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Michael Kramer brings life to the three young American soldiers, trudging their way up a mountain near Cassino, Italy in the winter of 1944, in Bausch's acclaimed novel. The reading is at a laidback pace, which works well when combined with Bausch's slightly terse and straightforward writing. With only slight shifts in tone for each character, Kramer relies on the honesty of his voice and his ability to capture the essence of every human emotion. When the characters are exhausted, downbeat and depressed, the listener can feel it; when they argue amongst themselves, the audience will feel like entering the fray. Kramer brings the listener along for the journey and a memorable one it is. A Knopf hardcover (Reviews, Feb. 25). (June)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Bausch is best known for his short stories, but this powerful novella demonstrates his skill at spare language and tight construction. In the winter of 1944, a group of seven young American GIs slogs through the freezing rain near Cassino in southern Italy. The Italian government has fallen and the Germans are retreating northward. The Americans have just summarily executed a Nazi officer and his female companion, and they argue about whether it was the right thing to do. Marson, the group's leader, remembers promising his father that he would do his duty, but the words have lost their meaning in the fog of war. Scared and lost, they enlist the help of an elderly Italian, who leads them up a steep mountainside. Almost immediately they encounter enemy fire. Has the Italian betrayed them, and, if he has, what should they do about it? Like Matthew Eck's recent The Farther Shore, Bausch's book demonstrates that regardless of the geographical setting or historical period, all war stories are now fundamentally about Iraq. Recommended for most fiction collections.
—Edward B. St. John
They went on anyway, putting one foot in front of the other, holding their carbines barrel down to keep the water out, trying, in their misery and confusion--and their exhaustion--to remain watchful. This was the fourth straight day of rain--a windless, freezing downpour without any slight variation of itself. Rivulets of ice formed in the muck of the road and made the walking treacherous. The muscles of their legs burned and shuddered, and none of them could get enough air. Robert Marson thought about how they were all witnesses. And nobody could look anybody in the eye. They kept on, and were punished as they went. Ice glazed their helmets, stuck to the collars of their field jackets, and the rain got in everywhere, soaking them to the bone. They were somewhere near Cassino, but it was hard to believe it was even Italy anymore. They had stumbled blind into some province of drenching cold, a berg of death. Everything was in question now.
The Italians were done, and the Germans were retreating, engaging in delaying actions, giving way slowly, skirmishing, seeking to make every inch of ground costly in time and in blood, and there were reconnaissance patrols all along the front, pushing north, heading into the uncertainty of where the Germans might be running, or waiting.
Marson, sick to his soul, barely matched the pace of the two men just in front of him, who were new. Their names were Lockhart and McCaig, and they themselves were lagging behind four others: Troutman, Asch, Joyner, and Sergeant Glick. Seven men. Six witnesses.
The orders had been to keep going until you found the enemy. Then you were supposed to make your way back, preferably without having been seen. But the enemy had the same kinds of patrols, and so recon also meant going forward until you were fired upon. Worse, this was a foot patrol. If you ran into anything serious, there wouldn't be any jeeps to ride out, nor tanks to help you. You were alone in the waste of the war.
And there were only the seven of them now.
Twelve men had left one tank battalion the first day, crossed country, and then slept under the tanks of another on the second, all in the changeless fall of the rain. McConnell, Padruc, and Bailey came down with the dysentery and had to be taken back to Naples. So the patrol left that camp with nine men.
Walberg and Hopewell were killed yesterday.
Yesterday, a farmer's cart full of wet straw had come straggling along the road being pulled by a donkey and driven by two Italian boys--gypsies, really--who looked like sopping girls, their long, black, soaked hair framing their faces, their wet cloaks hiding their bodies. Sergeant Glick waved them away, and they melted into the glazed second growth beside the road. Then he ordered that the cart be overturned in order to look for weapons or contraband. Troutman and Asch accomplished this, and as the waterlogged, mud-darkened straw collapsed from the bed of the cart, a Kraut officer and a whore tumbled out, cursing. The Kraut shot Walberg and Hopewell with his black Luger before Corporal Marson put him down. The whore, soggy and dirty and ill looking, wearing another officer's tunic over a brown skirt, spoke only German, and she shouted more curses at them, gesticulating and trying to hit at McCaig and Joyner, who held her. Sergeant Glick looked at Hopewell and Walberg, ascertained that they were dead, then walked over, put the end of his carbine at her forehead, and fired. The shot stopped the sound of her. She fell back into the tall wet stalks of grass by the side of the road, so that only her lower legs and her feet showed. She went over backward; the legs came up and then dropped with a thud into the sudden silence. Marson, who had been looking at the Kraut he shot, heard the fourth shot and turned to see this. And he saw the curve of her calves, the feet in a man's boots where they jutted from the grass. For a few seconds, no one said anything. They all stood silent and did not look at one another, or at Glick, and the only sound was the rain.
