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Fightin’ and Writin’

Friday, October 1, 2010

When it comes to purveying Napoleonic dash, few can match the charm and literary flair of Baron de Marbot’s memoirs. Marbot was wounded thirteen times on battlefields across the continent, by every weapon imaginable: sword cuts, bayonet thrusts, grapeshot. At one point, a cannonball even smashed through his chako. Fighting against the Austrians near the village of Essling, he recalls in a typical passage, “I was myself struck in the thigh by grapeshot, which tore out a piece of flesh as large as an egg; but the wound was not dangerous and I was able to return and report to the Marshal: I found him with the Emperor who, seeing me covered with blood, remarked, ‘Your turn comes round pretty often!’”

Thus after the battle of Austerlitz, we find him on the banks of the frozen Satschan Lake, where the French artillery had been bombarding the ice holding the fleeing Russians. A wounded Russian sergeant drifts by on an ice floe, appealing for help to Napoleon who is watching. On the emperor’s command, two French troopers dive in to save the Russian, but the weight of their uniforms almost drowns them. Having remarked that they ought to have stripped beforehand, Marbot feels compelled to give it a go himself.

He resolutely tears off his uniform and plunges into the icy waters. With the assistance of another trooper, and battling newly formed razor-sharp ice, he manages to get the Russian safely back to the shore, almost perishing himself in the attempt. As he admits, it was not so much love of his fellow man as Napoleon’s presence that had motivated him.

Another incident features his fiery little mare Lisette, who has a habit of attacking people she does not like, and whom only Marbot can handle. During the battle of Eylau, Marbot is sent on a suicide mission to reach a regiment that was encircled by Cossacks with orders for it to retreat. To save themselves proves impossible, and the officer in charge asks Marbot to bring their imperial eagle back to the emperor. Half-stunned by the aforesaid cannonball, Marbot and Lisette are surrounded by Russians, one of whom plunges a bayonet into her thigh. “Her ferocity restored by the pain, she sprang at the Russian and at one mouthful tore off his nose and all the skin of his face, making of him a living deaths head, dripping with blood.”

Kicking and biting, Lisette knocks over everyone in her path. A Russian officer, who has wounded Marbot in the arm and who attempts to hold Lisette’s bridle, pays the price: The horse “seized him by his belly, and carrying him off with ease, bore him out of the crush to the foot of the hillock, where having torn out his entrails and mashed his body under her feet, she leaves him dying in the snow.” In a final burst, she brings Marbot back to the cemetery of Eylau, where both collapse with exhaustion. Here Marbot is assumed dead and stripped of his clothes, until spotted by a valet of Marshal Augereau. In turn, he is reunited with his faithful mare.

Unreflective, no intellectual, Marbot is the epitome of happy warrior. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle called his memoirs “the best picture by far of the Napoleonic soldier” and used him as the model for his hussar, Brigadier Gerard. Under the heading of “Bonaparte’s Blessed Fool,” Marbot of course rates his own chapter in Warriors, Max Hastings’s study of military valor. Marbot’s memoirs are a bloody marvelous read, but to the modern soldier, exposed to wayside bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan, they are about as useful as The Three Musketeers.

The war memoir becomes fashionable

The interest in memoir-writing got a boost with the Napoleonic wars, when one went from looking at war mainly as an art to also looking at it as a science. Afterward, theoreticians like Baron de Jomini and Carl von Clausewitz would distill the abstract rules, while generals and colonels on all sides would line up to describe it in practice. Not everyone got the chance, of course. Countless French officers perished in Russia, living up to Comte de Lasalle’s famous dictum that “any hussar who isn’t dead at the age of 30 is a blackguard.” The count himself was killed at age 34 in the battle of Wagram.

Thus war can be seen from two perspectives: From above, the eagle-eye view, where the military memoir provides an insight into the mind of the commander and how it feels to be responsible for the lives of thousands. It sets forth his notions of leadership, explains his decisions, and tells how strategy translates into battlefield reality or how reforms are pushed through. This type of memoir can be as diverse as, say, Napoleon’s field surgeon, Baron de Larrey, struggling to establish the first field ambulance service; Sherman giving his reasons for laying waste to Georgia; or Heinz Guderian detailing the bureaucratic infighting involved in turning the Wehrmacht into a mechanized army. The general’s memoir also serves a number of other purposes, such as justifying his own actions, settling old scores and badmouthing rivals, and explaining why things did not turn out quite as planned. Or as in the case of the Alanbrooke Diaries, a therapeutic purpose is served, being the Field Marshal’s way of letting off steam after his daily battles to rein in Churchill’s fertile brain. By exploring the weight of command, generals’ memoirs act as a source of inspiration and comfort for later commanders.

