In a fascinating book review in the New York Times last Sunday, Jay McInerney writes extensively on a new biography on the reclusive J.D. Salinger entitled J.D. Salinger: A Life by Kenneth Slawenski. This iconic author, best known for Catcher in the Rye, was a transformational author who did much to goad the thinking of young men and women growing up in fifties and sixties. What was unknown to me, was Mr. Salinger’s military service during World War II.
From Mr. McInerney’s perspective,” the great achievement of Slawenski’s biography is its evocation of the horror of Salinger’s wartime experience. Despite Salinger’s reticence, Slawenski admirably retraces his movements and recreates the savage battles, the grueling marches and frozen bivouacs of Salinger’s war. It’s hard to think of an American writer who had more combat experience. He landed on Utah Beach on D-Day. Slawenski reports that of the 3,080 members of Salinger’s regiment who landed with him on June 6, 1944, only 1,130 survived three weeks later. Then, when the 12th Infantry Regiment tried to take the swampy, labyrinthine Hürtgen Forest, in what proved to be a huge military blunder, the statistics were even more horrific. After reinforcement, ‘of the original 3,080 regimental soldiers who went into Hürtgen, only 563 were left.’ Salinger escaped the deadly quagmire of Hürtgen just in time to fight in the Battle of the Bulge, and shortly thereafter, in 1945, participated in the liberation of Dachau. ‘You could live a lifetime,’ he later told his daughter, ‘and never really get the smell of burning flesh out of your nose.’”
It is hard to imagine a more harrowing battlefield experience and the devastating impact of War on those around him. Mr. McInerney goes on to write that by “July (1945) he checked himself into a hospital for treatment of what we would now recognize as post-traumatic stress disorder. In a letter to Hemingway, whom he’d met at the Ritz bar shortly after the liberation of Paris, he wrote that he’d been ‘in an almost constant state of despondency.’ He would later allude to that experience in ‘For Esmé — With Love and Squalor.’ Readers are left to imagine the horrors between the time that Sergeant X, stationed in Devon, England, meets Esmé and her brother, Charles, two war orphans, and the time that Esmé’s letter reaches him in Bavaria a year later, after he has suffered a nervous breakdown.’”
Certainly, it is cause for reflection that we are only just now beginning to understand the symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Furthermore, judging from the numerous reports circulating within military circles, we appear to have a growing epidemic of psychological and nerological disorders with little evidence of an “effective” solution on the horizon. I fear that the “unintended consequences” of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will be with us for many years as brave young men and women who have served on those battlefields return with PTSD. How we insure these brave heroes receive proper care and treatment will say much about our society.