For most of us, mercifully, our experience of war is second-hand. We see movies and videos with most of the gore removed, or read carefully censored news reports. This is to keep old civilians from getting depressed, and to keep young civilians enlisting for service. Only after the war do we sometimes get fictional accounts that more closely approach the truth of combat and its aftermath.
Born ten months before Pearl Harbor, I still have some fragmentary memories of World War II in Los Angeles: being scared by the sweeping searchlights of an air-raid drill; seeing a fleet of ships under a grey sky, knowing my father was aboard one of them; walking down a sunny street while my mother cried because FDR had died that day.
By the time I started reading war novels, World War II was still only a decade or so behind us—as close then as 9/11 is to us. Even more than the Depression, it had clearly been the major struggle of my parents’ generation (who would have laughed at being called “the greatest”). And in that printbound world, novels about the war were often huge bestsellers.
Looking back on the novels that helped to shape my own attitude toward war, I’m struck by how forgotten most of them are today, not to mention their authors. Most are American, but some fine Canadian writers followed the paths of literary glory to the grave also.
Johnny Got His Gun: This novel by Dalton Trumbo is still being read, judging by the number of reviews on Amazon. Trumbo was my mentor when I was a boy, and he once told me he’d written it in six weeks of nonstop effort, not even bothering with commas. An anti-war novel, it describes the post-combat life of Joe Bonham, who’s lost his arms, legs, and face. He’s being kept alive as a medical curiosity, and only gradually manages to communicate with the world. Trumbo eventually made a movie from his book, still available on DVD. Johnny may be a true underground classic.
The Naked and the Dead: Norman Mailer launched his overlong literary career with this account of an American invasion of a fictitious Pacific island. Based on his own combat experience, the story is a melange of Hemingway and Dos Passos, with an evil fascist general who serves as Mailer’s equivalent of Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor. We thought it was great fifty years ago, but I doubt that anyone reads it today outside third-year courses in 20th century American lit. Mailer, like many others, is more read about than read.
From Here to Eternity: James Jones made a fortune from this doorstop of a book, and Frank Sinatra revived his career by playing Maggio in the movie version. I can’t think of a single passage in the novel that’s stuck in my memory.
Catch-22: Joseph Heller effectively launched the 1960s with this magnificent satire, which reduced me to convulsive hysteria at age 22. My father didn’t think it was funny at all; maybe his generation was still too close to the war to see the humour in bombing people while being terrified that they might blow you out of the sky.
Company K: William March, better known as the author of The Bad Seed, wrote this brilliant book in the 1930s. It recounts the history of a US Marine company, from basic training through combat to the victory parade, with a first-person account by every man in the company—dead or alive. In structure, style and content, it is superb.
And Then We Heard the Thunder: John Oliver Killens shocked us with this novel about black soldiers fighting World War II in the Pacific. Only they weren’t blacks then, they were Negroes. People didn’t want to know that they hadn’t enjoyed quite as good a war as upstanding white boys.
As for Canadian war novelists, I know too much. I did my master’s thesis on “The Great War and the Canadian Novel, 1915-1926”—a deservedly obscure period in Canadian literature. That first decade was rich in novels portraying idealistic young dudes going off to fight the Hun and coming back (limping slightly) to build utopian communities up Toba Inlet on the BC coast. But they were propaganda written by war pimps, not by soldiers.
The first real Canadian war novel was Charles Yale Harrison’s Generals Die in Bed, which got terrible reviews because it actually described how we fought that war in the trenches. Few war novels are as relentlessly tough as this one. After decades out of print, it came back as a young-adult novel, and then as an adult novel again.
And Earle Birney, Vancouver’s early poet and teacher, gave us Turvey —a funny, forgiving portrait of a Canadian Good Soldier Schweik, whose dim wits throw a merciless light on his truly stupid military superiors.
We Canadians will be a long time waiting for the Harrisons and Birneys of our Afghanistan adventure. By the time the veterans put their manuscripts together, few Canadian publishers will be around to bring them out. Meanwhile the Conservative government hyperventilates about our noble warriors (and brings the dead home on a Highway of Heroes), just like the officials that Harrison and Birney despised.
And by the time Afghanistan is as forgotten as Ralph Connor’s Sky Pilot in No Man’s Land, the government of the day will be drumming us into yet another glorious war for freedom and democracy.
This is a very personal list of war novels. I’d be interested to know which novels have shaped your own views of war in the 20th and 21st centuries.