Professor Phil Beidler’s Beautiful War: Studies in a Dreadful Fascination

Dr. Philip Beidler has been a professor in the Department of English since the 1970s and holds Master’s and Doctoral degrees in English from the University of Virginia. He also served as a lieutenant in an armored cavalry platoon in Vietnam. Professor Beidler recently spoke with Dr. Shanti Weiland about the most recent of his many books, Beautiful War: Studies in a Dreadful Fascination, which is forthcoming from The University of Alabama Press. In the book, Professor Beidler draws on his experience as a veteran and a scholar to explore the ways in which writers, artists, and military combatants understand and represent the trauma of battle.

When you were writing this book, you seem to have viewed the subject matter both through an academic lens and also the lens of a Vietnam War Veteran. What were the advantages and challenges of viewing representations of war through these different perspectives? 

The experience of sustained combat under military discipline changes a person forever.  You see and undergo things that you hope no one else will ever have to experience.  Writing a book about representations of war from the standpoint of the former military combatant gives one a reality check on all kinds of questions about representation, of aesthetic and ideological intent.  But you still have to remember that plenty of artists have given us moving and eloquent depictions of what the Vietnamese writer Bao Ninh calls “the sorrows of war” without ever hearing a shot fired. Verisimilitude—graphic depictions of violence, killing, wounding, etc.—probably becomes more of an issue for the former combatant than for others, especially with the American 20th century genres, often called “guts and glory,” in literature and film. As I mentioned in “Ted Turner et al. at Gettysburg,” I have trouble wrapping my head around re-enactor and military buff cultures. At the same time, even that very commercial film genre has moving and eloquent moments that measure the human costs of war.

I found chapter four, “What Lady Butler Knew,” particularly interesting and was drawn to Lady Butler’s painting, Listed for the Connaught Rangers. As a viewer, I appreciate the contrast between the beautiful landscape and what looks to be ruins to the left of the image. The young boys are engaged with carrying or keeping track of items (drums, a coat, a dog). The older soldier, while carrying himself confidently in uniform, looks more serious than the cocky recruit in the middle. To the left, the drummer boy looks burdened and resigned, and the other recruit looks toward the ruins at the side of the path. Which of Lady Butler’s paintings did you find most engaging?

This painting measures “the human costs of war.” The old soldier, the recruit, and the drummer boy, all give us a sense of what it will be like on the day of battle.  I think all the young “volunteer” combatants of our recent wars are undergoing conscription by another name. They were good kids who couldn’t find a job or didn’t have the money for college. That’s our version of Listed for the Connaught Rangers.  I had them in my own armored cavalry platoon in Vietnam. As to all our recent wars, I think our politicians and decision-makers could have used a good dose of Lady Butler’s The Remnants of an Army, which depicts Dr. William Brydon, a British Army surgeon, who was the last man out of Kabul nearly 200 years ago.

Lady Butler’s work illustrates a female perspective of war, and women’s participation in battle has changed significantly over the last century. What role do you think women will play in future conflicts? Do you think that the changing roles of women in the armed forces will serve to reshape the war narrative?

Women will play an increasingly important role in close combat in our very next wars.  They will be on the ground as members of traditional combat arms.  They will also be flying combat aircraft and commanding combat units. Women are now members of various ground forces and have succeeded in joining elite combat formations such as the U.S. Army Rangers. How they are going to write as combatants will be an exciting thing to see. There are some combat narratives I know of by women about the Vietnamese War. Women combatant writers seem to concentrate once again on the immediate human cost.

In chapter 9, “What Kurt Vonnegut Saw in World War II,” you discuss one of the scenes from Slaughterhouse Five that has haunted me since I read the book years ago: the firebombing of Dresden. I always remember Vonnegut’s description of the devastation, first as the moment that Pilgrim is watching the barbershop quartet and remembers the similar appearance of the German soldiers. As you were writing this book, did you find yourself making unexpected or unconventional connections?

Vonnegut gives you those strange epiphanies on nearly every page.  I think about Billy’s getting picked up by the ski patrol at Sugarbush, VT—Austrians in golliwog ski masks speaking German with Billy, lying there injured in the snow—also where he was when he was captured—wondering who won the war. Or Billy’s wife, Valencia Merble Pilgrim, dying of carbon monoxide poisoning (a German method from early in the mass exterminations) when her Cadillac El Dorado Couple de Ville is rear-ended by a Mercedes, wrecking the exhaust system.  That’s the Vonnegut way, and the reason it grabs us so is because these strange things happen all the time in combat and in one’s memories of combat.

How do you think globalization will affect the way we handle international conflict in the future?

It depends on having leaders who are able to think globally. At present, I don’t see any occasion for hope.

At the end of your book, you write that “Seventy seems a good time to be moving on.” Where would you like to focus your studies next, and how will your experiences, so far, influence this new shift?

In recent years, I have been able to do a lot of writing-related travel.  I’ve been in Prague, Berlin, London, Havana, Beijing, and—oh, yes—Hannibal, Missouri. I am writing a text I call my “old man book.”  It is entitled The Great Beyond:  the Strange Afterlives of Artists and their Creations.  There are chapters on Gustav Mahler, Mark Twain, Virginia Woolf, W.G. Sebald, and others.  I call it my old man book because it will get done when it gets done.  I’m just happy to be here to write it.