying on their business like other men.  Some slip over a vessel’s side and disappear into the sea.”

Cather completely blindsided me with that unsentimental look at the mental and emotional toll of war.  Of course, “shell shock” was widely known during and after World War I, and certainly described what we now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  And soldier breakdowns under the stresses of war have always been known.  But Cather gets full marks for recognizing it.

Interesting books.  Worth a lo0k.


  1. James McGrath Morris on May 22, 2014 at 7:04 am

    You are right about identifying the stunning moment in Three Soldiers. It is amazing. While the book may no longer appeal to tastes today there is one group to whom it resonates. I met a veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. When I mentioned Dos Passos, he immediately said “Three Soldiers.” It turns out that he and his colleagues had all read it.
    Willa Cather’s book is terrific. I loved it but had forgotten the section you quoted.

    • David Stewart on May 22, 2014 at 7:49 am

      I’m impressed that current soldiers admire the Dos Passos book, which very much takes the few of the citizen-draftee, not a professional soldier.

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