One Man’s Initiation–1917 by John Dos Passos

I was planning on beginning my reading for War Through the Generation’s WWI reading challenge with Three Soldiers by John Dos Passos, but then came across his novel One Man’s Initiation–1917 on Project Gutenberg. I started reading it and couldn’t stop. As a rule, I’m not into slamming one writer or genre for the sake of another, but One Man’s Initiation–1917 makes Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms look like chick lit. (I like Hemingway but he was snarky about Willa Cather’s Pulitzer winning WWI novel One of Ours, so I owe him one.)

Like Hemingway, Dos Passos was a volunteer ambulance driver in World War I. One Man’s Initiation–1917 was first published in London in 1920. It was republished in 1945 as First Encounter. 

One Man’s Initiation–1917 is the story of Marin Howe, an American volunteer ambulance driver in France during the Great War. It is more a collection of short vignettes and images rather than a neatly woven narrative and has been called an impressionistic novel. It is very short, more of a novella, but powerful precisely because of it’s form and style.

It begins on a dock next to a ship that’s getting ready to leave for France. It’s a party scene: a band plays a “tinselly Hawaiian tune,” people are dancing between the baggage, there’s a scattering of uniforms, young men stand around in groups laughing, “talking in voices pitched shrill with excitement,” women wear gay dresses, colored hats, and carry white handkerchiefs.

The party continues during the crossing and in Paris. One group of American guys stay drunk and raise hell to the point that they’re sent back to the States. There’s also much talk about French women and how there are houses in France where, it’s implied, a man can buy sex. One guy says, “Gee, these Frenchwomen are immoral. They say the war does it.” To which another guy replies, “Can’t be that. Nothing is more purifying than sacrifice.” Martin Howe, on the other hand, gets his first close-up look at the price of war as he sits in an outdoor cafe:

“As he stared in front of him two figures crossed his field of vision. A woman swathed in black crepe veils was helping a soldier to a seat at the next table. He found himself staring in a face, a face that still had some of the chubbiness of boyhood. Between the pale-brown frightened eyes, where the nose should have been, was a triangular black patch that ended in some mechanical contrivance with shiny little black metal rods that took the place of the jaw. He could not take his eyes from the soldier’s eyes, that were like those of a hurt animal, full of meek dismay.”

Martin is soon at the front. He waits around for casualty calls, endures bombings, tries to avoid shrapnel, picks up the blown apart bodies of young men, and navigates roads jammed with convoys, troops, and dying horses and mules. The stupidity of the war, particularly stagnant trench warfare, is soon made evident. The trenches had long been established and the war had become somewhat routine, yet also still random. Artillery is lobbed back and forth like shuttlecocks, men endure direct gas attacks, initiate or repel attacks, and live in the mud to the point their legs and feet look unnaturally large from layers of dried-on mud. There’s a persistent smell of almonds, which is actually hydrogen cyanide, the primary chemical weapon used by the French. It’s a mutual suicide and men know that the men on the other side are just guys like themselves. As one man sarcastically says, five hundred meters from here they’re drinking beer and saying “Hoch der Kaiser” about as much as we’re saying “Vive la Rebublique.” Martin explodes, saying, “God, it’s so stupid! Why can’t we go over and talk to them? Nobody’s fighting about anything . . . . God, it’s so hideously stupid!” To which a doctor replies, “Life is stupid.”

There are many moving and/or outrageous scenes in the book, and the ones that stood out to me depict mindless hate with a sense of revulsion. One evening the Americans meet up with an Englishman on his first leave from the front in eighteen months. Without preamble he tells them a story, of when he, too, was “new at the game” and before he left for the front: “I saw a man tuck a hand-grenade under the pillow of a poor devil of a German prisoner. The prisoner said, “Thank you.” The grenade blew him to hell!” Later in the evening at the theater the Englishman picks up his story:

“It was like this . . . the Hun was a nice little chap, couldn’t ‘a’ been more than eighteen; had a shoulder broken and he thought that my pal was fixing the pillow. He said ‘Thank you’ with a funny German accent….Mind you, he said ‘Thank you’; that’s what hurt. And the man laughed. God damn him., he laughed when the poor devil said ‘Thank  you.’ And the grenade blew him to hell.” 

Later in the evening the Englishman murmurs about that ‘Thank you’ and one of the women they’re with asks what he’s saying. Martin says, “He’s telling about a German atrocity.” She replies, “Oh, the dirty Germans! What things they’ve done!the woman answered mechanically.” The woman’s automatic, unthinking response and the fact that after eighteen months of trench fighting what the Englishman can’t get out of his head is this senseless murder of a young man in a hospital bed seem to be saying that it isn’t just the actual war fighting that’s the problem, per se, but people’s inability to think for themselves and their hate.

At one point Martin says, “It isn’t natural for people to hate that way, it can’t be. It even disgusts the perfectly stupid dam-fool people, like Higgins, who believes that the Bible was written in God’s own hand writing and that the newspapers tell the truth.

Toward the end of the novel there’s a lengthy scene of dialog that breaks the more impressionistic style. It’s a night of conversation between two Americans and some Frenchmen. The conversation opens with one of the Frenchmen asking what Americans think of the war. “I doubt if we Americans do think,” says Martin. To which one of the Frenchmen replies, “I hope you won’t be offended if I agree with you in saying that Americans never think. I’ve been in Texas, you see.”  Later Martin explains that Americans are like children, “They believe everything they are told…they have no experience in international affairs…To me our entrance in the war is a tragedy.”

The conversation touches not only on America’s isolationism, but how “dark forces” (these seem to be big business, politics, the church) buy the press and how The Press enslaves our minds. Lies have been mentioned throughout the novel, the lies that have been told for generations to get men to fight in wars. The tools these “dark forces” use are patriotism, nationalism, The Press, and “conventional ties”–parental inculcation of their children to “worship success and respectabilities.” This scene is a night of drinking, the kind of night when friends of relatively like minds sit around philosophizing and solving all the world’s problems. They decide that “economic war” must end, and that people must learn to help each other rather than believe the lies, especially the lies of the rich who control the poor. In the end they toast to Revolution, Anarchy, and the Socialist State.

Most of the men engaged in that conversation are soon battlefield casualties. I was left with a feeling that nothing matters, nothing can change. It’s all talk and those doing any talking against the status quo are simply more cannon fodder for those “dark forces.”

Nothing about the above conversation or this book is remotely pro-war or pro-American or pro-any nationality, religion, or ideal. But it is much more than an anti-war novel. It seems to condemn the entire modern world–from those who created the modern war machine and the political system that drives it, to those who support it by being unthinking sheep.

But–and I’m grasping at straws here–it seems that there might be hope in 1) helping each other and 2) giving young men something to do so that they won’t want to escape the dullness of life for the adventure of war.

One Man’s Initiation–1917 (it seems in the U.S. adding ‘1917’ is part of the actual title, whereas when it was first published in London it was ‘One Man’s Initiation’)
John Dos Passos
London: Allen and Unwin, 1920
Recommend to: World War I enthusiasts, hard-core American Lit readers.
Source: free ebook via Project Gutenberg

One comment

  1. Sounds like a really interesting read. I've been reading Willa Cather this past six months and finished One of Ours lately, so I was interested in your review of this.

    The American propaganda machine really got in bed with the press to get the US into WWI. Sad days, indeed, but it's great to know this was actually published. Should be required reading for all high school kids, eh?

    Thanks for all your good words!

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