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Once There Was a War (Penguin Modern Classics)

Once There Was a War - John Steinbeck Once There Was A War is a collection of Steinbeck's daily reports for the New York Herald Tribune from June 20th, to December 13th, 1943. He travels with American troops to England, to Africa, and then witnesses the capture of the Italian island of Ventotene (a German radar station) by "five men in a whaleboat." Steinbeck's writing has a mesmerising quality that makes you feel you really are there, seeing through his eyes. In his first few reports he describes life onboard a troopship heading for Britain. He tells us that: "The major impression on a troop ship is of feet. A man can get his head out of the way and his arms, but, lying or sitting, his feet are a problem. They sprawl in the aisles, they stick up at all angles They are not protected because they are the part of a man least likely to be hurt. To move about you must step among feet, must trip over feet."During wartime, information is tightly controlled, so rumours abound - some funny, and some frightening. Like every war reporter, Steinbeck's reports had to be censored. So, here and there, you meet the frustrating phrase: "(one line deleted by censor)", and when he comes ashore on June 25th, it is "Somewhere in England". Opening a Steinbeck book can be like putting in a new light bulb: suddenly everything seems so much clearer. It's the mark of a great writer. With his usual simple elegance and power he describes life in the barracks as the preparations for D-Day begin. (Amusingly, he notes that: "...the British pretend, as usual, it is some kind of a garden party they are going to.") On July 6th, he describes the day-to-day 'life goes on' attitude of people living in Dover, constantly shelled, and within sight of occupied France: "There is a quality in the people of Dover that may well be the key to the coming German disaster. They are incorrigibly, incorruptibly unimpressed. The German,with his uniform and his pageantry and his threats and plans, does not impress these people at all. [...] Jerry is like the weather to him. He complains about it and then promptly goes about what he was doing."He expresses the thoughts and feelings of servicemen, and civilians alike, and they display a quiet heroism that is a very long way from Hollywood: "I wish they'd tell them at home that the war isn't over and I wish they wouldn't think we're so brave. I don't want to be so brave."Steinbeck's stark description of the aftermath of the bombing of a cinema, later that month, is stunningly powerful. But there's also plenty of humour, and it's not just about the war, there's a culture clash to explore as well. Take his observations on the way the English cook vegetables to death: "The brussels sprout is a good example [...] It is first allowed to become large and fierce. It is then picked from its stem and the daylights are boiled out of it. At the end of a few hours the little wild lump of green has disintegrated into a curious, grayish paste. It is then considered fit for consumption."He paints pen-pictures of some funny characters, just as Joseph Heller went on to do in Catch-22. Like Private 'Big Train' Mulligan - an ultra-lazy 'gold-bricker', and a Lieutenant-Commander who likens naval warfare to chamber music. (Different sized guns representing different sized violins.) As they were written for a newspaper column, these dispatches are all of a uniform length, making this a terrific book to dip into whenever you have a couple of minutes to spare. It's not one of those harrowing books about war that will leave you dazed and depressed, these pieces of writing would have been required to keep people's spirits up as well as describing to the people back home the life of the troops preparing for the final push. Of course, that may mean that there is an element of propaganda here, but hey, this is Steinbeck, and he's on our side, so who's complaining? [Review originally posted on dooyoo.co.uk in January 2002.]