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December 06, 2005

Books of War: Ordinary Heroes

Very few novelists succeed in moving out of a fictional zone where they’ve had great success.  Lawyer/author Scott Turow’s earlier novels are set in and around the court house of fictional Kindle County.  Ordinary Heroes is an historical novel set in the last months of World War Two.  It’s by far his best book; and I liked the other ones a lot.  I’m always sorry when I come to the end of one of his novels.

There is a relationship to Kindle County.  The protagonist made a career there as a lawyer after returning from the war.  His son, the sometimes narrator, covered the Kindle County court house as a reporter.  But the action in the book takes part in France and Germany as allied troops advance against – and sometimes retreat from – the stubborn Germans.

David Dubin is a JAG lawyer attached to Patton’s Third Army.  Initially he is disappointed that he is getting court room rather than battlefield experience.  He wants to fight and be part of stopping Hitler.

That all changes when he is ordered to investigate and later arrest an American officer Robert Martin who has certainly been an effective leader of the resistance in France but may also be a Soviet spy. At the beginning of the book his son, who has un-anglicized his name back to Dubinsky, discovers that his father was tried and convicted for releasing Martin after his arrest.  Mysteriously, his father’s conviction was suddenly vacated shortly after the trial and the son knew nothing about this part of his service record until after the father’s death.

Most of the book is told through a memoir David Dubin wrote while awaiting trial in military prison.  The memoir has been partly rewritten by the son so it is never entirely clear whose version of the story this is.  Life’s like that.

David Dubin (literally) screws up his arrest mission by falling in love and bed with a woman from the Polish resistance who accompanies and protects Robert Martin.  This is a good love story as well as a good war story.  When he does get into battle, he doesn’t like it.  He acquits himself reasonably well as a soldier and an officer although is never sure whether he is acting out of bravery, cowardice, or instinct.  There is nothing glamorous about the freezing blood, shit, and mud the war is being fought in.

Before the events which led to his arrest but after being in battle, Dubin writes this in a letter home:  “…I cannot imagine how I will return home anything but a pacifist. Military calculations are so tough-minded – they must be, clear-eyed determinations of how to win and who must die. But employing the same kind of unsentimental reasoning, it is hard to understand how war – at least this war – has been worthwhile. The toll of daily oppression Hitler would wreck on several nations, even for years, cannot equal the pain and destruction that is being caused in stopping him…”

But, after seeing a concentration camp in Balingen, Dubin changes his mind again: “…there in Balingen I cried for mankind.  Because there had been no choice.  Because knowing everything now, I saw this terrible war had to happen, with all its gore and witless destruction, and might well happen again.”

There is a stunning reminder “found among my father’s papers” of how hard it is and how hard you must be in order to occupy a country.  It comes from an actual historic pamphlet (there’s a bibliography at www.scottturow.com) called Don’t Be a Sucker in Germany published by the army.

“Don’t believe it was only the Nazi government that brought on this war.  Any people have the kind of government they want and deserve.  Only a few people bucked the Nazis.  You won’t meet them; the Nazis purged them long ago…

“If a German underground movement breaks out, it will be merciless. It will be conducted by SS and Gestapo agents who don’t flinch at murder. They will have operatives everywhere. Every German, man, woman, and child, must be suspected. Punishment must be quick and severe. This is not the same thing as brutality. Allied forces must show their strength but must use it only when necessary.”

As with the history 1776 by David McCollough, which I reviewed here, this novel makes clear both that war sucks and that it must sometimes be fought.  I may have made the novel sound preachy; it isn’t.  It’s a great story told well with compelling characters who change under the crush of the war.

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