"She was with him. She'd've shot us all if she could," Glick said. No one answered him. Marson had shot the Kraut, and he was having trouble with that, and here were the woman's legs stuck out of the grass next to the road. The curve of the calves was that of a young woman. "This is all one thing," Glick said, loud. It was as if he were talking to the earth and sky. The others knew he meant that the woman had been a reaction, two men killed like that--shot, both of them, through the heart--completely unready for it, though Glick had repeatedly told them and they all knew that they should be ready, every second, for just this. This. Walberg and Hopewell, two boys. Hopewell had just been talking about being at a restaurant in Miami Beach, eating Dungeness crabs, how much he wished he were there right now; and Walberg, quiet Walberg, only this morning had been going on about his father, who was a hero to him, and the others had been embarrassed hearing him describe the old man, because of the childlike devotion in it, the hero worship. "Grow up, Walberg," Asch had said once. And Walberg had grown up to this, lying by the side of a road somewhere near Cassino, with an expression on his face of mild surprise. Hopewell's eyes were closed. He looked like he was asleep.
And they had all been warned to be ready, every second.
But it had been so cold, and the rain kept coming down on them. They had got numb, maybe even drowsy--the drowse before you lie down and freeze to death. And they couldn't really look at one another now, and still nobody looked at Glick.
Because this was a recon squad--and because the Germans had taken over everything, the war and the retreat and the defense of Italy, and could be close--they had to leave Walberg and Hopewell beside the road and move on, away from the scene, while light left the low, charred-looking folds of the sky. Troutman had radioed back.
There had followed an abysmal long night without any respite from the cold and the rain. Through it all, nobody spoke of what had taken place back down the road. But Corporal Marson kept feeling the sickness. It was as if something in him had been leveled, and the simplest memories of himself as he had always been were beside the point. He was devout, because his people were devout, and because it was a strength, and he kept trying to pray, kept saying the words in his mind. All for thee, most sacred heart of Jesus. An offering, as he had been taught. Expiation for his sins, for everything he had ever done that was wrong. It meant nothing, now. At times he would speak directly to God in his mind, like a man talking to another man--except that it was somehow more than one other man or, really, one god; it was something nameless and immense beyond the raining sky: Let me get through this, help me find forgiveness, and I'll raise a big family. He had a daughter back home, a thirteen-month-old girl whom he had yet to see in person. Her photograph was tucked away under his shirt, in a flat cigarette tin.
He could not let himself think very much at all. The others were quiet, sullen, isolated. And yet after the misery of the fitful night, they seemed to have put it in its place. It was the war; it was what they had been through. They had lived with confusion for so long. Nobody said anything about it.
They just slogged on, always north. And the sickness kept coming over Marson in waves. He had been on the beachhead at Salerno. His company had been pinned down in a harrowing span of hours leading into days, and he had lived through the panic when all along the line men believed that the enemy had infiltrated the ranks, and they froze on their weapons and shot members of their own outfit who had gone beyond them. He had fired mortar rounds into the roil and tumult of the fortifications beyond the beach, had been in the fighting all the way to Persano and the Sele River, and he knew intellectually that he had certainly killed several men.
He had seen so much death, and the dead no longer caused quite the same shock. Not even poor Walberg and Hopewell. He had experienced that kind of sudden stop before now. But he hadn't, himself, until yesterday, killed anyone up close. The Kraut had a big round boy's face and bright red hair, and the bullet had gone into him just above the breastbone and exited with a blast of blood and flesh out the back of his neck, on into the distance behind him. He coughed bright blood mixed with something he must've had to eat, looking right at Corporal Marson with an expression terrifyingly like wonder, while the light or the animation or whatever it was left his green eyes, and the eyes started to reflect the raining sky, the clear, icy water gathering in them and running down the white face.
Sunny italy, John Glick had been calling it, spitting the words out, the standard joke in the lines. He was from New York and had worked as a longshoreman for a year out of high school, and you could hear it in his voice.