The general’s memoir serves a number of purposes, such as justifying his own actions or settling old scores.

Alternatively, the view from below provides the ant’s perspective of the battle, what it looks like to the grumbling foot soldier, cold and hungry, who lives or dies according to his general’s dispositions. In the retreat from Moscow, we find Sergeant Bourgogne struggling desperately to survive, but keenly noting everything around him, including the fact that it is the bald who die first from exposure. Or Rifleman Harris, dictating his memoirs in his cobbler’s shop in Soho and remembering the horrors of the Peninsular War (“as forcibly as they had been branded into my memory”) where, half-blind and shoeless, he was part of “the enfeebled army crawling out of sight” during the retreat to Corona. Still, looking back on his life and his time with the 95th Rifles, Harris insists that it was “the only part worthy of remembrance.”

Memoirs by noncommissioned officers and common soldiers are rare at this point in history, but in the conflicts of the 20th century involving huge conscription armies, they become a flood — the soldier’s way of explaining his experiences to himself as well as the reader. Thus they can be a means of self-discovery, of recuperating from trauma, a way of celebrating friendship and remembering the dead — in short, they are the soldier’s way of insisting that he, the individual, he was there, and he matters, and don’t you forget it.

Though often muddled as regards dates and geographical detail, such memoirs provide something that the historian with his emphasis on official records and statistics mostly does not: By recalling the sights, sounds, smells, and confusion of battle, they give the reader a sense of what it actually felt like to be there. It is in their ability to convey an environment totally alien to the civilian that their great value lies. As for their inaccuracies, as Edmund Blunden puts it in his World War I memoir Undertones of War, “Are not pictures and evocations better than horology?”

Memoirs do come with a warning, however. The temptation to gild the lily is always present, for high as well as low. One of the worst sinners is World War II’s Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery, whose vanity prevented him from ever admitting a mistake. When his advance ground to an early halt in Normandy, he pretends in his memoirs that tying up the German panzer divisions had been his plan all along, when everybody knew that his plan had been to accomplish a breakout and take Caen on the first day. Rather than helping his reputation, the memoirs further damaged it, by reminding everyone what a right royal pain Monty could be.

The view from the top

Imagination is perhaps not the quality most often associated with the military mind: In fiction and in films, it is almost a given that the man in charge is a moron, whether he be a British Colonel Blimp type, a Prussian Junker with his monocle screwed into his eye socket, or a war-crazed Marine general, on whose flat top crew cut butterflies will crash-land.

Granted, history provides plenty of hopeless specimens — World War I’s Field Marshal Douglas Haig clicks to attention — but not all commanders are fools. And while a surfeit of imagination can sometimes be harmful to a platoon leader — to imagine one’s death too vividly can be downright debilitating — in a commander, imagination is essential: He must be able to enter his opponent’s mind and foresee his next move, he must be able to recover from setbacks, to regroup and improvise, and to calculate risk. In short, the commander must possess the ability to foresee all the things that might go wrong in an operation, but without becoming paralyzed by it. As World War II’s Field Marshal William Slim points out, his must be a controlled imagination. Hamlet types need not apply.

In supplying the view from above, the most rewarding memoirs are those of the great strategists and innovators. Unfortunately, great generals are not always found on the side of the angels. This applied in the American Civil War, and it applied in World War II in Europe, where some of the best generals were found on the losing sides (which helps explain why these conflicts became long drawn out). In both cases, eventual victory was achieved through raw industrial might, rather than great generalship.

In the latter war, Field Marshal Erich von Manstein’s Lost Victories is considered the most interesting of the German war memoirs, both for its military lessons — the author conducts a master class in both offensive and defensive warfare — and for its revelations of the chain of command on the German side. As befits Germany’s most frighteningly effective commander, the memoirs are coldly analytical, written with scientific detachment. As could also be expected, the Wehrmacht is presented as unsullied by the Nazi atrocities.

