Wednesday, November 29, 2006

FOR THE GOOD OF ALL!!!! –More Concepts Concerning John Katzenbach’s HART’S WAR

In this article, I take a second opportunity to comment on John Katzenbach’s HART’S WAR ( New York: Ballentine 1999). I do this because in the waning chapters of the novel a subtle TERRIFYING portrait of the layered evils and confusion of war is presented by Katzenbach, who’s father had been a U.S. airman in WWII and who had ended up a prisoner-of-war in Nazi Germany throughout most of that war. These final chapters reveal a disturbing picture of the consequences of injustice carried out in the acts of self-preservation. This is subtly mentioned but ever-lurking in the background of both the film version of the novel as well as in the Ballentine publication, itself.

There is latent sense of evil when any man seeks first and foremost for self-preservation. In the film this is seen in the isolation and framing of the black pilot, Lt. Scott of the Tuskagee airman fame. The basic question is: Why should a man, who had not committed a crime, have to die in order to cover up the fact that a whole platoon of men were planning an escape?

Naturally, any soldier knows that such sacrifices in battle are called for from him time-and-again. On the other hand, as the book points out, any officer with men under him (or her) has to make choices as to whom they will send out to attack and whom will most likely get killed, i.e. sacrificing some soldiers to help others succeed in their missions and hopefully lead eventually to shortening the end of conflict—saving some other future generation, i.e. sacrifices “for the good of all”.

However, in both the Hart’s War book and movie version, defendant Lt. Scott’s counselor, Lt. Tommy Hart is also certainly finding himself in a situation to suffer and die for many others. In the film, Hart makes the audacious claim that he should be executed as Scott wasn’t the murder. Hart claims that he, himself, committed a murder in anger. He lies and prepares himself to be sacrificed in order to cover up the major escape attempt taking place at that very moment.

Likewise, in Katzenbach’s novel, Lt. Hart is called upon by events to put himself in a life-endangering situation protecting the escape route as prisoners climb and run out of a man-dug tunnel and hole. Hart does this by standing outside the fence of the prison in a fairly vulnerable position for a lengthy period of time while signaling whether “All was Clear” to nearly 20 other soldiers who managed to escape. However, Hart soon finds himself in a life-and-death struggle with an armed Nazi Officer just a few feet from the escape hole outside the prison fence, where he has been forced to stay for nearly two entire years. Finally, Hart succeeds in killing the officer.

Somewhere during that fight with the Nazi officer on the ground outside the prison camp, Hart had become determined that he wanted more-than-ever to live rather than die. So, despite losing the use of one of his hands in the battle of his life, Hart has been inspired to self-preservation despite having to struggle against a stronger man. Frustratingly for the reader, one observes in Katzenbach’s narration that in the subsequent attempt to take suspicion away from the American camp, Hart slowly moves the dead body of the Nazi officer several hundred meters to a location next to where Russian prisoners were being kept.


It is then in one of the final chapters that Lt. Hart is presented eighty-four hats by the German Officer who runs all of the prison camps in the area. These are Russian hats that Lt. Hart has been given as a reminder of what the killing of one Nazi officer meant in the horrible stage in the war.

In short, Nazis had killed over 84 Russian soldiers in retaliation for the killing of a single Nazi officer. However, because Lt. Hart had laid the body of the dead SS officer on the doorsteps of the neighboring Russian camp, the Nazi’s retaliation was not taken against the Americans soldiers and escapees (as it should have been if life in war were fair).

Instead, the punishment for the “murder” of the Nazi German officer was unfairly dealt to the Russians--those so-called “Untermenschen” of that Nazi regime. In short, Katzenbach has somewhat created a metaphor for the comparatively greater (and unfair level of) sacrifices by the citizens of the Soviet Union in WWII, who as a whole faced the fuller brunt of hate, prejudice, mistreatment, and murder on the Eastern front of Hitler’s greatest mistake in military history.

What is the value of one man? Is it the same as that of another man?

In war this appears to be not the case. This is something important about war that Katzenbach is pointing readers to. In other words, wars are not clean and a lot of actions of one person can lead to many deaths of others.

This is something that needs to be understood by those who support going to war-- whenever and wherever the rationale for it may be.

Alas, most soldiers and citizens have not promoted discussion of what really happens in war. The common public discussions in America seem to be all-too-often “rah-rah-rah” nonsense, similar to the great part of the Hollywood film version of Hart’s War, where all the escapees (but one) get out safely and even blow up a neighboring munitions plant on their way.

But, war is more like the book version of Hart’s War where for every single one enemy officer killed one-hundred others will die—with the majority of these being civilians or innocent of bad intent.


Katzenbach, by focusing on trials and race relations, seems to imply that in war everyone is a killer or potential killer. There is no big deal about this!! Katzenbach seems to state. As one comes to the end of the book and reads his epilogue, it is clear with how people deal with prison and use their war memories that is more important for Katzbach.

If one views the trajectory of the “Greatest Generation”, Katzenbach is more concerned with how people lived their lives after the war. The main character, Lt. Thomas Hart, appears to have thought little about the fact that 100 Russians were executed because he killed a Nazi German officer name Visser. Moreover, he has made his peace with all the others who had mistreated him and his defendant in the dramatic trial. He no longer wants to kill the men who set up his client, Lt. Scott, to be framed and executed for a crime he never committed.

For Hart, truth is not longer the most important or overriding thing that drives his efforts in the world. He has accepted the fact that his hands were dirtied by the bombings he was undertaking (as a navigator of populated cities ) and struggles or battles he fought in the war. That is simply part of the nastiness of war.

However, we readers need to invite ourselves to weigh the facts of history and war more carefully. Those of us who don’t go to war or refuse to go to war should not feel they have to be as confused morally as are the imprisoned soldiers in the military prison camps. We have a duty to recall what really happens in war and to let our children know important facts, such as “collateral damage” is too often equal to either homicide or murder. That is a fact. Let’s admit it before we go to war—instead of trying to forget it long after the battles are over.

Note: This doesn’t mean than all murderers are the same. (“Murderer” means someone who killed someone with some sort of intention.) Those who execute one-hundred Russian soldiers for a crime which they did not commit are guilty of graver crimes than the soldier who tried to save his own skin.

I encourage you readers to discuss this and related topics further. Agreement isn't the important thing but seeking truth and justice counts far more than hyperbolic whitewashing of events related to life and death.



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