Four straight days of rain. It felt like the end of the world, the North Atlantic had gone up into the sky and traveled south and was coming down with temperatures wavering at the freezing point.
At early dusk today, another tank battalion caught up with them. They got under the tanks and ate rations, coughing and sputtering. Glick went a few paces down the row of tanks and half-tracks and reported about Walberg and Hopewell, the Kraut and the woman. Corporal Marson heard him say that she had been killed in the cross fire. He saw Joyner hear it, too, and Joyner looked at him, but then looked away. Nobody else in this battalion had run into any action yesterday, though Marson, crossing to the far side of the range of tanks and other equipment, encountered a soldier they had all talked to several days before, and he was sitting in the back of a jeep, holding his hand and crying. The hand had been burned badly; it was black and two of the fingers looked like charred twigs, and it was shaking as with a palsy. The soldier kept staring at it, crying like a little kid. No one could talk to him.
Marson gave forth a little sobbing breath, and turned away.
It was for what was called his steadiness on the beachhead at Salerno that he was given a field promotion to corporal. The promoting officer used the word. Marson's company had been held down by machine-gun fire, and he had bolted forward to a shell crater in the sand and then lobbed grenades at the emplacement. Others had followed him, and the enemy had withdrawn, abandoning their own machine gun. There had been no time to think and the memory of it was that it was like trying to stop a leak in a seawall, shouting all the time. Marson had felt no steadiness, but only the sense of trying very hard not to die, and the frozen conviction at his middle that he would not survive the next minute. He was older than most of these boys, twenty-six. It astonished him that most of them felt that they could not die. Even seeing death on the beach at Salerno.
Now he and Joyner sat in a mired jeep briefly to get out of the rain. They did not particularly like each other. There had been tension between them before. Joyner had a set of attitudes about Negroes, Jews, and Catholics, and his assertions, along with the obscenity of his speech in general, had an unpleasant air of authority about them, as if he had done serious study and come to serious conclusions. But all came from ignorance and bigotry. Joyner, apparently sensing the effect on Marson, claimed he was joking. But for Marson the jokes were seldom very clever, or very funny, and it was unnerving. The fact was that he had, to his great discomfort, discerned the thinnest echo of his own casually held assumptions in the other man's talk. And so he had worked to keep a distance.
He had seen the look Joyner gave him when Sergeant Glick spoke of the whore's death. So, sitting behind the driver's wheel of the jeep, he had the sense that he ought to see if Joyner, given the chance, might say something. Except that he was too honest with himself to believe this was the only motive: the truth was that he wanted to learn what all the others felt. He was too muddled and tired to think clearly enough. But he wanted to know.
Joyner did not disappoint him. Watching him light a cigarette and blow the smoke, he muttered: "Some cross fire, huh?"
Marson looked over at him and then looked away. It came to him in a rush that he did not want to talk about it with Joyner. Not with him.
"Cross fire like that and you don't need a fuck'n firing squad," Joyner went on, smiling, spitting from between his teeth, a habit he had. He was tall and narrow eyed, with a long nose and big, wide-fingered hands that always shook. He had once talked of how it was a problem lighting a lady's cigarette. And he had sworn it wasn't nerves. He had a recurring itch on his left forearm. That, he said, was nerves, since he'd never had anything like it until the war. It was always there, since Sicily, and he was always having to dig at it.
They sat together in the front seat of the jeep, which was up to its axle in the mud of the road and was therefore out of the war for now. They did not quite look at each other. Corporal Marson drew on the cigarette.
"I thought Salerno was fucked up," Joyner said, scratching the place on his forearm.
At Salerno, he had been entrenched with several others near a crippled LCI that was rolling back and forth in the heavy waves behind them. There was the loud pinging of bullets hitting the metal of the LCI, and Joyner kept up a stream of obscenities.
From the Hardcover edition.
The introduction, questions, and suggestions for further reading that follow are designed to enliven your group's discussion of Peace, Richard Bausch's searing and powerful novel about the moral ambiguities and emotional costs of war.
1. Why would Richard Bausch choose the word Peace for the title of a book about war?
2. In what ways does Peace capture the emotional and physical realities of war? What scenes feel especially vivid and real? How does Bausch reveal the emotional toll that war takes on soldiers?
3. How are the soldiers affected by the harsh physical conditions they have to endure? In what ways are these conditions more challenging than the combat itself?
