Violence is a Choice We Can Refuse
Peacework asked activists across the country to answer, "What work of poetry or fiction changed your life?" This is one of the answers. Please comment on our blog and describe how a particular work of literature has affected you.
Fred Marchant is a Professor of English and Director of the Creative Writing Program at Suffolk University in Boston, and a teaching affiliate at the William Joiner Center for the Study of War and Social Consequences at the University of Massachusetts Boston.
I first read Saul Bellow's Herzog in 1969. I was an infantry lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps. My intent had been to go to Vietnam to experience the war and write about it, even if it meant participating directly in the moral emptiness of the American enterprise in Southeast Asia. It was a callow, slightly reckless idea of what it meant to be a writer. In the autumn of that year I had orders to the Third Battalion of the Ninth Marines, but as it turned out 3/9 was the first American unit removed from the war by virtue of Richard Nixon's Vietnamization policy. I had to remain at the Marine Corps' base on Okinawa and wait for my battalion to arrive there by boat from Da Nang. Frustrated, I was nonetheless assured by my commanders that I would eventually have the chance, as they said, to go South, get my ribbons, and launch my career.
With a few days' time on my hands, I borrowed books from the base library, one of them being Herzog. Winner of the National Book Award in 1965, Herzog is a novel about an American academic, his failed marriage, his nervous breakdown, his sense that the modern world had in some way descended into chaos. It is a thoroughly civilian sort of novel, and it is what might be called a novel of ideas, grand ideas that fail, romantic ideas that lead to suffering.
Herzog in his solitary suffering writes letters to family and friends, both living and dead. He also writes to his psychiatrist, to famous public figures, to great thinkers, and even to God. He never sends these letters, but I could relate to the sense of loneliness that writing letters can assuage. I wrote weekly to my parents, girlfriend, friends, former teachers. I waited eagerly for every single note in response.
In the novel, Herzog's estranged wife has taken up with his former best-friend, Valentine Gersbach, who has moved in to Herzog's old apartment and has usurped the parenting of Herzog's daughter, June. As a result, Herzog has decided he is going to shoot Gersbach. Collecting an old pistol from his late father's desk, he climbs the back stairs of his former apartment, peers through a steamy bathroom window, and sees Gersbach bathing June. She is standing in the tub and Herzog is moved by how tenderly Gersbach scrubs her with a washcloth. Herzog has a pistol in his hand, but he does not shoot. "There were two bullets in the chamber…. But they would stay there," writes Bellow.
In 1969 there were weapons around me all the time. I knew how to shoot pistols, rifles, machine guns, and grenade launchers. I had never considered the possibility of not using them. I also had never considered pausing in the moment to think about the consequences of using them, the harm to others.
Ten weeks later, in early December, Seymour Hersh published his first accounts of the massacre at My Lai, and I remember when I first saw the photographs of the dead Vietnamese elderly, and women, and children. I said to myself, "This is what the Nazis did. I am not a Nazi." Thus began what in my Catholic upbringing we would call an examination of conscience, one which culminated in decisions not to go to Vietnam, not to stay in the Marine Corps, and not to contribute to the war in any way.
Ten months later this led to my honorable discharge from the Marine Corps as a conscientious objector. During all those months of self-scrutiny and self-definition, many writings and writers helped me understand what I most deeply believed in. But the first seedling, the first stirring of this part of my innermost being, came when I was moved deeply by Moses Herzog choosing not to shoot his rival. If one could choose not to shoot, I could imagine choosing not to fight.