Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Len Levinson Discusses Writing War Fiction

Last week Len Levinson - the author of The Sergeant and The Rat Bastards series of WW2 men's adventure novels - wrote me a letter regarding an article he'd recently read, provided to him by fellow blogger Joe Kenney, owner of the excellent review blog, Glorious Trash. I asked Len's permission to repost his comments on the article, and he was gracious enough to oblige. I think readers of this blog will appreciate what he has to say.

Here's Len's email:

Blogger Joe Kenney tipped me off to a not very complimentary critique of some of my novels, in a book entitled PIONEERS, PASSIONATE LADIES, AND PRIVATE EYES edited by Larry E. Sullivan, PhD, and Lydia Cushman Schurman, PhD, published by the Haworth Press.  The book consists of essays by other PhDs about American popular fiction.

In other words, people who spend their professional lives studying the likes of James Joyce and Henry James, have turned their baleful vision to the likes of me.

The article mentioning my work is called WORLD WAR II COMBAT IN AMERICAN JUVENILE AND PAPERBACK SERIES BOOKS by M. Paul Holsinger, professor of History at Illinois State University.

In the article, I discovered to my amazement that my series THE RAT BASTARDS was the longest running war series in the spate of war series published in the wake of the movie PATTON.  I also discovered that Prof. Holsinger had no idea that the author of THE RAT BASTARDS, John Mackie, and the author of THE SERGEANT, Gordon Davis, were both the same person, who in real life was and remains a very peculiar form of life known as Len Levinson, or as my former boss Sheldon Roskin referred to me when I was a press agent: "schmuck!".

Good Prof. Holsinger doesn't think much of my novels.  Describing my soldier-characters, he says:  "Their morality and their language is, in almost every case, that of the gutter."

Evidently Prof. Holsinger never was in the Army.  Because the average Army barracks, or foxhole, were not exactly faculty tea parties.  I was in the Aramy 1954-1957, but never in a war.  However, many of my old sergeants were veterans of WW II and Korea, and one had survived the Bataan Death March.

Apparently Prof. Holsinger doesn't understand that in order to turn average American young men into soldiers, or to be blunt, trained killers, a certain amount of brutality is involved.  And this brutality inevitably coarsens the spirit.  When writing these novels, I wanted to be as realistic as possible.  My goal was not to please the English Departments of American Universities, or to glorify combat, but to tell realistic stories about the tragedy and comedy of war, with all its blood, guts, cruelty, irony, and occasional heroism.

Prof Holsinger decries "this commitment to utter violence without a spark of human decency."  Evidently he didn't read my novels very thoroughly, because human decency actually is shown occasionally.  The soldiers are loyal to each other when the chips are down, although admittedly they fight amongst themselves sporadically during their brief periods of leisure.

My impression is that Prof. Holsinger somehow believes that frontline soldiers should be social workers and philanthropists.  But social workers and philanthropists wouldn't last long on a battlefield, where it's kill or be killed by any means necessary.  Prof. Holsinger's utter lack of understanding of his subject is astonishing, but they don't call it the "ivory tower" for nothing.

Prof. Holsinger complains that my characters "are, at best, hoodlums," which again indicates that he really didn't read the series thoroughly, and probably just skimmed the contents and cover copy, because he didn't notice, situated among the criminal types, West Point graduates with noble hearts, one young man from the upper levels of New York society who got drafted, aristocratic Japanese and German officers, numerous other decent, high-minded characters who got drafted or enlisted out of patriotism, including many brave Army nurses, and even General Patton and Field Marshal Rommel themselves make in-person appearances.

But it's true, many of my characters tended to be tough guys.  Because if you're not a tough guy when you enter the Army, you must become one in order to survive.  There is no alternative except unrelenting bullying in the barracks, or certain violent death on the battlefield.

I confess that I hated the Army during most of the three years when I was a soldier, when I functioned in a state of simmering rage nearly all the time.  When I got out, I reverted fairly quickly to the mild mannered, half-baked intellectual that I always was, except for a tendency to lose my temper from time to time, after which I always feel deep-rooted self-loathing.

I've never forgotten those three years in uniform, age 19 to 22.  In a way they made me what I am today, for better or worse.  I very much admired combat veterans with whom I served, and still do.  Although they didn't know it at the time, and neither did I, they inspired my 30 war novels.  Since publication of these novels, many soldiers have written me letters or told me in person that they enjoyed my stories.  Their opinions are the ones I value most.


Dan Eldredge said...

Good article. Or rather, good post by Mr. Levinson.

