In war, fact beats fic­tion

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ka­t­rina Gul­liver

Men At War: What Fic­tion Tells Us About Con­flict, From The Iliad to Catch-22 By Christo­pher Coker Hurst Pub­lish­ers, 320pp, $49.95 (HB)

IN this densely writ­ten study, Christo­pher Coker ex­plores the theme of war in fic­tion, and what we can learn from it. His fram­ing de­vice is to fit char­ac­ters into one of five “types” in nov­els: War­riors, He­roes, Vil­lains, Sur­vivors and Vic­tims (al­though some of the char­ac­ters could fit into more than one cat­e­gory). Coker writes: “The im­por­tance of fic­tion is that in re­veal­ing us to our­selves, of­ten for the first time, it al­lows us, in Ni­et­zsche’s words, to as­pire to ‘be­come’ what we are.”

Coker’s book choices range from well­known clas­sics, ( The Iliad and Ae­nead, All Quiet on the Western Front) to the marginally ob­scure. For Tol­stoy he picks the hero of Hadji Murat, the post­hu­mous novel I’d wa­ger most people have never heard of, let alone read, but he sees in­ter­est­ing par­al­lels be­tween Murat and the Chechen Mus­lim rebels of to­day.

We start with clas­si­cal lit­er­a­ture and Coker ex­plores Achilles as the ul­ti­mate sol­dier, and Ae­neas’s con­flicts be­tween de­sire and duty. But these men were both demi-gods, so their sto­ries are as much to show us that the divine can have hu­man con­flicts as to show us that we mor­tals can as­pire to the divine.

The se­lec­tion of char­ac­ters is eclec­tic, and the in­clu­sion of one Asian writer (Bao Ninh) seems a bit to­kenis­tic. A bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of war­riors in (one) Asian cul­ture would have been a dis­cus­sion of the dif­fer­ent it­er­a­tions of Chushin­gura (the many de­pic­tions of the 47 ronin in Ja­panese cul­ture). An­other of his picks is Cor­mac McCarthy’s hor­rif­i­cally vi­o­lent Blood Merid­ian — and that novel is about bounty hunters and scalp­ing, not war per se. Other cat­e­gories have to be sim­i­larly stretched: hav­ing talked about how books are so much bet­ter than films, Coker later takes four pages to ex­plain why he in­cluded a film char­ac­ter as one of his vil­lains (Dr Strangelove).

But by cat­e­goris­ing them in this way (rather than by con­flict, or chronol­ogy of pub­li­ca­tion). Coker doesn’t trace the ways war nov­els (and pub­lic at­ti­tudes to war) have changed. The Crimean War was in many ways the first mod­ern con­flict, the war that came into people’s liv­ing rooms, via the tele­grams and letters to the edi­tor from soldiers at the front (cen­sor­ship hadn’t yet been im­posed, be­cause in pre­vi­ous con­flicts it would have taken far too long for letters to travel back and do any dam­age). Read­ers at home were greeted daily with news­pa­per sto­ries of suf­fer­ing, lack of sup­plies, and or­gan­i­sa­tional in­com­pe­tence (of­fi­cers went home for the win­ter, leav­ing en­listed men to freeze with in­ad­e­quate cloth­ing and food).

That war gave us Ten­nyson’s Charge of the Light Bri­gade as “All in the val­ley of Death/ Rode the six hun­dred” (not to men­tion nu­mer­ous other cul­tural ref­er­ence points: bal­a­clavas be­ing one, an­other be­ing the num­ber of towns named Se­bastopol scat­tered across the Bri­tish Em­pire). Af­ter the brav­ery of the Ar­gyll and South­ern High­landers, the term “Thin Red Line” en­tered the war lit­er­a­ture lex­i­con, be­ing later bor­rowed by James Jones for the ti­tle of his novel set in the Pa­cific dur­ing World War II.

Dur­ing World War I, al­most ev­ery­one in one of the na­tions in­volved knew some­one who was killed or in­jured. Men not in uni­form were forced to jus­tify them­selves, or sub­ject to pub­lic sham­ing.

That sense of shared na­tional duty (and so­cial pres­sure) is hard to imag­ine to­day. While we may ad­mire the brav­ery of soldiers, most people in the “chat­ter­ing classes” have no con­tact with the mil­i­tary, and it cer­tainly is not a ca­reer they hope their chil­dren will pur­sue.

In pop­u­lar cul­ture, we re­lived the hero­ism of World War II into the 1960s, ( The Great Es­cape, The Dam­busters, Bridge on the River Kwai), but later con­flicts, par­tic­u­larly Viet­nam, pro­duced only an­ti­war nov­els and mem­oirs. (Un­sur­pris­ingly for a con­flict in­volv­ing the “me” gen­er­a­tion, more books have been writ­ten about Viet­nam than any other con­flict. The com­bat­ants had both the lit­er­acy and ego to pub­lish their own sto­ries.) Their war­riors were vic­tims of the sys­tem and in­di­vid­u­als first, rather than par­tic­i­pants in a grander cause.

Nov­els of con­tem­po­rary wars show men who are no­ble and brave but scep­ti­cal, am­biva­lent, or sim­ply de­tached from the war’s goals. War against gueril­las rather than uni­formed op­po­nents cre­ates a chal­lenge to the clas­sic Manichaean strug­gle of much war im­agery. The in­vis­i­bil­ity of the en­emy also makes for a chal­leng­ing nar­ra­tive (so much so that we get the nar­ra­tive of man’s war against him­self as much as against the ex­ter­nal foe).

Our re­cent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have yet to pro­duce great fic­tion — it’s hard to imag­ine writ­ing a no­ble-cause novel about con­flicts that in­volve sev­ered heads on Al Jazeera — but the role of war in pop­u­lar writ­ing has changed. The books that sell best now are non- fic­tion ac­counts (and films of these ‘‘true-ish’’ sto­ries con­tinue to hit the screens). Re­cent ex­am­ples of such books and films are Im­pe­rial Life in the Emer­ald City (filmed as Green Zone), Lone Sur­vivor (Afghanistan) and No Easy Day (the Bin Laden raid).

Au­thors look­ing to cre­ate fic­tional hero soldiers look back, set­ting their sto­ries in the Napoleonic Wars or other 19th-century con­flicts (far enough away from con­tem­po­rary read­ers to get that soft-fo­cus, olden days haze). Some of these that Coker dis­cusses are CS Forester’s Ho­ra­tio Horn­blower sto­ries (1937-67), Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Ma­turin books (1970-2004) Ge­orge Macdon­ald Fraser’s Flash­man sto­ries (pub­lished be­tween 1969 and 2005), and Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe se­ries (1981-2007). Do these bestsellers writ­ten cen­turies af­ter their wars re­ally teach us about the ex­pe­ri­ence of serv­ing in com­bat?

Coker, pro­fes­sor of In­ter­na­tional Re­la­tions at the Lon­don School of Eco­nom­ics, be­lieves “a per­son who in­hab­its the fic­tional world of the novel is likely to hold on to the idea of hu­man good­ness more than a per­son whose knowl­edge

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