Having defeated the Poland army in a mere two weeks, where von Manstein served as chief of staff of von Rundstedt’s southern army group, the Germans turned their attention to France. In the book, von Manstein describes how his plan to attack France through the Ardennes Forest, rather than the traditional way through the Low Countries, met with fierce resistance from the German High Command, but was adopted because Hitler liked its aggressiveness, with catastrophic results for the French. And it was only because Hitler, worrying about supply lines, stopped the German panzers before they reached the Channel, that the British Expeditionary force escaped.

In supplying the view from above, the most rewarding memoirs are those of the great strategists and innovators.

As a reward for his contribution, von Manstein was given his own panzer corps for the invasion of Russia, and subsequently appointed commander of the 11th Army. Here he details his clashes with Hitler over strategy; after the initial success, Hitler diluted the push for Moscow by diverting forces away to targets in the south, over the protests of both von Manstein and Heinz Guderian. But carrying a colossal chip on his shoulder and mistrusting his generals, Hitler had reduced the okh, the Supreme Command of the Armed Forces, to a mere executive organ, a secretariat “whose only raison d’etre was to translate Hitler’s ideas and instructions into the terminology of military orders.” And Hitler preferred his own much vaunted intuition to experience.

As much of a gambler as Hitler had been on the political front, when it came to acting as supreme warlord in Russia, Hitler proved himself timid and paralyzed. Thus, rather than concentrate his forces on a decisive point to destroy the enemy main body, Hitler wanted to cling to his conquests, becoming a proponent of static World War I-type warfare. “His way of thinking conformed more to a mental picture of masses of the enemy bleeding to death before our lines than to the concentration of a subtle fencer who knows how to make the occasional step backward in order to lunge for the decisive thrust,” writes von Manstein. “For the art of war, he substituted brute force.”

After Stalingrad had proved the hopelessness of Hitler’s way, von Manstein argued for a strategic withdrawal, which would allow him to assemble a reserve, and counterattack in what he called his backhand blow. Again, this was nixed by Hitler. Having been deprived of the initiative, von Manstein still proved himself to be formidable defensive player, constantly improvising and exacting a fearsome price on the attacking Soviets. Lord Carver, the British field marshal, has described his retreat from Russia as a model, which it is “doubtful that any other army could have equaled.” But in 1944, he was relieved of command, when his outspokenness became too much for Hitler. As Carver notes, what the Russian part of von Manstein’s memoirs ultimately proves is that unless the strategy is right, no amount of tactical brilliance can save the day, no matter how great the commander or how high the morale.

An inverted version of Manstein’s wartime trajectory is afforded by that of Field Marshal Slim, who, starved of resources, was initially soundly beaten by the Japanese in Burma, but turned the situation around, as described in Defeat Into Victory. Slim is regarded as one of the top Allied commanders of the war, an inspirational leader, who, having to do a lot with very little, became a master of improvisation. He had to be, as Burma held the lowest priority among the decision makers in London.

“Defeat is bitter. Bitter for the common soldier, but trebly bitter to the general,” according to British Field Marshal Slim.

At the war’s start, Slim was serving in the Iraq desert, commanding the 10th Indian Division, when he was ordered to Burma, which the Japanese had invaded in a surprise attack. The Brits like desert fighting, in which, as Slim puts it, “you can see your man.” This was not the case in Burma, where most of the territory was “railless, roadless, trackless.”

Slim’s mission was to defend the main Burma road, on which all the British supplies had to move. Here, the favorite Japanese tactic was the “hook,” whereby a Japanese force would tie up the British from the front while another force would sneak round the back in a turning movement and cut British communications further down the road. The Brits would then be forced to weaken their front by sending troops off to deal with this new roadblock, at which point the Japanese would turn up the heat of their original attack. Again and again, the Japanese pulled this trick, to the point where it caused a British inferiority complex.

Unlike the British, the Japanese were trained for jungle and rivers, and with no intelligence, Slim was like “a blind boxer, trying to strike an unseen opponent and to parry blows we did not know were coming until they hit us.” The Japanese were out to destroy the British forces, whereas “ours was the rather nebulous idea of retaining territory.” As a result, Slim was forced to retreat back into India, “out-maneuvered, outfought, and outgeneraled.”

“Defeat is bitter. Bitter for the common soldier, but trebly bitter to the general. The soldier can comfort himself with the thought that whatever the result, he has done his duty faithfully and steadfastly, but the commander has failed in his duty if he has not won victory — for that is his duty,” he writes. “The only way is to cast out doubts born of failure. Forget them, and remember only the lessons to be learned from defeat. They are more than from victory.” So determined, Slim set about forging his weapon for his return. Everybody had to learn to fight, including cooks and clerks. “In the jungle, there are no non-combatants,” he writes. But “the soldier needs to see the jungle is neither impenetrable, nor unfriendly. The men learn by living, moving, and exercising in it.”

