Marianna Torgovnick's The War Complex is one of those particularly frustrating books, the kind which would have been rich and compelling, but for the author. Her topic is relevant and important: the debilitating effect on man's imagination of the massive death and violence of the 20th century's wars, especially World War II. Torgovnick looks for that effect primarily in American culture, but suggests also how it ripples throughout the world. She focuses on a variety of events and cultural products, including D-Day, the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the post-war literature of the 1920s, and the work of W.G. Sebald, that generate worthwhile insights. But these are obscured in Torgovnick's book, which consistently ignores its own deepest commentary for the sake of its political program.
The thesis of the book is that a "war complex" has tainted, and at times dominated, the mind of the 20th century. A war complex, in Torgovnick's words, "is the difficulty of confronting the fact of mass, sometimes simultaneous, death caused by human beings wielding technology, in shorter and shorter periods of time, often on religious or ethnic grounds and under government or other political auspicesa fact urged on us repeatedly by World War II but as insistently deflected." But when Torgovnick actually describes what this war complex is and how it affects us, she careens from chapter to chapter, piling disconnected ideas and observations one on top of the other in an incoherent mess. At the end of the book, the reader does not know any more about what the war complex is or how it manifests itself in our culture and thinking.
Torgovnick, an English professor at Duke who has written several books of cultural criticism, seems to understand everything in terms of various academic theories (literary, psychological, etc.). In this book, she fails to present the war complex effectively because she relies on the kind of intellectual approach that academics with her background are accustomed to taking. It is an approach that may have limited usefulness, for instance, in studying literature, but it does not help much with history or cultural commentary.
This is apparent in her chapter on D-Day. Because she approaches the event with a narrow theory in hand, her entire discussion presupposes the result. Torgovnick's conclusion is that Americans focus on D-Day because it allows us to memorialize the massive loss of life in World War II by focusing on a battle of one epic day, on which casualties, in fact, were relatively light. It represents "a simulation of devastating losses without the accompanying grim realities of massive death [italics hers]." Thus it connects to the war complex, which involves dealing with "massive death caused by humans." But she simply declares, to start, that "American cultural memory begins" with D-Day, ignoring the importance of Pearl Harbor and the Holocaust (she does address the Holocaust in another context) in our memory of World War II. Then she insists that Americans always associate D-Day foremost with tremendous loss of life. But this is not self-evident at all, and her only proof is that many people she asked thought that more Americans died in Normandy than actually did. She doesn't ever seem to consider that D-Day is a central memory rather because it illustrates the bravery of American soldiers in an extremely risky and perilous invasion that began the Allied march to Berlin. Though some may overestimate the death count, that seems a marginal point.
Torgovnick muddies her presentation with banal observations and jargony prose typical of literary criticism. For instance, she ends a lengthy discussion of conventional narrative versus "the realm of guy-talk," personal and impersonal identity, and "stereotyping" with the trite observation that "only the loss of identity enables the men to kill and to die under orders. When depersonalization falters, the casual brutalities of war become less thinkable." She means that soldiers find it harder to kill enemy soldiers if they think of them as human. True, but hardly new.
Torgovnick's pseudo-scientific, vague vocabulary exasperates the reader with such passages as, "war strips individual soldiersindividual men, since the genre is gender-specificof a particularized identity. It makes sense, then, that particularized identity in war is often conferred by linking characters to their mothers…or to their erotic partners." Such writing cripples our understanding of the subject. It distracts us with the presumption of scientific objectivity when in fact, in its terms and in its assumptions, it stuffs the subject into the narrow box of theories that explain very little.
Torgovnick constantly confines her subject within intellectual concepts that fail to address the genuinely fascinating matters that she raises. In her chapter on Eichmann's trial, she starts promisingly. Summarizing his crimes and his actions after the war, she emphasizes both Eichmann's clear responsibility for knowingly abetting the Holocaust and his relatively anonymous place in the Nazi state: a bureaucratic functionary, he was not in Hitler's inner circle. But she sees a contradiction between those facts and our reaction to Eichmann, which she describes as "fascination, laced with contempt, far more than fear or horrified awe." So she resolves the contradiction by calling our reaction "a class reaction, based on Eichmann's lack of elegance and of the proper social class." She describes the public reaction to Eichmann narrowly, as she did with public memory of D-Day, in order to trot out his class as an explanation. This shortchanges the complexity of the subject and ignores other promising themes, such as her comments on Hannah Arendt's idea of Eichmann as the family man blind to the moral implications of the job that supported his wife and children.
