Academic journal article Military Review

The Soldier's Tale: Bearing Witness to Modern War

Academic journal article Military Review

The Soldier's Tale: Bearing Witness to Modern War

Article excerpt

THE SOLDIER'S TALE: Bearing Witness to Modem War by Samuel Hynes. 318 pages. Penguin Books, New York. 1997. $24.95.

Before the 20th century, war was largely the business of the unlettered classes (the American Civil War being a notable exception). Since the advent of total war, as in World Wars I and II, both the literate and literary have been involved in war, either as combatants or as victims. Many of them left written records. Even the least eloquent descriptions of combat suggest modem war's horror and unreality. The best writings are among the most moving memoirs in 20th-century literature.

Samuel Hynes surveys this genre in The Soldier's Tale. He follows the lead of Paul Fussell, who first examined war literature in the influential The Great War and Modern Memory followed by Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War. Fussell's books examined the literature (and influence of literature) of a single war. Hynes' objective is broader. His book considers war narratives from every major war. Hynes' emphasis is on enlisted men's and junior officers' records, with the intent "to discover what it was really like to be there, where the actual killing was done."

Hynes has firsthand insights into the subject. He served as a Marine pilot in World War II's last stages, and wrote his own war memoir, Flights of Passage. But his literary training, not his battle experience, is his chief point of reference. The book begins by seeking to establish the war narrative's unique place in literature. War narratives have the elements of autobiography, travelogues and history. Yet they are unique. Beyond this, "The narratives that soldiers write are all different, and all the same.... [T]here is always one story-the individual's journey from innocence into experience."

Hynes argues that "the war in the head" is often shaped by the muddled and often false preconceptions each person brings to his war experience. …

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