Thomas Merton's ambivalent war novel
By Mark Pritchard
On the first day of the war with Iraq, I stood
with a friend and his 12-year-old daughter outside the downtown headquarters of the
Bechtel corporation. Linking arms with others, we stood blocking the rear doors of
the 50 Beale St. skyscraper, with the goal of preventing the company from conducting
business that day.
Over the course of the long morning, irritated office workers -- some of whom worked
for other companies in the building, not Bechtel -- came up and tried to get through
our lines, and we gently blocked them. In fact, by 10:00 a.m. the security guards
closed the building anyway -- not in sympathy with us protesters but in fear of us,
in case one of us was a mad bomber. Some of the office workers asked us why we were
there, and received a flier printed with various accusations against the Bechtel company,
which over many decades has been involved with, and profited from, some dubious American
policy in the third world. I don't know if we enlightened anyone, but I thought the
symbolic protest was worthwhile.
That protest was one of several I had participated in... but my personal feelings were
ambivalent. While I was solidly for any plan that held off the war while holding Iraq
accountable for its weapons programs, I also sympathized with the suffering of the
Iraqi people under a brutal dictatorship. I thought it was a terrible idea for the U.S.
to attack a country which had not attacked us, but it was also obvious that "removal"
of the Hussein regime would benefit that country. If it had to happen, I just wanted
it done as bloodlessly as possible.
And despite my better reasoning, something in me wanted to see the U.S. speed to the
rescue. To someone raised on the standard explanation for World War II -- that the U.S.
had entered the war to free people from the oppression of Germany and Japan, and then
only when attacked ourselves -- as well as countless cartoonish melodramas, from Superman
to James Bond to the Road Warrior, in which some costumed hero saves the world through
violent action, that fantasy had a strong attraction. Gen. Tommy Franks and his sidekicks
were going to bust down the door of a Baghdad palace and sock Hussein in the jaw! Who
wouldn't want to see that?
Resemblances to a bad action movie aside, the war in Iraq offered several moral dilemmas.
If it was a war for oil, that's bad -- even the Bush administration seems to agree, since
they denied that was the reason -- but will that stop American companies like Bechtel
from profiting from the subsequent oil trade? If it was a war to rid the world of Iraq's
"weapons of mass destruction" (the chemical and biological weapons they have had in the
past, and perhaps still have), what happens if we never find any? Was there ever any real
connection, as the President has asserted, between Iraq and Al-Qaeda or the "War on
Terror"? How much of our national willingness to start a war has to do with an American
antipathy to Arabs or Muslims? And now that the Hussein regime has been vanquished, is
the U.S. going to use the same logic against Syria, Iran, Pakistan and other nations?
Mixed feelings about war are nothing new for Americans. Though most people remember World
War II as a "good war" where Americans were clear on why we were involved and
unquestioning of the wisdom of joining in, back in the late 1930s agreement wasn't nearly
as unanimous as we remember. As today, there was a great deal of ambivalence about the
threats posed by an evil dictator as well as the horrific notion that a war was necessary
to unseat him. As today, there was an antiwar movement on campuses in both the U.S. and
the U.K., with students signing a pacifist pledge, promising to refuse induction into the
armed forces. And just as today, there was propaganda and sanctimony on both sides of the
In those days, a young Thomas Merton -- born in France to a New Zealander father and
an American mother, both painters; a teenage orphan who lived in English boarding schools;
a budding novelist, and a recent convert to Roman Catholicism -- struggled with these
issues. In 1941 he was a 26-year-old English teacher at St. Bonaventure College in upstate
New York. That summer, a few months before he decided to enter the Trappist monastery in
Kentucky where he was to spend almost the whole of the rest of his life, Merton wrote a
novel, his fourth attempt at the form and the only one ever published. This book was
finally published, in 1969 as the world confronted other conflicts, as My Argument
with the Gestapo (New York: New Directions, 1969).