Most important was to stop viewing the Japanese like supermen: “The fatal idea that the Japanese had something we had not needed to be dispelled.” This necessary self-confidence was achieved with aggressive patrolling, which is the basis for success in jungle warfare. “The individual superiority built up by successful patrolling opens into a feeling of superiority within units and formations.” Slim carefully planned minor offensive operations, attacking in great preponderance of strength, before graduating into bigger things, first by beating the Japanese in the north, then attacking them in the longest opposed river crossing of World War II.

Throughout his memoir, Slim is extremely candid about his own mistakes; a typical sentence runs, “When in doubt as to two courses of action, a general should always choose the bolder. I reproached myself now that I had not.” Because of his skill and directness, though they might grumble, Slim was beloved by his troops. The soldier “must have confidence in his leaders and know whatever dangers and hardships he is called upon to suffer, his life will not lightly be flung away.” Thus Slim has no patience with generals talking lightly about flinging divisions about. “Fling is a term for amateurs.”

The view from the bottom

A perfect example of how it feels to be “flung about” is afforded by the Frenchman Leonce Patry, twice decorated with the Chevaliers Cross of the Legion of Honor, whose memoir The Reality of War serves as the prototype of war seen from below. It is based on Patry’s war diary from the Franco-Prussian war of 1870–71, in which he served as a junior lieutenant and in which the main French armies were routed in six weeks by the Germans, who then proceeded to besiege Paris and to beat France’s provincial armies, whereupon Wilhelm could proclaim himself emperor at Versailles.

While the French were stuck in their Napoleonic textbooks, Helmuth von Moltke, the German chief of staff, had revolutionized German war fighting. Strategically, his idea was to envelop the enemy army. Tactically, small independent units using swarming tactics would outflank enemy columns and shoot them up. In these efforts, they were supported by light and fast moving artillery. The French had no clue how to counter this: When attacking they still operated with the Napoleonic idea of the massed shock column. Patry found himself in the middle of this mess, with only the vaguest sense of time and place; typically for a junior lieutenant, he sees “only a tiny corner.” “As a matter of fact, I had no idea of the overall disposition adapted by the army in these great battles. I knew that I had fought close by a certain place, but what the general disposition was, I had never known,” he writes.

The book hits all the classic themes of the war memoir: As a newly minted officer, Patry starts out enthusiastic and full of romantic notions, but, confronted with reality, gains self knowledge and fast. He thus freely admits his fears, his moments of panic, and his moments of silliness. Thus, in one of his first skirmishes, he is honest enough to confess he turned tail: “I can still see myself repeating adjutant Laguire’s ‘Forward’ firmly resolved to carry it out myself and to ensure that my men executed the movement ordered. . . . But, as for finding the transition between that state of mind and that which made me turn my back and run away as fast as my legs would carry me, I have never discovered it,” he writes. Ashamed, he almost blew his brains out, but thought better of it. With experience comes the ability to laugh at himself: At one point he asks for volunteers for a hopeless task, and nobody stirs. “So is there no one here who will have the courage to die doing his duty,” he shouts, and immediately realizes how pompous he sounds.

As the fighting progresses, his anger over his superiors’ incompetence mounts, as does his sense of betrayal (a common theme in the memoirs of soldiers belonging to defeated armies) of having risked his life at the command of inadequate leaders. “Under the influence of mistaken doctrines, we had no idea of the methods to employ to conduct the daily operations of modern war,” he writes. The French side knew nothing about their enemy: They had not bothered to study him. In France, “It was the fashion to reduce the art of war to the occupation of good defensive positions.”

After the surrender of the fortress city of Metz, some soldiers were proud of having hidden their colors. To Patry, this is self-delusion: “The colors lose their meaning when the regiment has surrendered. It is dissolved and lost to the land.” The same goes for the French officers allowed to keep their swords after the defeat: “The value of the sword is that it signifies command. From the moment when one has no troops to command, there is little point in encumbering yourself in wearing such a bauble.” There is no Gallic strutting here — these are the bitter dregs of defeat. What is interesting about Patry is that he never became a pacifist, unlike many of the memoir writers World War I would produce a few decades later. He knew there would be a replay, and his main concern and the motive for writing his memoirs was for the French to do better next time.

