Monday, August 08, 2005

MAGAZINES: The Steinbeck Super Ball?

I'm a bit late to dinner on this one, but it's been slightly haunting me for a few weeks now. The current issue of Harper's published a recently unearthed letter sent by John Steinbeck to Jack Valenti, special assistant to Lyndon B. Johnson. Valenti forwarded the memo to Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara on January 14, 1966.

From time to time, John Steinbeck, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist, writes me. He's a fascinating man, with a kind of imaginative flair for war and its weaponry. I excerpt from his letter, for it bears on your business. It presents three different suggestions:

[The first suggestion is to use the element of surprise and make random "colossal strikes" in Vietnam, rather than regular daily attacks. The second is to exchange rifles for 12-gauge single-shot pistols, for greater accuracy.]

My [Steinbeck's] third idea has been bugging me for some time. I think the most terrifying modern weapon is the napalm bomb. People who will charge rifle fire won't go through flame. The hand grenade is pretty good, but the necessary weight of metal for fragmenting makes it hard to throw and limits the range. Did you ever throw one with a bent arm? It will put your shoulder out for a week.

What I suggest is a napalm grenade, packed in a heavy plastic sphere almost the exact size and weight of a baseball. The detonator should be of very low power -- just enough to break the plastic shell and ignite the inflammable. If the napalm is packed under pressure, it will spread itself when the case breaks. The detonator (a contact cap) should be carried separately and inserted or screwed in just before throwing. This would allow a man to carry a sack full of balls without danger to himself. Now, we probably have developed some fine riflemen, sharpshooters, etc., but there isn't an American boy over thirteen who can't peg a baseball from infield to home plate with accuracy. And a grown man with sandlot experience can do much better. It is the natural weapon for Americans. Six good men could ring an area with either napalm or white phosphorus faster than you could throw a magazine into an automatic or a machine gun. And an enemy with a bit of flame on his clothes or even in front of him is out of combat. The weapon would also be valuable for cleaning out tunnels and foxholes. Mounted as a rifle grenade, the Steinbeck super ball would also be valuable for burning off cover of extra ambush country or of tree-borne sniper fire.

"The Steinbeck super ball"? I did not see that one coming.

Before I leapt to judgment on this, I asked Rusty Iron how tight Steinbeck's science was. (For some reason that I'm not going to pry into, Rusty has a preternatural understanding of the wartime sciences.)

Rusty gave me a long, complicated answer that, to be quite frank, I didn't entirely understand, but part of what I did get is that Steinbeck is way off. Apparently, baseball-sized quantities of napalm -- even if packed under pressure -- wouldn't be sufficient to do significant damage. Not having any napalm on hand with which to experiment (not to mention consenting human targets), I had to take his word for it.

Okay, I'm being disingenious, and you know why? Because this letter kind of freaked me out. Faulty tactical reasoning notwithstanding, Steinbeck's tone -- which somehow manages to be both folksy and detached -- in delivering his suggestions for better ways to hurt people is distressing, to say the least. It reminded me of the way my brother used to torture live frogs, which taught me early on that you can justify pretty much anything if you adopt a scientific manner about it.

In other words, Steinbeck sounds like a bright, imaginative schoolboy, which superficially seems innocent as all get-out. But if Lord of the Flies taught us nothing else, didn't it teach us to watch our backs when bright, imaginative schoolboys are afoot?

This letter doesn't, it seems to me, jibe with Steinbeck's beautiful acceptance speech when he won the Nobel Prize for Literature four years earlier, in 1962:
...the writer is delegated to declare and to celebrate man's proven capacity for greatness of heart and spirit - for gallantry in defeat, for courage, compassion and love.
Can you be a humanitarian -- an advocate for "compassion and love" -- and an inventor of weaponry? It strikes me that you can't, but maybe I'm missing something.*

Or maybe I've previously overly idealized Steinbeck's humanity. Or maybe this is a case where a reader has projected too much of her own values on a favourite author. Or maybe Steinbeck kind of went nuts in his old age.

I really don't know what to think. All I know is that I feel sad and disillusioned.

It's difficult to read this excerpt without context (i.e. Steinbeck's assessment of the situation in Vietnam) and in hindsight (because "of course" everyone knows now that the U.S.'s presence in Vietnam was unnecessary). You might wonder why someone would naively, idealistically think that humanitarianism and pacifism are synonymous. Hey, the world needs a few of us unapologetically naive idealists to keep all you dirty realists honest. (Er, that was a joke.)


landismom said...

That is really disturbing. Thanks for bringing it to my attention--I stopped reading Harper's a few years ago.

Anonymous said...

You can be a humanitarian and an inventor of weaponry if you believe that some things are worth fighting for.

Anonymous said...

I agree with anonymous- I think it's entirely possible to be a humanitarian who sees no other solution to inhumane acts other than thru warfare, and to seek more efficient ways of fighting that war. In fact, more efficient warfare is, if anything, more humane, because by definition, it would result in shorter battles and less collateral damage. The clinical detatchment is disturbing, to be sure, but it's not unique, either.

Tammy said...

I guess I see your points. It's difficult to read this excerpt without context (i.e. Steinbeck's assessment of the situation in Vietnam) and in hindsight (because "of course" everyone knows now that the U.S.'s presence in Vietnam was unnecessary).

You might wonder why someone would naively, idealistically think that humanitarianism and pacifism are synonymous. Hey, the world needs a few of us unapologetically naive idealists.

Anonymous said...

All-American boys using their background in neighbourhood baseball games to throw napalm?. It's like Norman Rockwell with a flamethrower. My bet (or hope rather) is that this is a "modest proposal" kind of way. Or he's nuts. I can't reconcile this with his other writing. Plus he was such a careful researcher. I can't see him throwing "war nerd" stuff like this out and being serious. Either that or I am totally disillusioned. Anyway interesting letter to see.

Kevin Donoghue said...

Steinbeck had a slightly weird sense of humour. His wife's Texan relatives used to go on about the fact that Texas had (they said) retained the right to secede from the Union. Steinbeck buried this line of conversation by proposing to start a movement for non-Texans called Friends for the Secession of Texas. As he remarked, they liked to talk about leaving the Union, but they wanted it to be their idea. My guess is that in this case also he was taking the piss.

Tammy said...

Heh. I remember that he brings the Friends for Secession up in Travels With Charley. If I recall, the Texans didn't appreciate his wit.

Do you think he was fooling? I'd LOVE to think so, but the preface stating that he'd written to the White House on several occasions made me think otherwise. Unless he just turned into an old guy with a weird sense of humour and too much time on his hands.

Of course, I'm married to a young guy with enough time on his hands that he manages to write at least one angry letter to the editor a week (we call him Johnny Letter), so I don't know why this would come as such a surprise.