Written in the form of a journal -- the original title was "Journal of My Escape from
the Nazis" -- the book follows a young man as he wanders in wartime London and occupied
France. The narrator, who has no name, whose occupation is vague (he allows that he is
a kind of journalist, but only in the sense that he is writing a journal), and who
claims citizenship only of an imaginary country called Casa -- the language of which
is a macaronic blend of romance languages and English, a kind of proto-beatnik
Esperanto -- documents his encounters with the populace, with soldiers, and especially
with officialdom in the form of censors, detectives, and secret police.
Merton's book was written at a time when the U.S, officially neutral, was providing
the U.K. with crucial support. Americans were watching newsreels of German (and
Japanese) wartime cruelty and of England suffering under German bombing. The American
public was expected to strongly sympathize with the English, whose stiff upper lips
were supposed to be both a model of courageous resistance and a warning that the U.S.
might soon find itself involved in the same fight.
Merton looked upon all this with a jaundiced eye. Having lived his childhood in France
and most of the decade of his teens in England, he much preferred the former; English
food, fashions, habits, domiciles, and above all English kitsch and sentimentality all
revolted him. As a recent and zealous convert to Roman Catholicism, he regarded England's
Protestantism as a nadir of spirituality, not to mention taste.
Thus his treatment in his novel of the much-heralded British pluck is more cynical
than sympathetic. His narrator has gone to London to see the war for himself. Confined
in a tube-station bomb shelter with the hoi polloi, his eye and ear is merciless: "The
sound of the lamentable, croaking, gay songs they have been singing, down there, to
the tune of the broken accordions, makes me shudder in my sleep," he writes.
An old man comes up to me.
"What nationality are you?" he
says. "You are not English. Where do you come from, to see us English people in our
silent, incomprehensible courage? What do the people in your country think of our
resistance? Do they know how brave we are? Do they understand our bravery?"
The whole earth shakes with a giant bomb
above us, so great that
spontaneously, all over the tunnel, voices begin at once the words of the very same
song, together: a song full of lying gaiety, cloaked in smut.
"Listen to them," says the man who has
been talking to me. "You say you
do not know your own nationality. Then if you have no national pride, how can you
expect to understand our bravery?"
Merton's narrator resists nationality, in so far as it imposes any sort of emotional cant,
because during wartime nationality is inextricably linked to sentimentality and to its
rhetorical cousin, propaganda. He understands that "national pride" and "bravery" are
just code words.
"Why are you fighting?" I ask him. "Tell me clearly, what for: not in the language of
politicians. Tell me some concrete things you are fighting for."
"We are fighting for Cadbury's chocolate, for
Woodbines, for the London
County Council, for the Gasworks, for the Doulton Pottery at Lambeth, and for the broken
span in the middle of the Waterloo Bridge. We are fighting for Lord Nelson's blind eye,
for his last words ('Kiss me, Hardy') and his notorious mistress, Lady Hamilton,
portrayed in our films by Vivian Leigh..."
But this novel is not just satire. By becoming a stateless person and confessing
allegiance only to an inviolate country of the heart, Merton's narrator is testing
what is true and what is false about the world's situation and that of the individual.
He rejects the comforts of popular culture, especially cinema, and the easy answers it
offers. After finding his way to France through a secret route, he encounters a German
officer, who tries to establish his brotherhood with the narrator by recalling the
anti-war film All Quiet on the Western Front. Thus Merton finds the Germans
quite as sentimental, and thus as misled and misinformed, as the English.
This equation of the English and the Germans, sacrilegious as it must have been in
1941, is not extended to the French, whom Merton likes better. When he steps into a
Parisian café to ask directions, the narrator finds no sentimentality among
its embittered patrons, only "fierceness": "The men stand there with a strictly
human and French anger in their eyes, offended, not like dogs, offended like men."
In this, too, he takes a contrary stand. The defeat or surrender of the French in
1940 was (and still is, as we can see from recent mockery) looked down upon. But
for Merton it was no disgrace; it didn't suggest anything inferior about them, in
contrast to the vaunted "bravery" of the English, because the French were still
confronted with -- indeed, forced by their situation to confront -- moral questions.
