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War: Mike Harris

century novel hero soldiers

It became a cliché of late-twentieth-century feminism that men needed to become more like women: getting in touch with their feelings, the better to empathize, understand, and support. But war fiction shows men doing precisely that, whilst at the same time committing acts of atrociously insensitive violence. Which is one reason why more women should read war fiction.

War is at least as old as recorded history. It provides the writer with the ultimate jeopardy plot in which character, ideas, hopes, and dreams can be tested to destruction. No surprise then that one of the oldest and most influential fictional texts in our tradition—The Iliad of Homer (around eighth century BC)—is a novel-length poem about a siege in which most of the conventions are already in place: panoramic battle scenes going into impressionistic close-up on terrifyingly confused hand-to-hand combat, horrific violence, homoerotic comradeship, men torn between battlefield and domestic loyalties, and a whole civilization—Troy—transformed and destroyed in the struggle.

So why is the war novel essentially a twentieth-century genre? Firstly, of course, the novel in English didn't exist until the early eighteenth century and for a hundred and fifty years after that most of our wars were localized conflicts, fought far away by small armies composed largely of lower-class illiterates, whose sufferings were of little account in a deeply undemocratic society. Jane Austen (1775–1817) more or less ignores the Napoleonic Wars, and even in the hindsight of Thackeray's Vanity Fair (1848) they appear only episodically, leaving the larger fictional world untouched. The American Civil War of 1861–5 began the transformation. It was a total war, fought on home territory by big armies whose ordinary soldiers were able to write down their experiences for a democratic public eager to read them.

Tolstoy's War and Peace (1863–9), written at the height of the American Civil War, is about Napoleon's invasion of Russia in 1812: an earlier total conflict that had to wait fifty years for history to provide the writer and the readership willing to imagine it. Tolstoy's epic describes the psychological effects of invasion on a whole society: no life is untouched by it; no idea or dream left unchallenged or unchanged. The battles are bloody and confused, their issue decided not by generals, but by ordinary soldiers torn between fight and flight.

Tolstoy has influenced all war novels written since, be they home-front dramas like Elizabeth Bowen's poignant The Heat of the Day (1949), or frontline combat books like Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage (1895). Crane didn't fight in the American Civil War but he devoured the literature. His young hero runs from his first battle only to return next day and fight tenaciously. Both running and return seem equally random in a conflict without apparent direction or purpose. Like Homer, Crane is concerned with issues of bravery and honour, but his poetic, psychologically probing prose uncovers the shifting foundations of both.

With literate mass armies and a voracious novel-reading public securely in place, all the twentieth century had to do was provide a total war in the heart of Europe and the war novel couldn't help but become a full-blown genre. The century obliged.

It was poets who first drew the attention of a jingoistic public to the unique horrors of trench warfare. Two of the greatest—Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon—were homosexual, so when they extol male comradeship or cry out in pity and horror at the wanton destruction of young male bodies, their sexuality makes evident to us what had been more or less suppressed in both fiction and war since the Greeks. When the novels finally emerge in the 1920s and 1930s, even heterosexual writers make the point. Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front (1929) movingly describes German soldiers enduring the unendurable, and fighting on not for patriotism but for the comrades who, in the absence of women, tend and sustain them. When those comrades die (as in V. M. Yeates' undeservedly neglected Winged Victory, 1934, which depicts with painful authenticity the drudgery, fear, and sheer mundanity of an allegedly more romantic air war), the hero grieves as for a wife or lover. When the hero of Ford Madox Ford's quirky, prolix masterpiece, Parade's End (1924–8), is visited at the front by his wayward wife, she is revealingly jealous of his relationship with his men, which she sees as clearly sexual: men are in some way enjoying this war; all of it—the comradely tenderness and mutual support; the destructiveness, absurd risk-taking, self-sacrifice and blood-lust.

