HOPE AND HONOR
By Sid Shachnow and Jann Robbins. Forge. 396 pp. $24.95
STATE OF GRACE
A Memoir of Twilight Time
By Robert Timberg. Free Press. 292 pp. $26
Great life. Bad book.
Schaja Shachnowski survived the Holocaust, fled with his family to the United States, enlisted in the U.S. Army, and began an improbable climb up the ranks to retire as a major general. Along the way, the young Lithuanian refugee became Sid Shachnow, a name brainstormed in a Massachusetts deli over chocolate eclairs. Ten years after Shachnow's retirement, we have a memoir that makes his extraordinary journey from the Kovno concentration camp to command of the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare School every bit as exciting as a catalog of industrial parts.
It's hard to exaggerate the strangeness of Hope and Honor. Picayune details frame bizarre lacunae; we get three-quarters of a page on the time Shachnow inconsequentially parked his car in a loading zone, half a page on the time he fell off his bike and cut his knee, and hardly a word about some of the most important events in his life. College comes and goes; a Lithuanian Holocaust refugee makes his way through a Nebraska university in a third of a page. His final command, the pinnacle of his career, takes up three paragraphs.
Along the way, there's a visit to the barber: "There were two men standing in the shop. They were standing in front of chairs that were high and leaned back to a bowl that was deep; water came out of a long hose with a funny nozzle on the end. They had a variety of shears and scissors and creams." Actual description of the haircut procedure follows. There's a lot of this kind of prose in the book, and anyone who has graded undergraduate term papers will recognize it.
A more significant disconnect hangs over much of the narrative. Fleeing postwar Lithuania, Shachnow's family passed through Germany. They rented lodging in a household a few miles outside of Nuremberg, from a landlord who jabbered in shock when he heard that they were Jewish refugees. After living for awhile in the Babel residence, young Schaja peeked behind an always-closed door. He found a box of paraphernalia from a defeated regime that had very recently tried to end his life: "It was filled with . . . certificates of acknowledgement to the outstanding achievements and contributions made by Mr. Babel to the Nazi Party. . . . There were stacks of more pictures with high-ranking Nazi soldiers and Mr. Babel. I couldn't believe we were living with a Nazi." His conclusion: "But then, I had learned a long time ago that life was filled with these little ironies." Or as he puts it a little later, "My father and I always laughed about how he and the Nazi shared a cup of coffee and reminiscing about the old days."
And so it goes. Shachnow developed a close relationship with Germany. He left, then returned to serve as a young soldier, then returned again many years later to command a Special Forces detachment in West Berlin. He seems to have almost no feelings toward the country that produced the Holocaust. A visit to the site of the Wannsee Conference was "memorable but sad." In an archive of Nazi materials, an employee handed him a file on Dr. Josef Mengele: "I read the report and found it to be incredible." Flatness reigns. Given Shachnow's rich experience, and the relevance of that experience to the challenges of the day, this memoir is a disappointment.
Robert Timberg's State of Grace, on the other hand, was written by a Marine, and reads like it. Timberg tells the story of a sandlot football team, the Lynvets, made up of young men from Brooklyn and Queens. But this combat veteran and accomplished journalist is looking backward through the lens of the Vietnam War, and he sees the faces of warriors. "By the mid-1950s, as we were coming of age, the Cold War was raging and the draft hung over all of us. . . . Though there was no armed conflict at the moment, we sensed that battlefield challenges awaited many of us as well."
Sandlot football was Timberg's crucible, the thing he did to get tough; he writes of playing fiercely and learning to "get up no matter how hard the hit." Teammates operated on the same set of principles, as mediocre talents achieved greatness by rising to challenges above their reach. One of the players "told himself that if he was tough enough, emotional enough, if he never gave up, it would compensate for his deficiencies. And he was right." Later, as a midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy, Timberg thought about dropping out. Back on the sandlot, the offensive coach of his football team got word that Timberg wanted to quit and fired off a long letter. "Remember," he wrote, "if you fail, we fail with you." Trained to toughness by a tough culture, Timberg had obligations that he couldn't allow himself to neglect. He would stick it out and earn "a stunning privilege, the privilege of commanding other men in combat."
The metaphor comes circling back. Timberg answered his training; he did what the culture demanded. And he found himself in a place he didn't recognize. In a formulation that would be familiar to Vietnam novelist and fellow Marine James Webb, the young, working-class men of 1950s Brooklyn and Queens became citizens of a lost country: "By the late 1960s, the baby boomers, at least many of the more affluent and better educated among them, had rewritten the social contract in ways that few of the Lynvets would ever decipher. Along the way, they hijacked the culture, employing it to celebrate themselves, to exalt their lifestyle, and to ridicule and otherwise diminish those who weren't them and didn't want to be." This a familiar complaint, and Timberg never really fleshes it out. But he writes with care about a world that he respects and mourns. Timberg lets us know that we haven't begun to resolve the social legacies of the Vietnam War -- as if we needed the reminder. *
Chris Bray, who served in the peacetime Army, is a freelance writer and teacher in Los Angeles.