Unknown Soldiers

Last week I reviewed the Finnish film Talvisota (The Winter War) for Historical Movie Monday. At the time I had just started reading a novel taking place a year and a half after those events: Väinö Linna's Tuntematon sotilas, or Unknown Soldiers in its most recent English translation. I finished it earlier this week. It's one of the best war novels I've ever read.


Unknown Soldiers follows a company of Finnish machine gunners through the Continuation War, from the beginning in the summer of 1941 to ceasefire in September 1944. The Finns coordinated their invasion of Soviet Russia with the German invasion, Operation Barbarossa, making the Finns ostensible German allies though they were never fully incorporated into the Axis. The goal was to recapture land taken from Finland by the Russians during the Winter War and occupy other territory to be used for postwar bargaining following German victory. 

None of this matters to the characters in Linna's novel. Not really. They know about most of this political background and occasionally discuss it, but their war is earthy, small-scale, and intensely personal. They are less concerned with Hitler's eventual success against Stalin than with how to handle the weight of a machine gun while marching, how to get enough to eat, how to make some extra cash while the war keeps them from home, how to keep out of the way of officers, and how to stay alive.

The novel begins and ends with the war. After a brief introduction to most of the major characters—there is no single "main" character—the machine gun company assembles and boards trucks for the front. They don't know where they're going or why at first, and a brief passage on God's destruction of a patch of forest through a wildfire is the last bit of omniscience we'll get until the very end. We experience the fog of war with the characters, seldom knowing any more than they do and taken by surprise just as often as they are. 

The characters are wonderfully drawn, and have apparently become bywords for particular kinds of people in Finland. Linna ranges up and down the chain of command, giving us moments with everyone from the company commander to new privates who arrive at the front a few years in. Lieutenant Lammio, a potential martinet but otherwise harmless, becomes company commander after the respected previous commander is killed just a few days into the war; in his new position, his negative traits come to the fore. Ensign Kariluoto, another officer, is naive and detached and has the novel's only real love story, budding from his infatuation with Sirkka, a hometown girl. There's Hietanen, a bluff, good-humored jokester who is nevertheless painfully shy around women, and Vanhala, a giggler, both of whom sober up over the next three years, especially as they rise to positions of leadership and find themselves tested. Lehto is aloof, a gruff, tough fighter, and Määtä, a short, quiet man, never shirks from hauling his squad's machine gun, quietly earning the respect of every man in the company. Lahtinen is a communist sympathizer who, like most Marxists, annoys his friends by interjecting mindless revolutionary formulae into ordinary smalltalk. Honkajoki is an eccentric trying to build a perpetual motion machine and who carries a bow and arrows. Mäkilä, the company quartermaster, is obsessively stingy with the men's gear: "He kept the shelves in impeccable order," Linna tells us, "stocked with all the finest equipment, unmarred by any worn-out items—which he distributed to the company." 

The novel is also, I should point out, wryly funny.

My two favorite characters were Rokka and Koskela. Antero "Antti" Rokka is an older man—in his early- to mid-thirties—a husband and father, a veteran of the Winter War, and a refugee from Kannas, part of the Finnish territory taken by the Russians. He has the most personal stake in the success of the invasion, and only when it becomes clear, in the last quarter of the book, that he'll never see his old farm again is his chipper, folksy demeanor shaken. He has no time for formalities and routinely offends superiors with a knowing "Lissen here." He is also the best soldier in the company, never shrinking from combat, and, in one famous episode, ambushing and wiping out a platoon of more than fifty Russian soldiers with just his submachine gun. (This incident, far from being a proto-Rambo bit of action, is based on an actual incident in which a soldier named Viljam Pylkäs gunned down over eighty Russians.) By the end of the novel, when he's one of the only major characters left, I really dreaded for his safety.

