A reader may avoid war literature, but war permeates literature
There is a large body of men’s literature I’ve seldom touched after college. Novels about war were amply represented on our class reading lists. I felt it was bad enough there were wars. Talk about fronts, troop movements, strategies and, most offensively, “theatres of conflict” all seemed to drown out the fact that throughout history old men deliberately and pointlessly have put young men to death.
Still, war permeates literature. Vanity Fair, set against the Battle of Waterloo though written decades later, has men handsome in their uniforms, fife and drum, and lords and ladies who guzzle at table as if there were no front and no men dying. By the time Margaret Mitchell published Gone With The Wind, in 1936, American readers had lived through a world war, and she presented the Civil War, fought 70 years earlier, in gray images of death, despair, and a perpetual shadow in the eyes of the men who returned.
It is almost 100 years since the start of the Great War, which was supposed to end all wars. Why did anyone think poison gas and grenades would settle conflicts more decisively than cannons and bayonets? After all, technological advances never touched the urge to dispossess, dominate and kill.
In A Farewell To Arms, Hemingway’s soldiers and the mechanics who service their vehicles frankly declare that there is nothing worse than war, not even defeat. And victory doesn’t end a war either. Some people make money out of it, or they wage war out of stupidity. Within a few pages, some of these candid men are dead and the others have their legs blown off. Nearly two years later, as the Italian army retreats, Hemingway’s hero barely escapes being shot as a deserter.
The narrator of Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet On The Western Front is just 19. Paul has already been fighting for a year when the story begins and he pities the “young” recruits, the raw 18-year-olds who still panic when bombs rain down. He has no illusions about why he is at the front, and he despises the teacher who encouraged him and his classmates to enlist. He gives no details about the strategy, the field of conflict, or the nations fighting. None of that matters, after all. A generation of young men has been put in harm’s way for no good reason, and they are individuals, with individual legs and arms and heads shattered by bullets and shrapnel. Paul records the changing seasons, the sufferings of his friends, the food they capture and eat, and one desperate night and day trapped in a trench with the enemy soldier he has just stabbed, waiting for the death rattle in his throat to stop. By the time the novel ends, he has spent years fighting.
Remarque’s novel is far better written than Hemingway’s. Paul is never distracted by hi-jinks or liquor or women. His story, like his life, remains fixed where it should be, on horrors that never should have been.