World War I

Unfortunately, they didn’t. By the time World War I came along, the French army had reverted to traditional storm tactics, partly in response to outside pressure for greater democratization, which ensured that officers and enlisted men were cut down in equal measure before the German machine guns. And in Oxford and Cambridge, the commemorative plaques carry the names of a generation of Britain’s brightest.

World War I represents the great watershed in memoir writing, and to a degree which is unusual for the genre, it has attracted the attention of the academic crowd, partly due to its undoubted literary qualities, partly due to the congeniality of its message.

At the very start of World War I, you find British aristocrat officers in their letters home penning sentences like, “I adore war. It is like a big picnic without the objectlessness of a picnic.” They did not live long. As the slaughter intensifies, and the war becomes an affair of mass conscription, memoirs like Robert Graves’s Goodbye to All That, Edmund Blunden’s Undertones of War, and Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of George Sherston — and in Germany, Erich Maria Remarque’s novel All Quiet on the Western Front, cast as a memoir — set the tone.

According to the historian Samuel Hynes’s ‘The Soldiers’ Tale,’ World War I provided many instances of bravery.

In their attempt to give shape to their experiences, as Paul Fussell notes in The Great War and Modern Memory, these authors often employ elements of fiction: Robert Graves uses satire, Sassoon sharp antithesis and a third person narrator — “Sherston is me with bits left out,” he writes — while Blunden plays against Britain’s pastoral tradition to suggest the monstrousness of industrialized warfare, where generals talk casually of Menschenmaterial. Typically, Sassoon traces the junior officer’s descent into hopelessness and rebellion, starting with “The newly gazetted young officer . . . ambitious to become passably efficient for service at the front. Next comes the survivor of nine months in France, less diffident, and inclined, in a confused way to ask the reason why everyone was doing and dying under such soul destroying conditions. Thirdly arrived that somewhat incredible mutineer, who had made up his mind that if a single human could help stop the war by making a fuss, he was that man.”

In this type of war, skill has become pointless: Operating a machine gun in an interlocking field of fire does not require much talent; you only need to cool the barrel. Only the exploits of the air aces offered a chance to display initiative, or the adventures of Colonel Lawrence in the Arabian desert, but that was far from the war’s main action.

Actually, according to the historian Samuel Hynes’s The Soldiers’ Tale, World War I provided numerous instances of bravery, as proved by the 578 Victoria Crosses that were given out. “But the stories of those acts, when we come upon them in personal narratives, seem displaced and dissonant, as though they strayed from some other, earlier war, in which men had more freedom to move, and bravery made a difference,” he writes. According to Hynes, World War I redefined courage, which comes to mean “patient endurance of the unendurable,” the stoic ability to take it. He quotes a French infantry sergeant’s definition of courage as “standing without trembling.” Similarly, the war redefined cowardice, bringing on a slow realization that there were limits to human endurance. “Shell shock” became a medical term.

Though the war was finally won, the price was so high that it did not feel like victory (and of course the peace did not last.) Writes Sassoon, “The war is a dirty trick that has been played on me and my generation.” War came to be seen as something that breaks out by accident through the mishandling of inept and corrupt politicians. The fact that dictators may actually be pursuing war deliberately was conveniently overlooked, until brutally brought home by World War II.

The great exception to the prevailing pacifism of the classic World War I memoirs does need mentioning: Ernst Junger’s Storm of Steel. As a German lieutenant serving on the Western Front, Junger was another one of those in the habit of getting himself wounded: “Leaving out trifles such as ricochets and grazes, I was hit at least fourteen times, these being five bullets, two shell splinters, one shrapnel ball, four hand grenade and two bullet splinters, which with entry and exit wounds, left me an even twenty scars.” For his services, he was awarded the Pour le Merite Order, the empire’s highest military decoration.

In Storm of Steel, Junger combines a Remarquesce intensity in his descriptions of the horrors of war with an attempt to fit his wartime experience into an overall philosophical scheme. Thus he portrays war as a kind of purifying, character-building exercise, producing a warrior caste free from the weaknesses of bourgeois society, a theme which is amplified in his essay On Pain, which sees the ability to conquer pain as the true test of manhood. No wonder the Nazis found the book useful, though Junger was never a party member.

