Old war books

I don’t know why it took me so long, but a few weeks ago I finally joined my local library. My life immediately improved.

I borrowed about 5 books at the time, and suddenly had something to read before nodding off to sleep every night.

Of the books I borrowed the book I was most impressed with was James Jones’ The Thin Red Line. I knew all about the book, and remember once opening up my grandfather’s copy of it and reading the first few paragraphs on the yellowing pages. I was about 15 then, and set the book aside. This time I read it all the way through.

He’s a very good writer. A lot of war books concern themselves with the surface action. That’s what a lot of readers are after. A few loud bangs, predictable heroics, a bit of sensationalism, and in the end the goodies prevail over the baddies. I’ve read my share of that style of book, and they serve a purpose, but I’ve always preferred the less conventional, more authentic rendering of war.

When I was growing up I read plenty of Sven Hassel, as many boys my age did. They could be quite savage, and often cartoonish, but the best of them – The Legion of the Damned? – there was a harsh and brutal reality. Maybe it was those books that gave me a taste for war books that came from the opposing – and losing – side. The heroics of victory lend a sheen that is missing from books from the German side of the war. In their stead the German books focused on the violence and squalor of war; they were brute and often cynical, despairing chronicles of fighting losing battles against overwhelming force. There’s a sense of inevitability, that as their loved one’s are bombed back home they are forced ever backwards themselves, fighting bravely, often skilfully, but in service of a lost and questionable cause. Death seems only a matter of time.

I recall a joke I read in one of these books that summed up the sense of defeat. What will you do on the weekend when the war is over? one German soldier asks of another. I’ll ride around Germany on my bike says the other. To which first asks, and what will you do on Sunday?

I believe that joke came from another book I plucked from my Grandfather’s shelves: The Torrents of War, by Igor Sentjurc (another such book was Cross of Iron, by Willi Heinrich). The Torrents of War was a great book. I still have that same copy, now crumbling, the spine broken, pages loose, bundled into a zip-loc bag to protect what remains. Unfortunately it now seems out of print, and even unknown, but as a teenager it made a huge impression on me, and every time I’ve read it since. There’s a dark inevitability in the mood, amid scenes of incredible carnage and brutality, and occasional tenderness. It felt lived, true, authentic. As a boy it made an incredible impression on me because it was so foreign from the comfortable and cloistered middle class life I was part of. I was lucky to live as I did, but I wanted to know that there were alternative realities, that people had lived differently, had endured and fought and suffered. It was truth, and by knowing it and seeking to understand, it gave perspective to my existence. In a way I was drawn to it to because it seemed so immediate. The things we take for granted become precious and vivid when they are threatened. I saw this in these books, felt it by proxy, as you do in the best literature.

My favourite book though was The Forgotten Soldier. I suspect it’s a classic of its genre now. Back when I picked it up in the seventies it was just another war book I think, in a time when there were a lot of war books on the shelves – not so many now. It was said to be autobiographical, the experiences of Guy Sajer volunteering as an Alsatian to fight, ultimately, for one of the elite Wehrmacht divisions, the Gross Deutschland. That tale took him from brutal basic training through to the supply corps, where he posted initially, attempting to supply his doomed comrades in Stalingrad. Later he became a combat troop fighting in many of the great battles, and then the retreat all the way back to East Prussia. I read this book until it fell apart in my hands. Years later a mate bought me a copy I still have. There’s a lot of pathos in this book, which is one of the features of this literature that draws you in. Ultimately this is tragedy.

That was the point of much of my childhood war book reading. Not only did it feature stories from the losers, most of the stories were from the eastern front. Quite possibly that’s the most horrendous and annihilating theatre of war in all human history. Huge battles against a ruthless foe who squandered human life in waves knowing there was much more to replace them. Two totalitarian societies going head to head with little regard for mercy or the civilised conventions of war. It was a zero-sum game, except the Russians could always make up what their more skilled opponents could not. It was war on a biblical scale, with all the themes of the bible in a tumultuous and violent roil. This was doom, and I sat reading about it in my lounge or bedroom.

This kind of authenticity emerged in much of the writing about Vietnam, though the scale was much different. Times changed, as had politics, and the heroic tropes of Allied writing of WW2 had devolved to a grungy and mind-fucked authenticity. The stories became more personal, and more depressing. Good and evil were less clear-cut, duty and purpose more vague. I read a few of these books, and some were excellent, but they never seemed the same to me. They weren’t, but perhaps I wasn’t the same either.

Which brings us back to The Thin Red Line. I had watched the movie based on this, and enjoyed it, a poetic and philosophical reflection on the nature of war, and man in war. After reading the book I can see why Terence Malick was the perfect man to make the movie of it, but even so there’s a hard edge in the book mixed in with the poetics.

Jones wrote a book that got beneath the surface of things. Ultimately that means it’s a story about people. The characters in this book are finely drawn and individual. They are real people whose heads we get inside and who we come to understand from the inside out, and as part of a larger group. You relate to them because they have motivations common to us. They have nuanced flaws and weaknesses that are lived and not merely labelled. You see them. You recognise them. You know them. Because they seem such real people what happens to them feels so real too. You think, this is how it really was. That’s how it felt.

I’ve always liked history, and probably military history best of all. It’s fascinating as theatre, and fascinating to read after the fact how and why things happened. Often it’s so intricate, so delicate, counterfactuals only millimetres away from being real. Most of all it gives as an individual, as a member of society, and existential self, some context and perspective. This is what I’m part of. This is where we’ve come from. Intellectually I want to know that, but I want to feel it too. This is what I have, this is how I live – but this is how it could have been.

 

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