One Man’s Initiation: 1917 by John Dos Passos

One Man's InitiationGoodreads: One Man’s Initiation: 1917
Source: Library

Review: In One Man’s Initiation: 1917, John Passos draws on his experience as an ambulance driver in World War I to offer the impressions of young American Martin Howe as he serves in the same capacity in France.  Comprised of a series of sketches dealing with experiences as varied as the destruction of a Gothic cathedral to the camaraderie of sharing a glass of wine, the work illustrates the growing disillusionment of Howe as he witnesses the devastation of war.

The book possesses an understated tone, seldom making direct observations about the events and people Howe witnesses, but expecting readers to understand Howe’s line of thought through illustration.  Howe does occasionally makes references to how silly it is for men to be shooting each other when they really have no quarrel, and, toward the end, engages in an extended conversation about religion, government, and the ability (or inability) of humanity to rule themselves.  The most powerful scenes, however, occur when Dos Passos shows, rather than tells; the readers understand the absurdity of war most when they get to experience it through Howe’s eyes.

One Man’s Initiation: 1917 presents an intimate glimpse into the life of an ambulance driver during World War I.  Although the emphasis lies heavily on the pointlessness of combat, glimpses of light sometimes glance through when Howe meets with the local inhabitants or experiences a rare quiet day in the sunlight.  The juxtaposition of beauty with ugliness, however, ultimately only illustrates more strikingly the irrationality of the whole affair.

Published: 1920

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