The way Levinson portrays Prof. Holsinger's article, e.g., "My impression is that Prof. Holsinger somehow believes that frontline soldiers should be social workers and philanthropists," makes me think that Holsinger is thinking of a more modern US army, whose tag line is "winning the hearts and minds" of the unfortunates they deal with. It was a very different situation in WWII and Korea. Even in the 21st century in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army might want to appear to be a "kinder, gentler" army in its PR, the reality is that it's still made of tough guys who might occasionally use profanity...

Sean McLachlan said...

This letter made me smile. Thanks for posting it!
I guess you've arrived when Ph.D.s write "scholarly" articles about you!

Chris said...

"they enjoyed my stories"

'Nuff said.

Tim Mayer said...

People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.
George Orwell

Brian Drake said...

There are a lot of people like the professor who just don't get soldiers. I got into an argument with my uncle about this very subject, when he commented that most in the military didn't deserve to be there because the news we see today show that the military has no honor or class, the frat attitude and crudeness of the military is wrong, and we really need to be "above it all" if we're going to win. I don't want to make this political by saying my uncle was a draft-card burning Vietnam protester but if the shoe can assume that the professor is coming from the same point of view.

I appreciate Mr. Levinson's response very much; he was much more eloquent than I when speaking with my uncle.

For some reason, people who have never worn the uniform seem to think they know more than the people who have.

Hank Brown said...

Hell, I've enjoyed Levinson's war fiction before, during and after my own happy camping for Uncle Sam. I feel kinda' guilty now for some of the not-so-nice comments I've made.

Thanks for sharing this, Jack.

Tom Johnson said...

I've never read any of Len's stories, and honestly I'm not much of a fan of war fiction for the simple reason that few authors writing the genre actually served in combat. As a twenty year veteran, and Vietnam combat, I've never been considered a "humanitarian". However, on the same hand, I can assure the readers, we were capable of holding intelligent conversations, with little or no vulgar language. I was trained by the 9th Infantry, our DIs were Korean War Veterans, and they taught us to fight and survive, and there was not a lot of language there, either. I will not condemn war fiction, but I will instead respect those men and women who have served in uniform, and actually saw combat. I prefer not to belittle their role as combat soldiers, marines, and airmen. In saying that, I also respect Len and other writers "as writers", even if I don't read their stories.

Jack Badelaire said...

Thanks for all the great comments, folks.

While Levinson was not (if memory serves) in combat during his enlistment, he was over in Korea in the 50's, and served with many who were combat veterans of Korea and WW2. I trust that his experiences, if different than others, were genuine.

As to the debate over language, I'm reading The Guns at Last Light right now. A few passages struck me as especially relevant:

"A witticism inspired by hard experience in Italy held that if "fuck": and "frontal" were removed from the military vocabulary, the Canadian army would be both speechless and unable to attack."

Another quote:

"Demonstrating the enduring utility of the fricative, a Canadian artillery commander later commented, 'The Germans thought we were fucking Russians. They did stupid things, and we killed those bastards in large numbers.'"

And a final quote, this one from Ernie Pyle, a war correspondent who spent years with the front line troops, and who was ultimately killed by the Japanese:

"'I'm no longer content unless I am with soldiers in the field,' he confessed, but added, "If I hear another fucking GI say 'fucking' once more, I'll cut my fucking throat'."

Many of the first-hand sourced quotes and comments throughout this book have more than their fair share of hard profanity...

Tom Johnson said...

I don't doubt there was some language. I am saying that all soldiers were not so illiterate that their vocabulary consisted of just four letter words. My nephew, a marine during the Vietnam War was watching a movie, "Jarhead", in which the "F" bomb was spit out every few minutes, and he just shook his head, saying that wasn't how they talked all the time. Today's books and movies do this for so-called entertainment, nothing more. Yes, we knew the four letter words, but we also talked like intelligent people, in the barracks and in the field (jungle). I was also in Korea during the 1950s. I patrolled the DMZ while we were still under fire. I went on to serve with many Korean War veterans that made a career in the Army. I'm sure that Pyle was writing the truth, as we know language is everywhere, not just in the military. But please don't paint the military as all illiterate, vulgar war killers.

Anonymous said...

This is Len Levinson responding to Tom Johnson. When I was in the Army 1954 to 1957 there was a tremendous amount of cussing, cursing and other foul language going on. It seemed like the f-word was used in almost every sentence by many enlisted men. The extent of vulgarity seemed unbelievable. The way men spoke about women was beyond pornographic. I was no prude but often it really depressed me. I guess the Army was very different by the time the Vietnam War rolled around.