Defender of the Faith R.I.P. Philip Roth

’Defender of the Faith’ is a 1962 story by Philip Roth about a Jewish Sergeant, Marx, who is a combat Veteran just back from the war in Europe and his manipulative Jewish draftee Grossbart.

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15th Ward War Memorial

Without going into the story in depth, the apocryphal fable told about Jewish soldiers in the U.S. Army at the tail end of  WWII, is one that sadly, I’ve seen before.

My distant family, three of them, the first born in America, all joined the Army to fight in the Spanish-American War. Somewhere a faded sepia-toned photograph ala Butch Cassidy may show them in their super-slick SAW uniforms with their slouch hats, slung pack and Krag rifle. Man, they looked muy macho.

Long story short, our family tradition has literally extended to every war from 1898 to this day. So the topic is very sensitive to me.

American Jews, post-Korean War, rightly or wrongly, had a reputation as draft dodgers. They served in solid numbers through the Korean War, but Vietnam and the college deferment was a huge blot on our reputation as Americans.

Even worse, by the epoch of the War on Terror (I served until 2011) the percentage of Jews in the Army had fallen to a level so minuscule that it equaled the number of Muslims. 3,400 souls in the entire Army. I was stunned. A higher percentage actually served in Theatre in Vietnam. It’s a statistical fact.

I don’t think there were more than five Jews in my  Brigade in Iraq.  Out of 3,500 soldiers… Unfathomable… Then, when I got back, only two Jews in my Battalion… me included. WTF?

Who pulled the charred remains of our brethren out of the ovens in 1945? The same U.S. Army. The same U.S. Army that wasn’t good enough for us by 1965?

When I first joined, early in my long unillustrious career, we had Passover services at Ft. Benning where 44 Jews showed up. 44! That’s a lot for anywhere.

I remember a Jewish recruit whining to me about how his sergeant treated him because he couldn’t do enough pushups. He wanted me, a Jewish Lieutenant to stand up for him. I refused and I made him do more pushups until his spindly arms fell off. I was furious. He was an embarrassment to my people.

Maybe Roth’s Sergeant Marx and I were more like the vicious Sergeant Waters from ‘A Soldiers’s Story’ who thought that by brutalizing the weak links he would bring up the image of black Soldiers in the Army.

This was exactly the story of Defender of the Faith. Grossbart plays on Marx’ emotions as Marx just returned from the front: 1945 Germany. Grossbart weasels his way out of orders to the Pacific. Grossbart whines for special privileges on account of being Jewish, then takes advantage when he gets them. Like me, Marx was furious and embarrassed for his people.

Marx gets Grossbart’s orders changed back to the Pacific. He does it not to defend Grossbart whom he views as a bad example, but to defend the reputation of American Jews in the Army.

I originally hated Roth. I thought he was ‘too Jewish’ and he made our people look like self-indulgent perverts. Sure, the Psychiatrist’s couch in Portnoy may be a veiled reference to Kafka’s cockroach, but Roth’s story is much harder-edged than Neil Simon’s rose-colored Biloxi Blues, where the snarky Jewish wise-ass brats put one over on the over-matched, shell-shocked combat Veteran Sergeant Toomey.

Where was Toomey’s thanks for saving those two brat’s people? Simon never gets the point, does he? Contrast Wouk’s Caine Mutiny where the mutineers’ Jewish Navy JAG lawyer, Lieutenant Barney Greenwald, has sympathy for Queeg, because Queeg stood up to serve long before many others did and help keep Greenwald’s mother from being made into ‘soap’.

In Roth’s ‘Defender’, the wise-ass Jewish brat doesn’t get away with it. Marx knows what the stakes are: he saw it in the liberated concentration camps and he knows who liberated them.

Roth, with an unblinking gaze, speaks an ugly but unsaid universal truth about the wise-ass Jewish kid who thinks he’s too special and too smart for the Army. Yes, I’ve seen them first hand trying to game the system more than once: don’t any of my soul brothers dare tell me that I haven’t seen it.

Roth was excoriated by the Jewish community for telling this story and he stood his ground. This is who we are, warts and all, Roth instructs us. This story is a triumph of truth over self-deceit.

Some of us, in the end are Sergeant Marx, the patriot, and some of us are Grossbart, the shirker, who makes a mockery of his own faith.

Call me what you will, but given my family history: from The Spanish-American War through Iraq, we jealousy guarded the reputation of the Jewish soldier in the U.S. Army until apparently there was no-one left to care.

RIP Philip Roth

Peace be the Botendaddy

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