Our current HuffPost Book Club pick is "What It Is Like To Go To War" by Karl Marlantes. We are talking about different aspects of the military experience over on our Book Club page; this entry was created as part of the discussion; go to the page to have your say.
In my novel The Baker's Daughter, four chapters are from the perspective of a Nazi officer. Writing these was no easy task.
For those four chapters, I slipped on the psyche of a soldier dedicated to his country's code. The title 'Nazi' reverberates with horror, terror, and anger. But I had to put aside my 21st-century moral judgments; my Monday morning quarterback condemnation; my memories of visiting Dachau, touching the cold brick ovens and thinking, How, how, how? I had to remove my author self from the equation and attempt to answer that question.
I started by remembering that the Nazis were made up of people, flesh and blood. Not hermetic demons as we may want to believe. My character, Josef Hub, was a common man. One morning he awoke as a son, a neighbor, a student, a German, and by nightfall, he was a Nazi enrobed in his country's honorable title of soldier. What mother wouldn't be proud to see her boy in uniform, serving for his people and beside his countrymen?
I wrote about my military affiliations in an earlier Huffington Post guest blog, so I'll omit my generational timeline and simply say, I grew up in the military and am now the spouse of an army officer.
I'm familiar with being inside the barbed-wire bubble that is the military community and can tell you firsthand: family members, friends, and fellow citizens don't solicit the details of being a soldier. People don't ask if my easy-going husband who supports my feminist convictions would shoot a woman terrorist with her gun aimed at his comrade. They don't want to hear the answer, or experience the internal squirm of imagining the scenario. It's uncomfortable. It's a moral confliction.
While researching and studying the German community and Nazism for my book, I was reminded that the German people elected Adolf Hitler and his political agenda. It's a stinging fact.
As citizens of a democracy, aren't we raised to adhere and support the judicial governances established by those we elect to power? We learn the Pledge of Allegiance in the first grade. At the same time, we're taught to value our own opinions and judgments, to weigh the right and wrong in a gray-scale world. We establish armies to maintain peace and stability. But what happens when there is no peace? When lawful order is replaced by chaos and fear in wartime.
I revisited Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried while grappling with the psychological girth of my German officer in The Baker's Daughter. I wanted to feel the weight of battle on a common man, and in my humble opinion, nobody captures it quite like O'Brien. Of war he wrote, "You slip out of your own skin, like molting, shedding your own history and your own future, leaving behind everything you ever were or wanted to believed in. You know you're about to die. And it's not a movie and you aren't a hero and all you can do is whimper and wait."
Soldiers often dig deep emotional graves for the memories of their war-filled weeks, months, and years. They want that part of themselves, who they were during that time, to be dead. Even if they never hurt a soul, fear is a dark and menacing thing. Our men of war aren't supposed to be afraid. They're supposed to be superhuman; yet, like the Nazis, the lore of their title often belies the actuality. Mankind is made of the same stuff, now and then, here and there. It trembles at darkness. It cowers at death. We may not see these signs in the flesh, but the soul can't negate instinct.
So I wrote my Josef as honestly as I could. A common German seamstress's son who pulled himself up to military commendation on the grandiose hope of doing good, of being a leader and serving his people righteously. A man who trusted his commanders and obeyed without question. A good soldier until a moment came when his duty contrasted with his heart. He makes a decision counterintuitive to his training, his allegiances, his government, and the spark of inner turmoil is lit. He spends the rest of the book plagued by the rights done wrong and the wrongs done right until they conquer him.
For four chapters of The Baker's Daughter, I was a Nazi named Josef, tormented to the point of madness by the paradoxes inherent in war: the blurred lines of doing what we're told and what we want; the collective good against individual ethics; the man versus the soldier. In the novel's forty-seven other chapters, the readers are privy to the public persona of Officer Hub: the shined boots and neat uniform; the man adhering to rules and authority; the powerful warrior committed to his duty, honor, and country.
I'll be honest, it was an onerous task to write under the psychological hood of war. I struggled but knew it was essential to the story and my attempt to unearth a truth. War asks us to give up our humanity, but if we do, aren't we losing what we're fighting for in the first place?