There will always be people like Junger — or Marbot, or Audie Murphy — who, from whatever motivation, are willing to take suicidal chances in war. As Max Hastings has noted, every army needs a sprinkling of such men to make things happen on the battlefield. But they are the exception, not the norm.

World War II

Where world war I memoirs had been full of literary echoes — a result of “the unparalleled literariness of all ranks,” in Fussell’s words — World War II memoirs tend to be shorn of artifice. They are plain and direct. But though many more people were killed than in World War I, there is not the same kind of despair hanging over these books as over those of the first war. Rather, the tone is one of grim determination. It was understood that the evil represented by Nazism and Japanese expansionism had to be stopped.

Unlike its predecessor, World War II was also a war of movement, and one which offered opportunities for individual achievement, both in the air in the cockpit of the fighter plane, as described in Tom Neill’s Battle of Britain memoir Gun Button to Fire — as Hynes notes, bombers were different, here it was again a question of taking it — and on the ground, as in tank war in the desert described by the poet Keith Douglas in Alamein to Zem Zem. The most hard-hitting memoirs of this period are those from the war in the Pacific Theater. The Germans were tough, but in the Pacific, Allied soldiers were up against a kind of savagery that was different, as demonstrated in E.B. Sledge’s With the Old Breed, William Manchester’s Goodbye Darkness, MacDonald Frazier’s Quartered Safe Out Here, and Ronald Searle’s To the Kwai and Back: War Drawings 1939–1945.

What made the fighting at Peleliu and Okinawa particularly hellish was that the Japanese had changed their tactics.

In With the Old Breed, recalling his experiences in Peleliu and Okinawa, Sledge tells of fighting “against an enemy unlike anything most Americans could imagine.” He describes how the Japanese would routinely mutilate dead American soldiers, leaving behind beheaded bodies and soldiers with their genitals stuffed in their mouths. Though there were certainly retaliatory acts of desecration, where Americans soldiers would hunt for souvenirs including gold teeth and ears, with the Japanese these were not just individual acts — here the savagery was institutionalized. What made the fighting at Peleliu and Okinawa particularly hellish was that the Japanese had changed their tactics. They no longer hurled themselves forward in banzai attacks, but were practicing defense in depth, with interlocking fields of fire, and had to be burned out of their positions.

Despite the horrendous casualties, Sledge never lost faith in the purpose of the war. Thus, horrible though war is, the final message of his book is not pacifism: “Until the millennium arrives and countries cease trying to enslave others, it will be necessary to accept one’s responsibilities and to be willing to make sacrifices for one’s country — as my comrades did. As the troops used to say, ‘If the country is good enough to live in, it’s good enough to fight for.’”

Remarkably, even in the most desperate conditions in the Japanese prisoner of war camps one finds defiance. Ronald Searle’s To the Kwai and Back: War Drawings 1939–1945 gives a pictorial account of his existence as a pow. Singapore, the so-called impregnable fortress, whose guns unfortunately pointed out to sea (the Japanese attack came from land), fell in 1942, and Searle was among the British soldiers captured. He became an inmate in the infamous Changi prison and he worked on the Siam-Burma railway, one of 55,000 Allied captives and 135,000 Asians to do so. Two-thirds of his group perished. He describes “the Bosch-like funeral pyres,” on which his fellow slaves would disappear into thin air.

Searle had decided that if he survived, he would come out of prison “with a ‘significant’ pictorial record of what happened during those lost and more or less unphotographed years.” If found out, he would face instant execution. Accordingly, he hid his drawings in the cemetery or among the clothes of those stricken with cholera. What kept him going was pure hatred of the enemy and what it represented.

Searle also affords the most vivid example of the incomprehension of civilians of these horrors when after getting back to London he meets the author Rose Macaulay at a literary party. Casually he tells her that while in the camp he had smoked up her anthology, The Minor Pleasures of Life, as it was printed on thin paper, suitable for rolling cigarettes. The lady looks miffed and turns her back on him. “Dickens I feel would have been more comprehending,” he notes.

The great service of books like Sledge’s and Searle’s is that they force the reader to acknowledge the existence of evil, an evil that does not allow itself to be appeased.

Modern times

Small wars that drag out for ages with no victory in sight are difficult for democracies to fight, as the bitter memoirs from Vietnam testify. As Hynes notes, throughout World War II, American soldiers had retained faith in the cause, but with Vietnam, it was America’s turn to experience the kind of disillusionment that had affected Britain’s World War I veterans. And as was the case with the British World War I memoirs, the Vietnam veterans’ memoirs became the widely accepted version of the war.

