Richard Bausch’s new novel, Peace, is quite short and reads-—not just because of length-—more like a long short story than a novel. The action takes place over just a single day and night, with several long flashbacks, and turns primarily on a single moment. The cast of characters is small, and the single plot-line is straightforward (the small team of soldiers must go on a recon mission and return).
The story is about Robert Marson, a semi-pro baseball player who is a little older than his fellow soldiers. His are the eyes through which we see World War II and the ethical choices a soldier makes in war. “Robert Marson thought about how they were all witnesses. And nobody could look anybody in the eye.” His battalion is pursuing the retreating German army in Italy. In the course of an accidental confrontation, a civilian accompanying a Nazi officer is killed, and the men quarrel about whether the killing was justified and whether it should be reported. Their sergeant orders Marson and two others, along with an old Italian man they encounter, to head up a mountain to see what lies ahead. And so up they go. There are complications, of course. The two other soldiers are at each other’s throats, and they don’t trust the old Italian. They’re all making choices--whom to trust, how they regard each other, how far they're willing to go--but the burden in the mission, as in the novel, is on Marson. He's the one who gives the orders; he's the one who makes the life and death decisions. While the plot is simple, its study of the soldier's moral dilemma is not.
The protagonist’s choice--what is right?--is at the heart of the book, but the language is what carries the reader through to the climax. “They kept as much as possible to the trees, with the dusting of snow limning the trunks on one side, the side where the wind was coming, raising a blinding cloud and stinging their faces. Marson’s foot was now burning deep and was strangely numb at the same time. It seemed that the flesh around the abrasion, leading down into the toes, was dead..” Spare, but precise, with details that paint a sharp picture. And Marson’s foot is a recurring emblem of his own determination to do the right thing, a nagging doubt that he cannot. “Do your duty,” his father had said to him as he left home. And does his duty conflict with the “right thing?”
It’s a moving book, and one that should be widely read and discussed during a time of war that has a questionable moral foundation. We hear constantly of the behavior of soldiers in Iraq and at Guantanamo who are excused for their behavior on the basis of their orders. In this book, it seems to me, it is clear that this is no excuse. We all have a duty to make our own choices, to do what's right.