Contemporary war books bore me. The last sixteen years of the Global War on Terror (GWOT) has seen a proliferation of books on the matter: campaign histories, journalistic assessments, and memoires from those charged with fighting its battles. While I don’t have an issue with the first – because they furnish command and staff college students with valuable research material – I certainly have an objection with the other two. It isn’t the subject that I find distasteful, but rather the manner in which it is told. Any of the personal narratives found in the military history shelves at Indigo will consist of either harrowing tales of derring-do (the type that entertained Imperial Britain’s reading public) or patriotic rationales for having gone to war. Absent in this category of books, however, is humour.
War is a human endeavour and thus subject to all the hypocrisies, contradictions, and folly found within each and every one of us. William Shakespeare first weaved together all these elements to give us the unforgettable military anti-heroes, Sir John Falstaff and his crony Pistol. Falstaff is fat, lecherous, and greedy; Pistol devious and prone to exaggerations; taken together they were unlikely knights for an era that made Arthur and his Roundtable a standard of conduct. Aside from being stage caricatures ridiculing martial pretentions, Falstaff and Pistol turn Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays and the historical King Henry V’s military campaigns into ironical satires of war and government.
Three hundred and seventy-four years later, George MacDonald Fraser would continue the tradition of buffoonish military characters in a series of books collectively known as the McAuslan papers. Based on his reminiscences as an infantry officer in a British regiment during and after World War II, MacDonald Fraser allows one to see the lighter side of military life through a series of vignettes in which his principal character, Private McAuslan, is the focus of much of the action. This publisher’s synopsis for a collected edition accurately gives the flavour of the stories:
Private McAuslan, J., the Dirtiest Soldier in the World, first demonstrated his unfitness for service in The General Danced at Dawn. He continued his disorderly advance, losing, soiling or destroying his equipment, through the pages of McAuslan in the Rough. The final volume, The Sheikh and the Dustbin, pursues the career of the great incompetent as he shambles across North Africa and Scotland…His admirers know him as court-martial defendant, ghost-catcher, star-crossed lover and golf caddie…Whether map-reading his erratic way through the Sahara by night or confronting Arab rioters, McAuslan’s talent for catastrophe is guaranteed.
Focused on McAuslan’s misadventures, the reader can be forgiven for forgetting that the stories take place against a backdrop of violence which engulfed an unraveling British Empire and a nascent Israel.
Evelyn Waugh also used his military service to pen the Sword of Honour Trilogy. Waugh’s semi-biographical protagonist, Captain Guy Crouchback, is a tragicomic figure, but the war against Nazi Germany does not directly provide either the tragedy or the comedy in the work. Crouchback sees himself as a latter-day crusader who wants to help Britain slay national socialism. His task, however, is Sisyphean because of two obstacles: Guy’s age and, more importantly, governmental and military ineptitude. Whereas Shakespeare and MacDonald Fraser used slapstick characters to poke fun at martial life, Waugh draws his humour from the wartime institutions themselves. Episodes such as the slapdash forming of commando units, the boarding school approach to officer training, the enlistment of an African witch-doctor to cast spells upon Hitler and Nazi party officials, and the half-hearted official justification for Britain’s alliance with various European communists leaves one wondering how we ever won the war.
But with the exception of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (set in World War II but inspired by the Korean War and McCarthyism), military writers have since lost their sense of humour and, as I stated at the beginning of this article, contemporary military literature is either technical, stoically sombre, or self-serving. By failing to present the ridiculous, we military writers are helping to further the gap between us and those we serve(d). Is it any wonder that the general population recoils from us as automatons or PTSD-addled wrecks? The Canadian Donkey Master of Kandahar, the Disloyal Deputy Commander, the pilot who crashed and cross-fitted, and the sandbag-filled sea containers are bizarre memories from my small contribution to the GWOT. Though I am not advocating that experiences be trivialized, I am asking that in order to relate better with fellow Canadians, military writers give the entire picture – because we all know the absurd is always lurking in a corner of those “hero shots” (military slang for photos all vets take wearing all their gear – either alone or with their teams – while on operations).