In Vietnam, Sledge’s key notions of trust in his superiors and in his cause were entirely absent. The strategy was wrong: Men had to take the same objective again and again, making their sacrifices seem pointless. Because of the constant officer rotation, designed to give everybody a crack at the war, the leadership was inexperienced. Because of the one year service requirement, unit cohesion suffered. And because of draft deferments, only the lower classes served. Thus the soldiers felt let down by their political leaders, by the military brass, and by the home public which would spit on returning servicemen. Even the music betrayed them: In World War II, the troops were sustained by Glen Miller. In Vietnam, they were mocked by Country Joe. The letters scrawled on their helmet covers said it all: uuuu, i.e., the unwilling, led by the unqualified, doing the unnecessary for the ungrateful.

Their moral compass shattered, many joined the Veterans against the Vietnam War and turned the blame against their own country. The angriest of the memoir writers is Ron Kovic, who was paralyzed in Vietnam and whose Born on the Fourth of July amounts to a denunciation of an entire culture which he feels has tricked him into the war. Philip Caputo’s A Rumor of War is marginally less strident. Wistfully, in its prologue, Caputo writes, “Repeatedly, I found myself wishing I had been a veteran of a conventional war, with a dramatic campaign for subject matter instead of a monotonous succession of ambushes and firefights.” Unfortunately, “a monotonous succession of ambushes and firefights” happens to be the nature of guerilla war.

But not only Western nations have trouble with small wars. Perhaps the most haunting and ruthlessly honest among recent small-war memoirs are those written by Russian lieutenant Arkady Babchenko, One Soldier’s War in Chechnya, which describes an army in dissolution. Babchenko was drafted into the army as a second-year law student and trained to be a radioman. “Trained” is the wrong word, actually: His preparation for what awaited him in Chechnya was nonexistent. Russian boys of eighteen and nineteen were sent to fight against battle-hardened Islamic fighters: “We don’t know how to dig trenches, take cover from machine gun fire, and we don’t know how to set a trip wire grenade without it blowing up in our hands. No one teaches us any of this stuff. We don’t even know how to shoot. The guys in our company have only handled weapons twice.”

Small wars that drag out for ages with no victory in sight are difficult for democracies to fight.

As Babchecko and his fellow conscripts have no idea why they are fighting or for what, in classic fashion, they fight to protect their buddies, “those who cling to the ground next to me.” The enemy’s practice of crucifying soldiers and cutting off heads leads to pay back in kind: “We sometimes surpass adults in our cruelty, simply because we are young. Children are cruel by nature, and this cruelty is the only bit of our true age that remains. And it helps us to live and to kill others.”

The book is especially shocking in its descriptions of the army practice of dedovshchina, the bullying of new recruits by older soldiers. Hazing is of course not a uniquely Russian phenomenon, but in the Russian army it outdoes anything one has previously read about. Before arriving in Chechnya, Babchenko had made sergeant, and a fat lot of good that did him: “To be of higher rank having served less time is an unforgivable transgression,” which only earns him a couple of extra beatings. “That’s why I never wear stripes. No one does. All that counts is how long you have served.” His regimental commander, of course, is aware of these practices but does not intervene. Nor is this bullying restricted to the lowest ranks. In this army you have generals hitting colonels.

Babchenko also explodes the notion that hazing is a characteristic of a conscript army. It is just as bad in the part of the Russian army which is on contract. The contract soldiers are often drawn from the criminal classes, men who elect to serve in the army to avoid punishment, and here it is they who do the bullying. “This is not an army, but a herd drawn from the dregs of the criminal classes, lawless apart from the dictates of the jackals that run it.” In this “army living by prison camp rules,” the end product is a soldier without a conscience and “with a coldness inside [him] and a hatred of the whole world, with no past and no future.” The book is a cry for reform, for the creation of “an army with a human rather than a criminal face,” where the soldier is inviolable and where such transgressions are punishable by law. Babchenko of course realizes that this is a pipedream. Yet, by now dependent on the adrenaline kick of fighting, Babchenko volunteered to take part in the second Chechen campaign in 1999, where the Russians won a victory of sorts by pounding Grozny into dust.

We are light-years away from the glittering Napoleonic reminiscences of Marbot.