Koskela, on the other hand, is an officer who achieved his rank through merit, during the Winter War. He's strong, silent ("quiet Koski" is a nickname used a few times throughout), courageous, leads by example, loved by his men—all the qualities of a Greek hero without the arrogance or ostentation. As a leader, he also sets himself apart through the crucial ability to know what matters and what doesn't, an ability Lammio, who tries to court martial Rokka at one point, lacks. When leadership of the company finally devolves onto Koskela at the end of the book, as the Finns retreat from Russia and face encirclement, Koskela acts quickly and decisively and his men follow. It's a really stirring portrait of manhood and leadership.

Linna also has a lot to say about courage, but shows what courage really means in modern war. For every death-defying one-man charge on an enemy bunker by Koskela there are two or three small moments borne of split-second decisions by men forced into a corner: Lahtinen staying behind with a machine gun while his buddies evacuate wounded men, or Hietanen finding almost accidental courage in the face of a Russian tank attack: 

It was as if his entire consciousness had been frozen. It refused to consider the significance of these angry blasts, as if shielding itself from the terror such considerations would induce. Hietanen darted quickly behind the upturned roots.
Just then he heard Rokka's voice yelling, "Now shoot like hell!"
Hietanen was panicked and trembling with anxiety. The urgency ringing in Rokka's cry struck his over-excited consciousness as a warning of some new, unknown danger. Then he realized that the call was intended for the others.
It occurred to him he did not know if the mine was functional or not. He didn't know anything about it except that it was supposed to explode under pressure. It was a little late for sapper training, however. The time was now or never.
A vision of the tank tracks rolling beneath their fenders flashed through his mind. Right there ... right there ... And then he threw. The weight of the mine made aiming next to impossible, and a kind of prayer-like wish flickered through Hietanen's consciousness as he hurled it. . . . Only then did the precariousness of his own position suddenly dawn on him. Would the tree base be enough to protect him from the force of the blast? He sank down behind it, opened his mouth and pressed his hands against his ears.
Two seconds later, it was as if the pressure of the whole world suddenly descended upon him. He didn't experience the explosion as a sound, but rather as a numbing, thudding blast
and then his consciousness went dim.
When it returned, he saw that the vehicle was still, titled slightly to one side. . . . He just lay there, looking back and forth at the tank, then at the men, who were yelling at him, "Yes, Hietanen! Woo-hoo! Bravo, Hietanen!" The praise was all wasted, however; Hietanen couldn't hear a thing.

All the danger, brutality, humor, courage, excitement, dread, horror, irony, and businesslike slogging mirror the war and Finland's role in it. It's excellent.

A Finnish machine gun position overlooking no-man's-land, February 1944. Source:  SA-kuva , the Finnish Defense Forces Wartime Photograph Archive.

A Finnish machine gun position overlooking no-man's-land, February 1944. Source: SA-kuva, the Finnish Defense Forces Wartime Photograph Archive.

I could say more about the plot, but the plot doesn't really matter. The war is, for the characters, a string of violent incidents that gradually winnows and thins the ranks, and that's what Linna, who lived through the Continuation War himself, shows us. He presents military life and war unromantically, as ceaselessly hard work with limited resources, work that can turn deadly with no warning. By the end of the war, even evacuation by ambulance isn't safe. The much-ballyhooed "random" deaths of George R.R. Martin's characters have nothing on Unknown Soldiers, and these soldiers' deaths are the more pitiful when they come because we care so much about them.

Unknown Soldiers has a well-deserved place in the pantheon of great war literature. It has the grim, clear-eyed detail of All Quiet on the Western Front and the sense of sheer, exhausting labor of The Naked and the Dead. But the novel Unknown Soldiers reminded me of most was Karl Marlantes's Matterhorn. Like Linna, Marlantes was a veteran of the war he wrote about and based his novel on his own experiences. Like Unknown Soldiers, Matterhorn takes a worm's-eye view of the conflict, bringing the reader into close quarters with a large cast of characters for hundreds of pages. And it's worth the trip.

