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.
*ETA: 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.)