War as Seen by Soldiers-Essays Add New Dimension to Combat Literature

Article excerpt

The Soldiers' Tale: Bearing Witness to Modern War. Samuel Hynes. Allen Lane/The Penguin Press. 318 pages; notes; bibliography; index; $24.95.

In the spring of 1945, Samuel Hynes was a 20-year-old Marine bomber pilot in the bloody World War II battle of Okinawa. After his return to civilian life-and a second tour of duty during the Korean War-he became a professor of literature and an author of books on literary subjects and the cultural impact of war. In The Soldiers' Tale he combines his experience and understanding of war with his role as a literary analyst to produce a beautifully written, sensitive discussion of the nature of modern war and the eloquence of personal memoirs to reveal it.

Hynes offers a series of reflective essays on the two world wars and Vietnam, enriched by numerous vivid extracts from the testimonies of veterans. This "collective tale that soldiers tell," he explained, constitutes "the truth of war experience," far closer to reality than the words of journalists, historians or official reporters.

World War I, he wrote, was a "story of disillusionment," of idealism betrayed in a bloody four-year stalemate in muddy and shell-torn trenches, of a generation of young men lost, of an end to war as romantic adventure. Only in the surging thrill of single aerial combat-solitary warriors soaring high above the dull earth-or in the swift and sweeping cavalry raids of Lawrence's Arab fighters-galloping to victory against the harried Turkwas there any real sense of glory and excitement.

Most World War I soldiers experienced only what a young English officer called the depressing "stricken waste" of the devastated battlefield: "The trees...now torn and broken stumps...The earth...churned up into a crumbling mass...a wilderness without verdure or growth of any kind."

"In the beginning," wrote one soldier, "war is adventure. Then comes war weariness...The third phase is an acceptance, a resignation, a surrender to faith."

Another man recalled that his "knight-errantry about the war had fizzled out...How could I begin my life all over again when I had no conviction about anything except that war was a dirty trick which had been played on me and my generation?"

World War II, on the other hand, had no romantic beginning or disillusioned ending. It was not fought with idealistic misconceptions but with a "sense of moral necessity." It was, moreover, a true world war-indeed, two separate wars-waged on continents and oceans around the globe. Its massive fleet movements and great invasions dwarfed those of World War I, and its far-reaching strategic air weapons meant that no place on earth was safe from destruction.

It was a war in which technological advances played a decisive role, and which saw intense savagery, brutality and personal hatred. It was a war, also, that ended with fierce dramatic suddenness and clear, undeniable victory.

Unlike the static tactical paralysis of the first great war, World War II saw huge armies struggling back and forth over vast battlefields, leaving in their tracks, as one veteran noted, a landscape "littered with tanks and lorries and guns, still smoldering...scattered graves...slit trenches filled with machine-guns and ammunition, papers ...blowing in the wind, still unburied corpses..."

Another man observed, "There is a dreadful sameness to such scenes: fragments of torn metal, masonry, vegetation, and bodies. …