Closing notes

Linna published his novel in 1954. It was first translated into English as The Unknown Soldier in 1957, and again in 2015 by Liesl Yamaguchi, which is the version I read. I neither speak nor read Finnish, but I understand this new translation is more faithful to the original than the first English version. Yamaguchi undertakes the thankless task of communicating the many local dialects and accents of Finnish, and mostly succeeds; Rokka's woodsy twang, to give one example, is instantly recognizable, though some of the others' slangy talk is distracting.

There have been three film adaptations: in 1955, a Finnish classic that airs every December on Finnish Independence Day; in 1985; and again in 2017, a version shot using natural light that looks strikingly beautiful. The 1955 original is available in its entirety on YouTube. The newest version is not apparently available on DVD or Blu-ray anywhere yet, but here's the trailer and a clip of Rokka's one-man massacre of that Russian platoon.

Chesterton on talking to oneself

From a piece he wrote critiquing his own play, Magic

If a man does not talk to himself, it is because he is not worth talking to.
— G.K. Chesterton
GKC vol 11.jpg

Magic is a wonderful little comedy that I read some years ago during a bout of depression. It deals with faith, reason, and skepticism on the scale of ordinary life. The most dramatic thing that happens in this play, in which characters furiously debate whether magic is, in fact, real, is a lamp turning on. 

With characteristically Chestertonian wit and humor, Magic insists on faith and reason, rather than faith or reason, and dramatizes the impoverishment of humanity when the two are opposed. But it's not a straight allegory or morality play; Chesterton leaves things ambiguous, including the very subject of the play. 

If it's so ambiguous, then what's the point? you might want to ask. I don't know, but Magic was exactly what I needed when I read it, the same way many people claimed to have been saved from madness by Chesterton's Man Who Was Thursday. To quote his introduction to the book of Job, in reference to God's refusal to answer Job's questions: 

The other great fact which, taken together with this one, makes the whole work religious instead of merely philosophical is that other great surprise which makes Job suddenly satisfied with the mere presentation of something impenetrable. Verbally speaking the enigmas of Jehovah seem darker and more desolate than the enigmas of Job; yet Job was comfortless before the speech of Jehovah and is comforted after it. He has been told nothing, but he feels the terrible and tingling atmosphere of something which is too good to be told. The refusal of God to explain His design is itself a burning hint of His design. The riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of man.

Magic has been revived a few times in out of the way places by fellow devotees of Chesterton. (Here's a review of a production from about the time I read the play.) It's never been staged anywhere close enough for me to see it performed, but I hope that will change someday. 

In the mean time, do check Magic out. It's a short three act play; you can easily read it through in one sitting. It's available free at Project Gutenberg and in volume 11 of The Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton, which is still a work in progress (at 37 volumes!) from Ignatius Press.

Aeneas, Captain Kirk, and my grandfathers

No real Southerner has ever been able to consider very seriously the highly touted ancestor worship of the Chinese. It is watery by comparison.
— Ferrol Sams

In the last days of Christmas break I had the pleasure of reading David Ferry's new translation of The Aeneid, published by Chicago University Press. It won't supplant Robert Fitzgerald and Robert Fagles' two classic translations in my imagination, but it's a very good new version that manages to convey the spirit of Virgil's epic in contemporary English, and I recommend it. 

aeneid cover.jpg

I picked up The Aeneid during the break for a couple of reasons. First, I hadn't read it since college, and it's an old favorite, so I was long overdue to revisit it. Second, I'm always interested in new translations of classics, and I had read good things about Ferry's Aeneid. Finally, since last reading it, a lot has changed in my life: I've married and become a father, and, more immediately, my 90-year old grandfather died just before Christmas.

The reason these circumstances sent me to Virgil was because of his poem's depiction of fathers and the authority and responsibility they bear. Rome was a patriarchal society (I use the term descriptively and not, as is now common, as a pejorative) and The Aeneid both dramatizes Roman society's concerns with fatherhood and holds up examples to the reader of what good and bad fatherhood and manly leadership look like. In addition to being a compelling story, it's a guide. And now that I've become a father myself, and have lost one of the most important men in my life, its guidance is more welcome than ever.

