George Orwell in Germany. In the 1970s. In the US Army.

A reader, still unclear about my discussion of “process” in yesterday’s blog post, asked me to demonstrate.  I won’t print the entire screed, but here’s a big chunk.  Remember, the task I’d set for myself was to write an appreciation of George Orwell, who does not appear after the first third of this excerpt.

 

George Orwell wrote about shooting an elephant.  This is not that.

George Orwell wrote about politics and the English language.  This is not that.

George Orwell wrote about his childhood in an English boarding school.  This is not that.

To my knowledge, George Orwell never wrote an appreciation of himself.  That’s what this is.

The first time I was exposed to George Orwell, I felt like getting through 1984 was the equivalent of eating my way out of a two-ton bag of cornflakes.  I managed it, as I knew I eventually would, but it took longer than I’d have expected and didn’t include a lot of fond memories.  Like many adolescent boys, I went through a period of devouring dystopias, and Orwell’s book was part of that diet.  I’d already read Alas, Babylon, On the Beach, all of Vonnegut and even Erewhon.  (I know, I KNOW Kurt Vonnegut didn’t write dystopian fiction exactly, but the cyanide whipped cream of Cat’s Cradle and the breezy nihilism of God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater sure feel within hailing distance of dystopia.)  1984 seemed, to my 13-year-old eyes and brain, all set-up and no payoff.  To be honest, that is the one piece of Orwelliana I haven’t reread as an adult.  It seems that right after 1984, I read Brave New World, which cured me of my taste for mid-20th-century English writers for the next five years.  After that horrid experience, I moved on to stoned love-is-the-answer (as long as we’ve enough mescaline to make the flames talk to us) books.  Tom Robbins, Richard Brautigan, Ralph Blum and, again, Vonnegut matched my teenage taste for whimsy and drugs.  (I know, I KNOW Kurt Vonnegut’s whimsy hides a straight razor of cynicism and he never celebrated drug use, but as a stoned teen I was able to read around those parts.)

After five years away from Orwell, I was in the Army, stationed in Germany in the late 1970s.  While keeping the Russians from flowing through the Fulda Gap was an important mission, it did leave a fair amount of free time.  I was with the 8th Infantry Division in Bad Kreuznach, but my job was as a journalist, which meant spending a lot of time in the field with combat units, doing stories on their heroic training exercises.  In practice, this meant I’d spend a week or 10 days assigned to, say, a mechanized infantry unit on maneuvers.  Since concern over German farmers and damage to their land was an overarching part of any military strategy, much “maneuvering” involved having the unit move two miles from one hilltop to another, then await further orders that might take two or three days. 

Every other soldier in the unit had a job to do, a role in the comic opera of the peacetime military. I was attached to the unit, answering to no one in particular and having as my only requirement a lengthy feature story on the absolute nothing that was going on.  Within a couple weeks on the job, although only 18 I’d figured out an easy scam.  While traveling to meet the unit I was to live with, I wrote the story I’d need to submit, complete with quotes, knowing I’d meet some GI who’d be willing to attach his name to the words I’d written for him.

“Sure, it can be hard being out in the field for two or three weeks at a time,” said PFC XXX  XXXXX, Age, hometown and state, “but we do it so we won’t ever have to fight for real.  We’re ready for anything, but our job is to keep the peace.  If a little sacrifice on my part protects the people of (insert hometown), then that’s not too much to ask of me.”

Once I was with the unit, smoking hash with the dopers (and this was the 1970s military, dopers were a majority of enlisted folks and perhaps the officers as well), I’d ask who wanted to be in the paper so they could send it back to their families.  Every single time, I’d find the equivalent of SGT Earle Cameron, 24, Murfreesboro, TN, who’d be happy as hell to be quoted, especially since it made him sound like an aw-shucks kind of quiet just-doing-my-job hero.  I’d give him the story, ask him to read his quote out loud, confirm the spelling of his name, and move on to the next prewritten quote.  While the stories didn’t exactly write themselves, they became a paint-by-numbers exercise. 

(Incidentally, I do know a word to describe this kind of journalism.  In fact, off the top of my head I can rattle off a few:  unethical, lazy, misrepresentative, dishonest and unscrupulous.  If I buy, say, the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal, and read quotes from a Tennessee soldier about noncombat duty in Germany, I want to believe the soldier actually said them.  On the other hand, I’d say anyone picking up the 8th Infantry Division Arrow, the name of the division paper, who was expecting journalism rather than propaganda might want to learn about the advantages of Sufism from a pamphlet at the Vatican bookstore.  It was my job to make soldiers look good, not paint accurate portraits.  Still . . . it was wrong.  But clever, you have to admit clever—the quoted soldier actually SAID the quotes, as a tape-recorded transcript would demonstrate.  Still . . . it’s only a few leaps from planting quotes to making hostage tapes.  I was wrong to do it.  But funny, Lord was it funny to approach a GI I barely knew and ask him if he wanted to be a hometown hero and get back at all the high school teachers who said he was a bum and a loser.  Still . . . if I had it to do over, I wouldn’t do it again.  Probably.  I definitely wouldn’t do it today.  Definitely.)

Before I detoured down memory lane, I was talking about all the free time I had as a military “journalist” in the field, what with everyone else having some kind of job to do.  I’d always been a reader, but now, for the first time in my life, I poured myself into books without a filter.  Whatever I could sign out at the base library, buy at the newsstand or order from the Quality Paperback Book Club, I’d throw in my duffle bag and carry to the field.  During one particular week spent sleeping on the roofs of Armored Personnel Carriers, I read The Brothers Karamzov, The Man Who was Friday and Advertisements for Myself.  A triple feature of Dostoyevsky, Chesterton and Norman Mailer, how tremendously odd!  And the magazines and papers I subscribed to: Harper’s, the Atlantic Monthly, Esquire, the Village Voice, New Times, Rolling Stone along with a half-dozen others. 

I should also admit I considered myself a bit of a Marxist at the time, that bit consisting of one quote I had posted inside my wall locker: “From each according to his abilities.  To each according to his needs.”  That bromide struck me at the time as describing the Army to a T.  Everyone did the best he could and everyone got what he needed.  I mainly posted it hoping to tweak the political nose of an inspecting officer, but no one who inspected either recognized its source or thought it worth bothering with a twit like me.  Still, even that tiny nugget of Marxism was enough for me to side with “the people” against the establishment.  I had a minor fascination with Che Guevara (before he became a screen-printed icon) and an interest in the Spanish Civil War . . .

Yes, this continues much longer, tacking back toward Orwell after another 3000 words.

 

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