Making Inroads on the Great War: Navigation and Textuality in the Works of American Ambulance Drivers
“The adventure of the car is as real as that of the man. The car becomes a personality to the man at the wheel […] The reader must not get very far away from the ambulance-car in making his mental picture of the experience of the boys in North France, and he must not object if all through this chapter he gets the smell of grease and petrol, and if the explosions are tires as often as shells. Because that is the way it is at the front. These boys never take their eyes from the road and the car. So why should we who read of them?” Arthur Gleason, Our Part in the Great War, 1917
Before and after the US declaration of war in April 1917, many American young men volunteered to drive ambulances through war-torn Europe (Walt Disney, on the photo, was one of them). They wrote scores of letters, diaries, memoirs, and poems that portrayed the war from their very special vantage point. When on duty, the American ambulancier remained in constant movement between frontline and hospital. In a war where fronts barely moved, these Americans were always moving, and as it turns out, always writing. They possessed a degree of autonomy unheard of in this war of stalemate. They had volunteered, and even after the US declared war, ambulance drivers were not only the first to enlist, they were the first to be sent overseas. These men appeared to have as much control over their lives as they did over their ambulances. Where advances in weapons’ technology had served only to drive soldiers further underground for protection, these Americans were able to cover ground and conquer space. They were still among the first to use the internal combustion engine fitted with a chassis to save lives from a warzone, and their service brought hope to the wounded and multiple perspectives on the war.
2. Navigating Toward Meaning and Perspective
Those benefits alone kept drivers determined to extract meaning from the death, suffering, and disillusionment that surrounded them on a daily basis. Their ambulances bore the weight of the wounded, and their autonomy also left drivers with the burden of finding signification for those bodies and for their relationship to them. After all, these would soon be their countrymen. The gaping wounds, the cavernous eyes, the missing limbs, all of these bodily absences continually called for patriotic, heroic, and sacrificial abstractions to fill them, to suture them up with meaning and purpose. Rescuing bodies and rescuing meaning therefore merged, as both wheel and pen navigated the liminal space that resided between the lines of killing and saving. Navigation became not only a physical imperative for their work but an ideological one for their texts as well. It was an ongoing and exhaustive process for the American ambulanciers, and like their engines, from time to time, rhetoric broke down. They failed to outrun and circumvent the ever-encroaching presence of the unheroic. Their mobile, mediated, and often voyeuristic perspective posed a unique challenge for recording war. These Americans had to reconcile their firmly entrenched notion of war as a heroic rite of passage with the mutilated bodies their ambulances carried away from the battlefield.
Many drivers felt compelled to portray their own rhetorical struggle with the violent materiality of war, and their role and their point of view remain culturally significant due to their never fixed location between the host of binaries that all wars necessarily erect. They occupied a space between alternate fronts of experience, and what they encountered there would challenge deep-seated notions of war as a fundamentally romantic endeavor and of the heroic components of masculinity that should accompany it. Their non-combatant volunteer status also led to other perspectival complexities. The soldiers’ often antagonistic stares back at drivers violated the voyeuristic pleasure of viewing and recording their ambulances’ proximity to the battlefield. Thus, soldiers themselves represented the last mediated border between drivers and No Man’s Land. When they interposed their subjecthood between the drivers’ gaze, they violated the masculine fantasy of caressing that epistemological border and implicated these Americans as unwelcome viewers on the scene of a simultaneously private and national tragedy. Ironically, though, these subversive textual moments expose the American ambulanciers as so much more than mere watchers of war. They instead augment the rhetorical and discursive power of their texts, transforming them from egotistic, gonzo reportage into traumatic testimony to a war of surplus violence.
3. Audience and the American Ambulancier
American ambulance drivers, then, were simultaneously conduits and conductors of knowledge about the war. They represented the first fold of mediation between battlefield and homefront. Driving and documenting the space between both worlds allowed their readers a peek at the war through their windshield and often allowed them passage through and shortcuts around the roadblocks of censorship. The mediated means through which ambulance drivers experienced the war refract the cultural process of simultaneously conveying and concealing wars from the populace. Their texts portray not only the first layer of mediation that lay between US understanding of the war in Europe, but they also reflect the mediated epistemological struggle we all undergo during wars still being fought today. Throughout their texts, a tension develops between their evasions and their honesty as they attempt to incorporate revelation and insight into their experience. Whether intentional or not, when drivers revealed their own combative process toward meaning, they paradoxically offered their readers unprecedented access to the roads of the Great War.
(C) T. Adrian Lewis – VU University, Amsterdam – 6th October, 2013