Poetry of maturity

CS Lewis, in his examination of epic poetry in A Preface to Paradise Lost, writes that "with Virgil European poetry grows up." To illustrate what he means, he draws a striking contrast between the heroism of Homer's protagonist and that of Virgil's: 

I have read that his Aeneas, so guided by dreams and omens, is hardly the shadow of a man beside Homer's Achilles. But a man, an adult, is precisely what he is: Achilles had been little more than a passionate boy. You may, of course, prefer the poetry of spontaneous passion to the poetry of passion at war with vocation, and finally reconciled. Every man to his taste. But we must not blame the second for not being the first.

He goes on to note that through Aeneas, Virgil introduces something new to epic poetry, which is the war between duty and desire and the struggle to master emotion, passion, or mere appetite in the face of what is right to do, the struggle that defines "most human life as it is experienced by any one who has not yet risen to holiness or sunk to animality." The Aeneid is poetry of maturity and responsibility.

Achilles, as Lewis implies, is a creature of appetite: he is defined—and defines the entire course of The Iliad from its first word—by his rage, and has a lust for conquest, military and sexual, and honor that drive him. Even the more cerebral Odysseus (one of my favorite characters in literature) is prone to characteristically juvenile weaknesses: recklessness, carelessness, distrust. 

Aeneas, by contrast, is driven onward by prophecies it is his responsibility to fulfill. Like Achilles, his honor is at stake, and like Odysseus, so are the fates of his family and people, but Aeneas, as an example of Roman virtue, approaches threats with deliberation, with deference to custom and the gods, and—always—to his duty as the leader of his people. He cannot merely enjoy authority without reckoning with the responsibilities his position entails. 

In a recent episode of John J. Miller's Great Books podcast, Miller talks with Louis Markos of Houston Baptist University about The Aeneid. Markos offers two apparently silly but insightful analogies to illustrate the differences between a few of these heroes.

Aeneas : Achilles :: Beowulf : King Arthur

Or, in a more popular vein:

Aeneas : Odysseus :: Jean-Luc Picard : Captain Kirk

Beowulf and Picard may be less flashy, less sexy than the brash and machismo driven Kirk or the honor-driven cuckold Arthur, but they're also more stable, more obviously concerned with their followers and less like to get them killed in misadventures. Markos points out that Picard seldom leaves the Enterprise in contrast to Kirk, who frequently does, and gets redshirts needlessly killed. By the same token, Beowulf, we are told again and again, cares for and looks after his people well, in contrast to King Arthur, who has to sacrifice himself in a bloody final comeback in order to repair years of damage due to his luxurious inactivity.


Aeneas carrying his father and leading his son by the hand as they escape Troy

Aeneas carrying his father and leading his son by the hand as they escape Troy

What makes the difference between Achilles and Aeneas is pietas, the Roman virtue that runs through The Aeneid as its hero's guiding principle. Pietas, after twisting its way to us through twenty centuries, give us the modern English piety, but is far richer in meaning. It's piety, but more than mere piety. It's respect, but more than mere respect. Pietas is a bone-deep, self-sacrificial love of the things that have made you who you are. It is a religiously imperative duty toward continuity. Foremost among these continuities, for the Romans, was the family.

Aeneas embodies pietas throughout the Aeneid. His struggle to live up to the standard of pietas required of him by his pietas—this is a virtue that, like all real virtues, demands itself—is the real conflict of the story. The battles and fights to the death are incidental to this larger and more eternally important conflict. The most famous case is probably Aeneas's idyll in Carthage with the beautiful Dido, who seems to offer him a new future, a new continuity to pursue in a new place, where he can, at last, rest from his struggles and wanderings. But the gods, via pietas, demand more of him, and as a man he must answer to his duty and move on. 

But there is another, neater, and more homely image of Aeneas that illustrates the heart of pietas, an image often recreated in the Roman world and invoked over and over again in Western literature. As his city fell, Aeneas, directed by his love of family, left the battle and returned to his home to save his father, wife, and son. His wife—walking separately from him—was lost in the chaos, but Aeneas bodily carried his aged father Anchises from the city and led his son Iulus out by the hand. Three generations—past, present, and future—bound and saved from ruin by a father's pietas.

