[The Montana Professor 19.1, Fall 2008 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

A Life Disturbed: My Pacific War Revisited

Merrel Clubb
Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2005
240 pp., $24.95 hc

Keith Edgerton

World War II veterans are dying at a rate of nearly 1,000 per day. Thus every story these vets leave behind, particularly if rooted fundamentally in primary source documentation, becomes an increasingly important and potentially instructive historic artifact, especially to a generation facing its own on-going war in the Middle East. Moreover, within the last decade, this World War II cohort has been understandably lionized by politicians; the surviving veterans themselves; even by professional historians of wide popular appeal such as Stephen Ambrose; cultural luminaries such as Tom Brokaw in his immensely popular work, The Greatest Generation; and within just the last year by filmmaker Ken Burns in his predictably celebratory 15-hour PBS documentary on World War II, The War. The public continues to venerate this war and usually contrasts it, "the good war," with our less popular subsequent forays into Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq. Yet despite the favorable epithet, the historical record incontrovertibly reveals that during World War II the American military targeted civilians, tortured and killed prisoners, and generally engaged in the type of random brutality associated with those more recent wars. War, as William Tecumseh Sherman famously said, "is all hell."

For many reasons, a more critical perspective has long been muted. Recently, scholars (and a handful of veterans that includes Merrel Clubb, in this work) have painstakingly begun reassessing elements of America's involvement. As the war recedes deeper into the American past, a new generation of historians is reexamining nearly every aspect of our involvement: from FDR's actions ramping up to Pearl Harbor to Truman's decision to drop the two atom bombs on Japan. To see how far the increasingly critical (some might even say jaundiced) collective examination has penetrated into popular culture, one need look no farther than Hollywood's investment in director Clint Eastwood's two recent big budget award-winning films, Flags of our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima. Each questioned the foundation of the patriotic fervor motivating both sides in the slaughter pen of Iwo Jima in February and March of 1945. Even to present a wholly Japanese perspective to mainstream American culture (as was the case with Letters from Iwo Jima) is history-making in and of itself.

Merrel Clubb, a naval officer during the war and later a University of Montana professor of English, offers his own sobering variant on the long-lived celebration of this "good war" with his A Life Disturbed. The bulk of this work is a series of letters Clubb wrote home to his parents between 1942 and 1946 from bases up and down the West Coast and Honolulu, and from the combat areas of the Aleutian Islands, Guam, Makin, and Iwo Jima. The letters tell of the home front in small-town Oklahoma, his evaluation of serious literature in which he was then immersed (his father was a Yale-trained English professor), comrades in arms, battles to which he was eyewitness (Clubb served as a forward observer, directing naval gunfire at Japanese targets), lovers—including a long romance with a San Diego prostitute, Shirley—a bout with venereal disease, partying, and generally the free-wheeling, roistering life of a young, unattached man during one of the great events of world history.

The letters themselves are intriguing glimpses into the unfolding of the war and while not literary masterpieces by any means, they were written by a young man with some college education under his belt who even at a young age was intensely introspective and well-read. Throughout this retrospective account, Clubb offers extensive exegesis and context to the letters and, more important, he unflinchingly and honestly assesses the impact the war had on him as he reflects. Readers may find the most important section of the book the concluding one, entitled "Sixty Years After."

Clubb does not pull punches and wonders, in this extended philosophical inquiry, whether or how the war changed the direction of his life and whether his unquestioned assessment of the war for so many years was accurate. At heart, this is an intensely personal memoir, replete with uninhibited and honest self-examination. He in no way glorifies his experience nor is this an apologia for the killing in which he was a key player. One is reminded of some of the World War I battlefront poetry of the British officer, Wilfred Owens, particularly "Dulce Et Decorum Est," where Owens described the gruesome, sickly death of young men from poison gas while questioning the "old lie" of sending young men to die for a supposed noble cause. Clubb similarly describes the obscenity of war matter of factly in one of his letters from Guam in the summer of 1944:

Beside one blockhouse I came upon 11 dead Japanese: one without a head, another with his guts spilled out in his hands, another with a foot and an arm blow off, another with an empty skull, another with no marks except a small hole over his ear. All of their clothes had been blown off. I stood looking at the heap of clay when the thought came to me that I should be sick at my stomach, but I pushed it out of my mind. (117)

Later he provides an account of servicemen cutting out the gold from Japanese soldiers' teeth.

