I spent Memorial Day on holiday with the extended family, touristing around Chania, the old Venetian stronghold on the western side of Crete* — which meant that the holiday mostly passed me by until reading Adam’s post.
As it happens, though, my book for the day was Pat Barker’s Regeneration, the first of a trilogy. The work uses the historical encounter between anthropologist and psychologist William Rivers and the poet-officer Siegfried Sassoon to explore (among much else) the impact of realizing that a war limned in the language and cant of glory or duty or courage is, instead, a meaningless meat grinder.
It’s very good…I’d heard of it for years but it took a stop at the Tank Museum in Dorset, with a discount paperback in the gift shop and a sun-and-sand vacation in prospect to get me to read it. I’m sorry to have waited so long, though given how much the Battle of Crete still comes up in local historical memory, maybe I got to it in just the right time and place.
But all this meandering ambles to this point (I do have one!): I’ve never served. I do not presume to speak for or at those who have. I try to think and feel like a citizen who must give consent to the government that orders others to fight for the polity as a whole. My minimum responsibility is to try to understand what war costs before giving even tacit assent to conflicts entered into notionally on my behalf.
So, over the last six decades, my sense of war began as one of XY kid fascination — with my dad’s and my uncles’ service, and with all the minutiae of World War II naval warfare in an obsession that lasted to a couple of years past puberty — and opposition to the Vietnam War picked up as local and family culture growing up in Berkeley.
But then came the books. In my teens I began to read books on war that weren’t straightforward military history or kids’ versions of Jane’s Fighting Ships and its ilk. There were two that had a decisive impact on my thinking about war: Robert Graves’s Goodbye to all That and Sassoon’s George Sherston trilogy, Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man; Memoirs of an Infantry Officer; and Sherston’s Progress. Graves’s book was memoir; Sassoon fig-leafed with a pseudonym, but his is similarly an account of a pre-war life spent as an unspeakable in pursuit of the inedible, transformed by what came after August 1914. Both, appear in Barker’s novel, where she made good use of the way Sassoon in particular tried to express the daily intolerable, and, more awfully, the mundane inhumanity of the war in ways even the most complete home-front hero could grasp.
He and Graves failed in that, of course; the war drumming about Iran from men and a political party that won’t for a moment put themselves or their own kids at risk is only the latest case in point. For me, though those books had a profound impact on my 16 or 17 year old brain. I can’t claim to be a complete pacifist; wars always represent failures to achieve ends by other means, but when such failures occur…
But the message I drew from the “Great War” remembrances, and then later from works like Herr’s Dispatches; and still later, O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, read pretty recently to keep company with my son’s high school reading list; and novels like Catch 22, which even at 17 I realized wasn’t actually a comedy, hilarious as it was, and so on…is that asking folks to fight for any reason but the most utterly compelling is the ur-war crime. That’s how I see it still.
All of which is prelude to the question for all of y’all. “Favorite” isn’t quite the right word, but perhaps this will do: what is the book that makes war most real to you? What work or works of literature or remembrance or history has moved you or altered views or simply made a difference to you? What would you have me read to understand how you think and feel and reason morally around violence and conflict?
And with that: over to the Jackalteriat!
*Dirty job and all that, but someone’s got to do it.°
°Well, in fact, no one has to do it. But I’m happy enough to volunteer.
Image: John Singer Sergent, Gassed, 1919.