Patria potestas

I can't lecture on Roman culture, pietas, and the figure of the paterfamilias without thinking of my grandfather, Ed Poss.

Four generations of Poss men, October of last year

Four generations of Poss men, October of last year

He died December 23 at the age of 90. As a boy, he survived polio. Doctors told his mother that he'd never walk again, but he went on to become the captain of the Athens High football team and played for Auburn before joining the Navy. He and my grandmother—who just turned 90 herself on Saturday—were married for over seventy years, had three children, and lived to see over a dozen great-grandchildren. He was a respected and successful businessman who was involved in a host of local organizations as well as the Rotary Club. Even as a kid I could always remember what day of the week it was by what civic organization’s meeting he was heading to.

While he never would have put it into these terms, and probably wouldn’t have expressly said so in any terms, in all of these things he was moved by pietas. He modeled it through action, through his life, and not with mere lipservice. His devotion to his literal family as a beloved patriarch and to his “work family”—those are his words—as well as church and community were deep, true, and lifelong.

Modern people are, sometimes justifiably, wary of patriarchy, and the patria potestas—the power of the father—exercised by Roman men makes them leery. While this kind of authority has certainly been abused by baser men, I think this suspicion is more a custom or habit of mind among modern people born of postmodern hermeneutics of suspicion and obsessions with power and privilege—who has it, how did they get it, and, above all, why don’t I have it?

Manliness without ostentation I learnt from . . . my father.
— Marcus Aurelius

These attitudes are essentially opposed to Aeneas’s pietas. For one thing, they’re expressed; like my grandfather, pietas must be so integral a part of one’s character it’s simply a mode of living, not an abstraction to be picked apart. Second, the moderns’ obsession with power inverts the relationship embodied by pietas. Relationship is a key idea, as are others I’ve already invoked: piety, respect, responsibility, duty. Pietas endows the individual with a sense of duty and the relationship of oneself to the whole, two concepts that must be inseparably interlocked to prevent the breakdown of continuity, of the family, of society. Power isn't just power; it's responsibility. It's a sacred duty.

This attitude, based on Patrick Deneen's diagnosis, is lost today. Is there any more alien sentiment to modern people than the idea—falsely attributed to Robert E. Lee, but no less true—that “duty is the sublimest word in any language”?

My grandfather embraced his responsibilities and modeled that duty, that respect, and left the world richer for it.

In memoriam

I’m posting this on the day that, twenty years ago, my other grandfather, J.L. McKay, died of cancer.

Watching TV with my grandfather, J.L. McKay, late 1980s

Watching TV with my grandfather, J.L. McKay, late 1980s

He was a different man from my dad’s dad in many respects—he was a plumber-electrician, a high school graduate, a man whose most extensive travel was to Korea with the Air Force, whose favorite pasttimes were fishing or relaxing on the front porch with his grandchildren, sharing popsicles. But in the most important things he was an exact match—he valued education and athletics, was actively involved in his community and seemed to know everyone, and, most importantly, was totally devoted to his family. He modeled hard work, faith, dedication, and respect—in a word, pietas—for his family.

The article about Dark Full of Enemies in the latest Georgia Mountain Laurel is the first public announcement I’ve made about my forthcoming Civil War novel Griswoldville. I hope to have it out by summer; this week is my spring break, and I'm spending a lot of time in revision. Well before my grandfather died in December I had planned to dedicate the book to both of my grandfathers, two great but humble Georgia natives who have helped make me who I am. It's a small, grateful act of pietas on my part.

I’m thankful to have had two such role models in my life and am fully aware not everyone is so fortunate. But, thankfully, pietas is a virtue that can be learned if you haven’t inherited it. It’s not easy, but then, as I learned from my grandfathers, neither is anything worth doing—whether beating polio, wiring a house, teaching a grandchild to fish, putting in time at the office, or founding a city.

Happy St. Valentine's Day!

