Review of ‘We Will Not Be Strangers’

We Will Not Be Strangers
Dorothy G. Horwitz, editor (University of Illinois Press)

Mel and Dorothy Horwitz, a couple of bright, articulate and upwardly mobile Jewish kids from Brooklyn, had been married a year when Mel quit his surgical residency in 1952 to serve a tour as a MASH (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital) doctor in the Korean War. They decided before he left, as couples in that predicament often do, to write each other daily and tell each other everything about their lives - what they were thinking and feeling as well as the most trivial details of their daily routine. Most of us don't manage to stick to a resolution like that, but Mel and Dorothy did. The result, a lifetime or so later, is this book, in which Dorothy edits their 600 letters down to perhaps 10 percent of what was their original weight.

It's not literature, but on its own terms it works. The reason is that what comes through most vividly is their passion - about the war and its mad, random inhumanity, about the issues of the day (like McCarthyism) and most of all about each other. These two were in love, I mean forget-about-it, all-ahead-full in love. What Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet felt on that big ship, you know the one, was a grain of sand to the Sahara of the love that Dorothy and Mel shared. They wanted to know everything about each other, preferably on a minute-to-minute basis; they enjoyed meditating on each other's more admirable parts. There are times, to be sure, when a sense of excess intrudes, and the reader feels like an inadvertent eavesdropper in a thin-walled motel. But you have to salute any couple who can sustain that level of ardent intimacy when they're 9,000 miles apart.

Dorothy was a schoolteacher on Long Island who studied dance and attended concerts in her spare time. Her letters, inevitably, are more prosaic: she rides the subway, comforts her newly widowed mother and counts the days to her reunion with Mel. The more political of the two, she mutters seditiously about the absurdity of the war, the absence of a defined American interest and the indifference of the U.S. public. In one letter she reports a journalistic experiment in which a newspaper ran the same Korea story on its front page, word for word, for three consecutive days; nobody noticed. Americans, save those who were sent there and the people like Dorothy who loved them, never seemed to become as engaged with Korea as we did with Vietnam, perhaps because the Korean War didn't have the television coverage.

Mel was meanwhile living the life of Hawkeye Pierce, minus all the fun and games with the nurses. His descriptions of a MASH operating room in action sound so much like the TV show that one expects Radar or Klinger to bang through the swinging door. In a way these letters illuminate the reality beneath the surface of the show, the gritty, emotionally draining grind that these doctors confronted daily. Here's what Mel's day was like on November 8, 1952: "Operating, finishing, going out to the pre-op ward, picking another case, one after another - one a neck injury, another a leg, another a belly. They lie there, some calling to one another when they come from the same outfits. 'Did you see him?' 'Did he make it?' 'No, he's dead.' Stories of men falling on grenades to save a platoon. I had thought they were only stories. Sometimes they live, more often they don't . . . Kids, most of them, all reacting differently to the injury and the pain and the horror."

Mel was an idealistic doctor, eager for the opportunity to work in a MASH unit because that's where he could learn the most and do the most good. He was also skeptical about the U.S. presence in Korea and defiantly non-GI, again echoing Hawkeye. Disillusionment sets in early and deepens as the days away from Dorothy mount up. And it's not just the war or the separation - it's the Army, this "machine of men where they lose sight of the fact that men have souls, that there is something miraculous about the fact that a man lives. He breathes, walks, and thinks, yet to the army he is a screw, a bolt, a hinge to make the machine work." I remember feeling something very similar to that (and that was in the peacetime Army), but I've rarely heard it articulated so well.

Mel's disgust with the war and its mindless carnage is forever spilling into his love letters. "I've had enough surgery, enough cutting out blasted bodies, torn muscles and shattered bones," he writes after four months of MASH duty. After another four, when he's a short-timer on the downhill slope to Dorothy, he can barely contain himself: "God I hate this business. Destruction. Waste of men, lives, money, time. I hate to work in a rubber apron as blood and dirt spills over me." For him, there is nothing more to learn in Korea.

Dorothy and Mel were reunited in Japan in April 1953, ten months after he sailed away. She adds a tantalizingly terse postscript on their subsequent life: four children, a second degree - in law - for Mel, a career as a teacher and writer for her. The impression that lingers is that these are ordinary folks who got caught in the clanking machinery of a Great Event, and who happened to be remarkably articulate in their reactions to it. For all its high-voltage passion, their book is invested with an appealing, down-to-earth modesty. This is one couple's story, they're saying, nothing more. And that's enough.

Donald Dale Jackson reviews books from his home in Connecticut.

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