As the teachings of Freud and his successors seeped into the century's consciousness, novelists made even more overt connections. In The Thin Red Line (1962), a gripping buddy-buddy, Second World War combat novel with philosophical pretensions, James Jones describes overt homosexuality at the front as well as the ‘ball tingling’ sexual thrill of being authorized by the state to break the ultimate taboo, and kill.

Interestingly, it took a woman, Pat Barker, at the very end of the century, to engage head-on with the troubling ambiguities of the male love–hate affair with war. Her Booker Prize winning Regeneration trilogy (1991–5), is about shell-shocked solders in the First World War. Barker is no stylist and her narrative is often perfunctory but her earnest exploration of new fictional material is compelling. Rivers, a humane military psychiatrist, attempts to cure soldiers suffering from a bizarre and horrific range of psychological injuries. In so doing he explores the nature of combat experience and the sexuality of both himself and his patients. The character of Billy Prior comes to dominate the trilogy. A chippy, bisexual, working-class officer who recognizes and fears the sadism that is part of his divided nature, he seemingly embodies all the conflicts and ambiguities of masculinity, and war itself. Barker is aware that Freud evolved his theories after observing the ‘hysteria’ of socially emasculated middle-class Victorian women. In these novels she makes the point that soldiers—caught between the prospect of death in combat, or ignobly abandoning their comrades and risking execution—are as trapped, and as impotent. Insanity is, therefore, a perfectly reasonable response to the inescapable madness of twentieth-century warfare.

Laughter is another. It would seem paradoxical that some of the greatest war novels are comedies. But comedy always operates when the gap between pretension and reality is widest. Politicians try to convince us that wars are not fought for money and power but to Make Things Better. Their warlords believe that order and discipline can control the battlefield and therefore the outcome of wars. But soldiers experience battle as a terrifying, brutal chaos, outside of the control of any individual and often see, at first hand, the dismal outcome of wars. When soldiers write novels it is therefore not surprising that they sometimes laugh darkly.

In one of the great books of the century, The Good Soldier Švejk (1921–3), Jaroslav Hašek's anti-hero is a ‘certified idiot’, conscripted to serve in the armies of Austria-Hungary during the First World War. He spends 800 episodic pages skilfully avoiding combat and, in the process, satirizes generals, doctors, priests, totalitarianism, and the very idea of war itself. Clearly indebted to Hašek is Joseph Heller's over-praised cult classic, Catch-22 (1961). Its bomb-aimer hero, Yossarian, quite reasonably wants to get out of the war because the enemy is trying to kill him. Unfortunately he can only do so if Doc Daneeka declares him insane. But, explains, the doc, anyone who wants to get out of this war is clearly not insane, and therein lies the catch. Heller's book is full of outrageous comic characters such as the enterprising Milo Minderbender who contracts with the German army to bomb United States bases using American bombers. But there is little in it that moves or touches and Heller's delight in trivial verbal paradox is ultimately irritating. The book is an over-long, glorious cartoon that, unlike Švejk, has little to tell us about the period of history in which it is ostensibly set. It became a cult in the 1960s because it spoke to a generation who wanted to hear that their fathers' war was as absurdly pointless as Vietnam. Which it wasn't, quite.

By contrast Evelyn Waugh's Sword of Honour trilogy (1952–61) captures all the tragi-comic absurdity of the Second World War, without once losing sight of the obvious fact that real people are living, loving, and dying in it. It is also a deeply serious ‘Condition of England’ novel in which the ageing, impotent, Catholic hero, Guy Crouchback, joins up, falls in love with his regiment, and then feels his crusading zeal steadily dissolve as one absurd military disaster succeeds another and a shabbier, more morally squalid society emerges from the ashes. In life, Waugh became a risible, right-wing bigot. In these books his politics and theology are an essential framework for a profound and hilarious satire that never loses sight of the humanity of any of its characters, however laughable they may be. Sword of Honour is, arguably, not only a great war novel but one of the greatest English novels of the last fifty years.

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