Such is the essential failure of the book: leaving undeveloped the richest material in order to present a theory that obfuscates the issue, rather than illuminates it. Torgovnick's book is, in fact, a call to overcome the results of the war complex, which the author sees as instrumental in the aggressive response to September 11. "Cultural memory in the United States effected social unity based on processes of othering. …Such forms of othering forestall what I will call in this book a more creativeif sometimes problematic and difficult--process toward an ethics of identification." Her ultimate point is that we should empathize with others, in "an expanded sense of connection and community." This is another banality presented as an intellectual achievement. As the summit of a book with some fascinating material, it is a disappointing peak.
The War Complex is most illuminating when addressing W.G. Sebald's fiction. Though it makes similar mistakes as others, the chapter on his writing is her best. In many ways, Sebald fits perfectly with her concern in this book. A German academic working in East Anglia who wrote four enigmatic novels shortly before he died at the age of 57, Sebald has been discovered by intellectuals on the American Left; but his appeal should not be partisan. His novels are formally difficult, usually tracing the thoughts and ruminations of a narrator, who resembles the author, over the course of European history and the European continent without much conventional plot to organize them. Throughout his books, Sebald sprinkles several curious photographs without any captions, which relate directly and indirectly to the prose. This is the kind of "challenging" writing that tends to titillate English departments needlessly, but in this case the substance of the novels backs up the challenge.
Sebald pondered deeply the effect of World War II and the Holocaust on Western cultural memory. As Torgovnick points out, although he rarely mentions the Holocaust in most of his novels, Sebald manages to imply it as a suffocating presence. In all of his novels, the characters (such as they are) and the narrator make meandering connections between the present day and their own circumstances and history. The sense of something lost, of living in the ruins of civilization, pervades the books. History weighs on the present like sodden earth.
In discussing Sebald, Torgovnick comes closest to a compelling commentary on the shadow that World War II has cast on the modern mind. Perhaps because her academic work usually concerns the novel, she is in her element here, and her reading of Sebald reveals an impressive amount in a mere twenty pages. But ultimately, in choosing to make Sebald an apostle of empathy and identification, Torgovnick ignores the shadow cast by the event that she herself insists towers over his work: the Holocaust and the ruinous destruction of World War II. It is the same shadow that sits over us today, which makes her ethics of identification seem naïve and a-historical. Suffocated by a civilization become decadent, the West in the twentieth century gasped in a spasm of violence. In the forgetful aftermath, Sebald implies, we seem to face only expiration. When his characters recall all the connections, all the history implicit in a particular place, they are not rescuing the dead; the dead are haunting them. "They are ever coming back to us, the dead," one of Sebald's narrators says. For Torgovnick, this is a happy development, which expands our sense of community. But it seems rather like an unavoidable oppression of history, a visitation by the enervating ghosts of a civilization sitting amidst its own bombed-out ruins.
Torgovnick's misinterpretation of Sebald mirrors her larger failure to appreciate the full, and often quite dire, implications of the "war complex" that is the subject of her book. In focusing on the romanticized glory of D-Day, the frightening banality of Eichmann, and other historical moments as cultural myths, she discusses only a narrow aspect of their influence: their role in justifying American foreign policy, especially after September 11. Paradoxically, this both inflates their importance and underestimates it. For cultural myths and general influences on the political personality are rarely immediate determinants of particular policies. They may lurk in the background, but various other calculations and ambitions inevitably enter the picture. Doubtless, Torgovnick knows this, yet all she says directly on the contemporary relevance and effect of the war complex is that it fueled the march to war in Iraq by its "processes of othering" which, as we saw, "forestalled" an "ethics of identification." One wonders: is that it?