And I to him: ‘I am one who, when Love 
inspires me, takes note and, as he dictates
deep within me, so I set it forth.’
— Dante, Purgatorio XXIV, 52-4

As a brief St. Valentine's Day greeting, I want to encourage y'all to pick up Dante this year. But why Dante—grim, vengeful medieval poet, the "great master of the disgusting" according to one 19th century poet—and why on the most romantic day of the year?

Poet of love

Beatrice leads Dante into the heights of heaven, an engraving by Gustave Doré 

Beatrice leads Dante into the heights of heaven, an engraving by Gustave Doré 

While he's most famous now for Inferno, that book represents only the first third of his masterpiece, the Commedia, or Divine Comedy. So if you've ever been assigned the Inferno by itself or simply read it on your own (in which case, well done!), you've only read a third of his vision of love. 

Yes, love. Dante's Comedy has as its theme all kinds of love. His love of his hometown, Florence, from which he was exiled in 1302, is a poignant strain throughout, and the wicked so memorably punished in hell, we are reminded often, sinned because they loved the wrong thing or loved a good thing in the wrong way. Paolo and Francesca, adulterers punished together in the circle of the lustful, shift the blame for their sin to a bawdy love poem. And the mover and focus of much of Dante's journey is his famous beloved, Beatrice.

That's just a sampling. Love, as a theme, as a plot point, as a subject of conversation and debate, is present throughout. But all of these loves are subordinate to and—if rightly ordered—derive their ultimate meaning from "the love that moves the sun and other stars," the love of God. 

It's God's love for a fallen man that dispatches Beatrice—on behalf of St. Lucy, on behalf of the Virgin Mary, on behalf of God— to Dante as he wanders lost in sin at the beginning of Inferno. It's love that created Hell—a thought that makes moderns squirm—and love that sends sinners there and keeps them there. And it's love that changes and saves Dante, and grants him, in the last passage of the book, a vision of God himself. 

Dante's Comedy is the story of salvation, which means that it's the story of love.

So enjoy your chocolate (Lord knows I already have), enjoy time with your beloved, and celebrate love and the relationships that give us human creatures meaning, but consider as well the source of all love. And give Dante a shot. I think you'll be glad you did.

Happy St. Valentine's Day!

My recommendations

My favorite translation for pleasure reading is that by Anthony Esolen, available from Modern Library, but I've read and enjoyed many other good ones, including Mark Musa's heavily annotated one for Penguin Classics and Allen Mandelbaum's excellent but underappreciated translation for Bantam Classics. These are all readable, affordable, and easy to find. Enjoy!

Read like it's a vice

Advice to keep reading fresh and enjoyable, from a master:

"The great thing is to be always reading but not to get bored—treat it not like work, more as a vice! Your book bill ought to be your biggest extravagance." 
—CS Lewis

And one that came on an Amazon bookmark I got in high school, nearly twenty years ago, and have never forgotten:

"When I get a little money, I buy books, and if any is left I buy food and clothes." 

Of course, Erasmus didn't have two kids, but this is an infinitely adaptable sentiment.


Helena on the course of modern politics

St. Helena with the True Cross , by Lucas Cranach the Elder

St. Helena with the True Cross, by Lucas Cranach the Elder

I'm currently reading Helena, Evelyn Waugh's novel of emperor Constantine's saintly mother, and the author's personal favorite among his many books. The story is a beautiful meditation on motherhood and religious faith, but Waugh has a number of jabs to throw at the modern world.

Here, in conversation with her power-mad son, Helena reflects on the dangers of power:

“Sometimes," Helena continued, "I have a terrible dream of the future. Not now, but presently, people may forget their loyalty to their kings and emperors and take power for themselves. Instead of letting one victim bear this frightful curse they will take it all on themselves, each one of them. Think of the misery of a whole world possessed of Power without Grace.”

Power Without Grace would be an excellent title for a study of post-Enlightenment political thought.

I've just discovered Waugh in the past year, when I read Sword of Honor. I'm digging fervently into his work, and Helena is wonderful so far. Check it out.