Magazine article American Libraries

The Modern War Novel

Magazine article American Libraries

The Modern War Novel

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The modern war novel

Was the Gulf War too one-sided to produce a great novel? History will be the judge of that, but, while Operation Desert Storm is on our minds, now is a good time to take a glance at war in twentieth-century fiction. The issue of good wars and bad wars is finally alien to fiction because the novel is always about the individual, and, for the individual, war is never about ideals; it's about living and dying. Whenever novelists succeed in portraying combat from the individual soldier's point of view, they incur the wrath of those who see war as a conflict of values. You won't find words like country, honor, and duty treated with anything but scorn in this century's best war fiction. That's because such words only have meaning in the abstract, and there's nothing abstract about a bullet. In the wake of a so-called successful war, when the rhetoric is flying like flak from an anti-aircraft gun, perhaps we need the perspective only fiction can provide.

Hasek, Jaroslav. The Good Soldier Schweik. Penguin,

1985 (orig. pub. 1930), $7.95 (0-14-003568-0).

There has never been a soldier like the good soldier Schweik, a Prague dogcatcher drafted into the Austrian army in World War I. Mouthing every institutional piety, seeming to defer to the wisdom of all his bungling superiors, this Falstaffian rogue is the ultimate survivor, appearing to march resolutely forward yet somehow never making it to the front. Schweik is not the kind of soldier whom idealists eulogize, but if armies were made up of nothing but Schweiks, there would never be a battle, and no one would die. Is Schweik a coward or a hero? That's hard to say, but one thing's for sure: He's alive.

Hemingway, Ernest. A Farewell to Arms. Scribner,

1978 (orig. pub. 1929), $10,95 (0-684-71797-2).

"Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soliders marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves." That's Hemingway at his best, and it reminds us how much he knew about what war does to the living things that fall in its wake.

Jones, James. The Thin Red Line. …

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