Writer Offers Glimpse Into a Soldier’s Heart

If today’s soldiers feel forgotten, it’s understandable. Most of us civilians have become conditioned to expect that if we’re really at war we’ll see it every night on TV in our home or favorite sports bar. I was reminded the other day that we are indeed at war when General Tony Thomas, head of the U.S. Special Operations Command, said, “Our government continues to be in unbelievable turmoil. I hope they sort it out soon because we are a nation at war.”

That led me to think about a great short story by Philip Roth. Set during WWII, the story is “Defender of the Faith,” which can be found in Major American Short Stories, edited by A. Walton Litz:

This excerpt appears at the end of the opening paragraph, and Grossbart, who has served in the military for two years, is leaving Germany with his Ninth Army company and expecting to be sent east to the front :
. . . eastward until we’d circled the globe, marching through villages along whose twisting, cobbled streets crowds of the enemy would watch us take possession of what, up till then, they’d considered their own. I had changed enough in two years not to mind the trembling of the old people, the crying of the very young, the uncertainty and fear in the eyes of the once arrogant. I had been fortunate enough to develop an infantryman’s heart, which, like his feet, first aches and swells, but finally grows horny enough for him to travel the weirdest paths without feeling a thing.

My Take-away: This description feels to me like the essence of what it is to become a soldier. I can’t know this, of course, and I recognize that Roth is describing one particular soldier.

Comparing Grossbart’s heart to his feet is such an apt metaphor.  (I wish instead of “horny” he had said “calloused.”)

It’s a mark of some fine writing when you feel you’ve glimpsed how experience can alter someone’s view of the world. Makes me think about the influence of experience on my own view.

What’s your take-away? Please leave a comment.


3 thoughts on “Writer Offers Glimpse Into a Soldier’s Heart

  1. Just this morning I read a short story with my sophomores called “The Censors” by Argentinian author Luisa Valenzuela. It’s a story about how a man starts out with one purpose in mind when he takes a job (to intercept a letter to his lover because it might cause trouble for her with the government) but how the job changes him as he devotes him time there and eventually, he becomes another man altogether. It is another example of how time and experience change you into someone you never intended to be, like the story by Roth.

    1. It’s fun to ruminate (great entertainment I discovered as an only child) about how either sudden events (an earthquake, a lottery win) or gradual influences (worsening eyesight, increasing skill at playing the clarinet) change who we become. Do we ever stop becoming?

  2. No, we probably never stop “becoming.” So many things change us in small ways and occasionally something changes us in a big way!

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