Review Blog

Jan 18 2012

Battle fatigue by Mark Kurlansky

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Bloomsbury, 2011. ISBN 9781408826911.
For Joel Bloom, a boy growing up in 1960s America, war is familiar and an accepted fact of life. Parents, relatives, neighbours and teachers have served in World War Two and some have been significantly affected. Whilst some are reticent to divulge details, others share tales and experiences, many of which appeal to impressionable children. This prompts Joel and his friends to re-enact vague battles influenced by patriotism and a juvenile grasp of history, as a popular playtime ritual.
As Joel meanders through his childhood which is affected by an appreciation of the more recent Korean War and direct experience of the Cuban Missile Crisis, his perspective matures and he demonstrates a philosophical intuition which is amusing and thought provoking. The introduction of an enjoyment (which evolves into obsession) with baseball is a refreshing and realistic aside which tempers the sad but accurate depiction of children who believed that they were destined to die in a nuclear holocaust.
Joel sees military service as an inevitable path in life and in this he is no different to the veterans in his community or the traumatised older boys who have survived tours in Vietnam. Experiences at secondary school and college prompt him to question the broader issues of international conflict and the fundamentals of killing on a personal and human level. Joel's position gains clarity and urgency as his draft eligibility approaches and the reader is taken on the disconcerting, confused journey which so many young men must have faced as they rationalised their responsibilities, fears and preferences in a bid to arrive at the least worst outcome.
Military service in Vietnam versus safety in the Army Reserves or exile in Canada or conscientious objection or failing the induction test on fabricated medical grounds or ensuring rejection in more humiliating ways - these were the limited options available to young men whose long term plans for sporting prowess, study, careers and relationships were all altered by the expectation that they undertake mandatory military service. Through Joel, the reader gains some understanding of the significant impact that the Vietnam war had young men, even before the issue of death or disfigurement is considered. Younger readers who are not familiar with the era will readily transpose modern conflict and draw their own conclusions about compulsory military service and what forms of courage exist.
Rob Welsh

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