The Moral Life of Soldiers is a collection of five stories (one novella-length) and a novel that fans of author Jerome Gold might recognize from previously published collections, such as Of Great Spaces and Prisoners. This collection is told from the perspective of an older soldier, Paul Donaldson, taking stock of his life and his experiences in the Vietnam War. The organization of the stories speaks to Jerome Gold’s commitment to the practical means of arranging the pieces—favoring a series of myopic encounters of ambiguous moral distinction rather than a longue durée quasi-biographical story of his main character.
Although some of the characters in the stories carry over from one sketch to the next (Paul’s father and uncle), any real continuity in the collection comes from the ubiquitous themes of conflict, intolerance, authority, power, and personal agency. The stories (“Paul’s Father,” “Dead Horses,” “John,” Concealments,” and “Paul and Sara, Their Childhood”) and, of course the novel (“The Moral Life of Soldiers”) show the contexts in which Paul tries to make sense of how decisions of others impact himself. He works to make sense of a chaotic, bizarre world where, on the surface, it would appear he has little active agency to focus the directionality of his own life.
This tension of Paul’s fatalism is fantastically played out in “Dead Horses” and “The Moral Life of Soldiers.” In the former, Paul is a younger teenager, out shooting guns with friends in the Mojave Desert. They encounter an abandoned homestead ranch—the corral adjacent to the ranch also abandoned, with dead horses lying decimated and decaying on the ground. The reader is forced, as is Paul, to resolve the events of the unexplained and unmarked deaths of the horses as Paul and his friends actively seek to shoot some large animal in the desert. Paul’s response is to declare that he isn’t interested in shooting any more—the reader is curious if this is Paul’s way of exercising some agency (e.g. to decide to not kill any animals on that shooting trip) in response to the death and mayhem that he is powerless to control (the corral of dead horses). Paul, as an individual, is juxtaposed against an incredibly stark backdrop of a fatalistic world, yet it would appear that he exercises choice where he can. The reader almost expects Camus and his “Myth of Sisyphus” to pause with the uphill stone-rolling and cheer.
The second story that grapples with these themes of agency and fatalism introduces the third element of authority, drawing on Paul’s experiences in the Vietnam War. In what is perhaps the most significant exchange in the book’s dialogue, he states: “I am a soldier. I go where they tell me to.” This fatalistic observation seems to divest him of any personal responsibility he wrested from the experiences of his childhood. The reader, like Paul, must reconcile that the battlefield of Vietnam is a parallel to the corral of dead horses—only here Paul has no action, no decision however small, to exercise over his surroundings.
This brings us to an interesting note about the title. The Moral Life of Soldiers. It offers a sense of the singularity of experience and the singularity of what moral life there could be for a soldier. There isn’t a William James-ian “variety of war experiences” that would emphasize that each soldier’s experience is unique and specific to only that soldier. Rather, the emphasized and, indeed, expected singularity of experiences gestures toward the fatalistic world that Gold’s titular piece paints. This is what seems to stand in contrast to the individual experiences of Paul’s childhood in the short stories—the reader sees flashes of choice, even in the starkest situations. By arguing for the singularity of experience in how a moral life is constructed and lived through the soldiering experience and the circumstances of war, Gold would appear to reverse his argument and worldview in the novel.
It strikes me that The Moral Life of Soldiers—its themes, its characters, its questioning of the world and its attempts to establish a view on the role of agency—would resonate well among those who share Paul Donaldson’s experiences. Namely, it would seem that the short stories and novel would echo well among veterans and active soldiers. The insistence of the sheer universality that surrounds the “moral life” of soldiers might make it difficult for those outside the experience to look in. The questions, however, that the themes ask about agency and authority are ubiquitous among audiences.