4. Increasingly troubled by Glick's killing of the German prostitute, Asch says, "Glick's a killer. . . . We're soldiers. He's a killer" [p. 115]. Is there a clear line, as Asch implies, between soldiers and killers? What is the difference?
5. Asch argues with Joyner that unless they report Glick's murder of the prostitute, they will be no different than the Nazis. Is Asch right? How does Joyner respond?
6. Joyner and Asch are at each other's throats throughout the novel, with Joyner's anti-Semitism bringing them nearly to blows on several occasions. They seem to hate each other. And yet when Asch is wounded, Joyner does all he can to save him, staunching his wounds and carrying him down the mountain. And when Asch dies, Joyner is beset with rage and grief at how callously Asch's body is treated by the medic. Why would Joyner behave this way after all the animosity between them?
7. Why is Marson so conflicted about whether or not to report Glick? Had Glick and Asch lived, would Marson likely have backed Asch in reporting Glick?
8. After he kills the German officer and Glick kills the prostitute, Marson feels a kind of spiritual nausea. "Marson kept feeling the sickness. It was as if something in him had been leveled, and the simplest memories of himself as he had always been were beside the point" [p. 7]. And near the end of the novel, after he kills the sniper, he "feels a deadness at his heart's core" [p. 154]. What has the war done to Marson spiritually? How has it changed how he sees himself, especially in relation to his former life?
9. Is it clear, at the end of the novel, whether Angelo was a spy? Why does Marson let him go after he's been ordered to shoot him?
10. Does the novel as a whole seem to take a clear moral position on war, or on how humans should behave when at war? Is the novel about more than its specific characters and their actions?
11. Should Peace be read as an antiwar novel, or simply as a very astute exploration of the emotional and psychological consequences of war and killing?
12. On the eve of his departure, Marson's father solemnly tells him to do his duty. Does Marson do his duty? In what ways is he challenged by the soldiers under his command? How does he respond to the challenges he faces? Does he make the right choices at the most decisive moments in the novel?
13. What light does Peace shed on the United States's handling of the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? What does it reveal about the basic nature of all wars?
Posted April 28, 2008
I admit that this is the first piece I've read by Mr. Bausch. I also reluctantly admit that I hadn't even heard of him before reading a review of this book in Esquire. How I missed the work of this literary master is beyond me. I encourage all to listen to the Barnes and Noble interview of Mr. Bausch, in which he demonstrates his mental prowess in understanding of the literary art. In any case, Peace is a profound, frightening, and extremely moving book. There is no way I could over rate this book. It's lyrical power is undeniable. With terse sentences, Mr. Bausch paints a portrait of war that seems both eminently real and perfectly stylized to ensnare the senses. It is the rare intelligent, cerebral work that is also an easy read. The thoughts and experiences that Mr. Bausch gives us of his protagonist, Marson, are so effective that by the end we seem to be thinking like Marson, and feeling his deep emotions. I was. This story is reminiscent of one of Aeschylus' great quotes, which Bobby Kennedy quoted in his speech upon the death of Martin Luther King Jr., 'In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.' In the final analysis, with this book, Mr. Bausch teaches us lessons that come with age, which are sorely needed in this age. It is a work of art of the highest order, deserving to be read as such for all time.
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Posted October 18, 2011
When this book (Peace) was recommended to me, I read the description and was a bit reluctant to read it at first. The plot sounded all too familiar. A soldier witnesses a murder committed by his Sargent and must decide if he should report it. After seeing the book was only about 170 pages I decided I would give it a try (that and the fact that I trust the person who recommended it to me). The setting for Peace is Italy during WWII. Most of the story takes place during the mission after the murder takes place. Corporal Marson and two of his men must scout ahead for German troops and report back to the Sargent. Richard Bausch meshes together a wonderful story of the "current" mission, the past, and personal memories that build the reality of the characters that the readers will feel for and know on a personal level. The thing that sets this story apart (from what felt so familiar to me), is the fact that Richard Bausch has the murder taking place so fast that no one could have stopped it and at a time that it was almost understandable (for a moment). To muddle things further Corp. Marson and his men hear the Nazi's committing an atrocity and they are helpless to stop it. The story makes it impossible not to compare "the murder" with the acts of war. As a reader you should be prepared for an emotional story that is hard to put down. One that is profound on many levels and is told (written) so well you will be thinking about it long after you have finished it.
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