In war, fact beats fiction
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