Unlike many young Americans in the wake of Pearl Harbor, Clubb was at best an ambivalent participant (though the reluctance may have been more deeply entrenched and shared by a greater number of American youth than we may have been led to believe). As a 20-year-old, he did not race to the recruiting office in the fevered early days of the war. He enjoyed a rather mundane life as a college student in Stillwater, Oklahoma, and he was hard pressed to summon up any passion for going to war similar to that which his friends expressed. His professor father wanted him to be a conscientious objector. Ultimately, after a bit of soul-searching, the young Clubb demurred and reluctantly enlisted in the Navy, not wanting any part of the trench warfare which Remarque had described so graphically to his generation in the seminal All Quiet on the Western Front.

Occasionally Clubb's work is digressive and repetitive; it is also lacks an index. Further, it is not a comprehensive account of his experiences, as he presents only letters he wrote home during the conflict; the letters from his parents and from others to him, in addition to other war ephemera, were burned in a moving van fire in 1946. Yet it provides a rare balanced (even critical) view of the United States and its soldiers and sailors by a participant. Interestingly, Clubb likens his role in the war to that of the prostitute he befriended in San Diego near the end of the conflict:

I am not particularly proud of participating in World War II; it was something I could not escape. I now see my life in San Diego, and especially my life with Shirley the prostitute, as a fitting end to my war. I see her life as a metaphor of my wartime experience: for three years, I had been living in a demimonde by rules that differed from those in the society in which I was brought up; I had been prostituting myself for a government pimp. (186)

Clubb simply doesn't understand how other World War II veterans can stomach glamorizing and romanticizing their participation. He writes, "I wonder, too, how it could be a war to be proud of, a war that led to the slaughter of 400,000 Americans over almost four years, not to mention the deaths of millions of other people throughout the war" (188). Nor, he notes, was the war "a transcendent experience.... Although I at times romanticize some of my wartime experiences, I can neither sentimentalize the war nor glorify it. It was not the high point of my life; it was only one major experience among many" (189). Yet it undoubtedly made a huge impression on him, as it does with anyone who lives through such an extended, intense set of emotional and psychological experiences. "In a perverse kind of way, I enjoyed the thrills of amphibious landings, the sounds of battle, the daily life during a campaign, the danger, even the fear at times. War is a time of freedom from the constraints of civilized society, freedom to lie, cheat, steal, kill" (222).

Clubb saves his most savage criticism for the American government (particularly the Truman administration) and the World War II veterans today who continue to support the decision to drop the atom bombs on Japan in August of 1945. Buttressed by a bevy of recent historical scholarship which refutes the myth that an American invasion of the Japanese islands would have cost upwards of a million American casualties and that supports the notion that a tottering Japan was within a few weeks of collapse prior to the dropping of the two bombs, Clubb, reflecting sixty years after the fact, simply finds those who continue to cling to the perception that the bombs were necessary to bring a conclusion to the war naïve at best, grossly ignorant at worst. "I find such willed ignorance incomprehensible," he writes (210).

It remains to be seen, as his generation rapidly fades into the annals of history, whether still more damning and critical first-hand accounts such as Clubb's come forth. Clubb, himself, is doubtful. While the war may have "disturbed" the life that he was leading at the time, it did not come to define him, as war seems to do to so many of the young who are touched by it throughout history. As he writes in his conclusion,

Many veterans...have a vested interest in their war and their illusions about that war, especially about the way it ended. Those who were disfigured in some way, those who see their experience during the war as the high point of their lives and everything after as anticlimactic, those who still insist with closed minds that atomic bombs were necessary to end World War II—in spite of all the evidence against the myth—have, to a degree, defined their lives in terms of the war and the way it ended; to deny in any way the validity of that war or to deny the validity of the way it ended would be to deny a part of themselves, to recognize that their wartime lives were, at least in part, wrong, mistaken, wasted. (212)

Clearly, Clubb's life has not been wasted, and in the wake of our current Middle-Eastern conflicts, his is a timely memoir. As he writes near the conclusion, "We Americans still think it is necessary to mythologize our past, to ignore many of the evils in our past, in order to legitimize our present and our 'greatness'" (214). As an historian, I often ask my students what they believe is the value of history. Most of them rely on Santayana's famous maxim: "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Unfortunately, few of today's generation, I suspect, will read Clubb's incisive and honest reflections about his experiences during this now distant war and how it disturbed his life. As he did, we have to learn a harder way.

[The Montana Professor 19.1, Fall 2008 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

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