In fact, for Merton's narrator, the technical condition of being free or conquered
is not what really matters. After being detained and interrogated about his nationality
and the reason for his presence in Paris, Merton's narrator is free to wander around
the city and ponder existential questions. In the book's most quoted section, the
narrator, having admitted to an interrogator some bare biographical facts, says,
You think you can identify a man by giving his date of birth and his address, his
height, his eyes' color, even his fingerprints. Such information will help you put
the right tag on his body if you should run across his body somewhere full of bullets,
but it doesn't say anything about the man himself. Men become objects and not persons.
Now you complain because there is a war,
but war is the proper state for a world in which men are a series of numbered bodies.
War is the state that now perfectly fits your philosophy of life: you deserve the war
for believing the things you believe. In so far as I tend to believe those same things
and act according to such lies, I am part of the complex of responsibilities for the
But if you want to identify me, ask me
not where I live, or what I like to eat, or how I comb my hair, but ask me what I
think I am living for, in detail, and ask me what I think is keeping me from living
fully for the thing I want to live for. Between these two answers you can determine
the identity of any person. The better answer he has, the more of a person he is.
This credo of identity provides the key
for his character. Beneath his swipes at English cant, fatuous Germans and the
treachery of movies, Merton really does want to know what you're fighting for,
whether you're English, French, German or from "Casa." His fundamental concern
is with personal integrity, and whether one's principles are linked to ultimate
truth. Though his references in his novel to religion are mostly veiled, we
can now see -- in light of the fact that Merton was about to make the greatest
decision of his life, to become a Trappist monk -- what he thought of his own
situation. Finding himself in a war -- not the literal war of the French
(though he was most in sympathy with them) but a spiritual war -- he dearly
wished to emerge the victor.
Merton's entry into monastic life, in December of that year -- just after Pearl
Harbor, as it happened, though in his autobiography he claims this did not
enter into his decision -- was one victory in this spiritual war, but not the
end of his struggle for integrity. At various times during the rest of his
life -- as documented in letters and in the personal journal he kept -- he
often wondered whether he was in the right place. Usually this ambivalence
had to do with whether, in the Trappist monastery he chose, he was going to
be given the latitude to pursue his struggle. Significantly, each time he
came close to leaving for another monastic environment, he chose to stay put.
He knew his struggle was, like his novel's character, not dependent on place,
but was in his own heart.
I suspect Merton would take a dim view of our country's justifications for the
Iraq war. He would dispense with the patriotic fervor, the cheerleading and the
pious talk from governments on every side; as he ignored Hitler, he would no
doubt ignore Hussein as a justification. At the same time, he would question
his own feelings and reasoning, and call on others to do the same. Judging
from his other writings, I think his greatest sympathy would be with women
and defenseless civilians. At the same time, I'm not sure he would be quick
to support, for example, the dubious and poorly organized "human shield"
movement, because as he learned more and more about nonviolence, he developed
a great faculty of discernment when it came to activism.
But whatever I may imagine would have been Merton's reaction to the events of
our day, I take heart from his cautious reaction to the war of his own day.
Following his example, we should reject the clamor of news and propaganda,
think for ourselves, and discover that the origin of war is in our own hearts.
Then we can pray, finally, for forgiveness, and repentance.
For further reading
The best introduction to Thomas Merton
is his autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain, considered a 20th century
classic, in print since it was first published in 1948. Also recommended is
The Thomas Merton Reader (New York: Image Books, 1974) with articles,
poems, and excerpts from his journals. My Argument with the Gestapo: A
Macaronic Journal (New York: New Directions, 1969) is available, with
all Merton's other work, at Thomas Merton Books online.
Merton websites: Firewatch; the Thomas Merton Studies Center; the
Merton Society of Great Britain and Ireland.
Remaking: the Many Masks of Thomas Merton, an essay by Michael Higgins.
Merton We Knew, a biographical essay by Jim Wright.
Merton's Columbia classmate and lifelong friend Ed Rice was
profiled in Columbia University's magazine in May 2001.
A new book,
The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage,
looks at the lives of four prominent American authors who were Roman Catholics --
Merton, Dorothy Day, Flannery O'Connor, and Walker Percy.
last updated 21 Jun 05 |
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copyright 2003 Mark Pritchard, Bernal Heights, San Francisco