22 January 2007

The Smell of Battle

This evening I have been preparing for my class tomorrow where the assignment has been to read part of Amos Oz's How to Cure a Fanatic. So, I have been reading a bit of background on the author, including this essay by David Remnick from The New Yorker a few years back. It turns out that although he is a founding member of "Shalom Achshav—Peace Now," Oz unsurprisingly also is a veteran of the Israeli military - he did his intial service in the late 1950s but also served (and saw battle) in both the 1967 and 1973 wars. Remnick quotes Oz about why his military experience does not figure in his writing. Here is the reply:

“It is difficult for me, either in an interview or in a book, to talk about the experience of fighting,” he said. “I have never written about the battlefield, because I don’t think I could convey the experience of fighting to people who have not been on the battlefield. Battle consists first and foremost of a horrible stench. The battlefield stinks to high heaven. It’s hard to imagine the stench. This doesn’t come across even in Tolstoy or Hemingway or Remarque. This stifling mixture of burning rubber and burning metal and burning human flesh and feces, everything burning. A description of the battlefield that does not contain the stench and the fear is not sufficient. It is where everyone around you has shit their pants.”

PS: (Added 8 am EST, 12/23/07) - Clearly, if Oz is right, this poses a massive difficulty for any effort to convey the horrible reality of battle in film, let alone in photographs. While this inference is obvious to me right at the moment, it didn't occur to me last night.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

My grandfather made the same comments about the smell of war. He said that "every war has a smell, whether it’s fire or gunpowder or the smell of human bodies, it’s a smell that was like nothing else. The only men who know that smell are the men who have been in combat," and that it's one of the things about the second world war that he’ll never forget.

23 January, 2007 22:31  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Hey Natalie, thanks for the comment. I suspect that that is true. And I also suspect that among the reasons that our high administration officials are so blithely trying to send thousands more young service men and women into the Iraq war is that they have never smelled that smell themselves.

23 January, 2007 23:32  

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