The Literary Art of War

Brian Bethune October 11 1999

The Literary Art of War

Brian Bethune October 11 1999

The Literary Art of War


Military historians bring little-known conflicts to life and tackle controversial aspects of the wars Canadians fought

Brian Bethune

John Keegan, the most prominent military historian alive today, has a simple answer to the question why his craft is undergoing a renaissance. “Its the excitement, that’s all,” says Keegan. “I just read a new translation of the Iliad and the batde scenes made my hair stand on end and that’s 3,000 years old. Good writers pass that excitement on to their readers.” That may explain why Keegan regularly appears on bestseller lists—as he is now doing with The First World War (Key Porter, $38.95). The 65-year-old English historian writes superbly, with verve and sympathetic imagination, about both commanders and ordinary soldiers.

But there are other factors involved in the increased numbers and commercial success of military history books in the

English-speaking world during the past decade. The passing of the Second World War generation has renewed interest in wartime experiences among surviving veterans, and prompted many to bring long-delayed testaments to print. Equally important may be the widening of the genre, as writers bring litde-known conflicts to life and tackle controversial aspects of the 20th century’s world wars.

For more than two decades, though, it is Keegan who has been military history’s most distinguished practitioner. The Face of Battle, his renowned 1976 study of failures and triumphs in combat, was hailed as a breakthrough by fellow historians. It also, Keegan says, firmly established his popularity in Canada and the United States by its “favourable remarks”

about North America’s wartime efforts.

As a boy in wartime Britain, Keegan was an entranced witness to the arrival of the Canadian and American forces. The former Sandhurst professor’s own reciprocal affection for the New World dates from then—and has caused him his only real regret about his new book. When Keegan was asked in 1994 to advise U.S. President Bill Clinton on what to say during the ceremony commemorating the 50th anniversary of D-Day, he began by telling the American leader: “Remember the Canadian contribution.” But, he now confesses about The First WorldWar, “I wish I’d said more about the Canadians— I thought I’d said the right things, and in my head I know the Canadians were tremendously important, but it just didn’t come out in the book.”

Keegan’s Canadian fans seem to have forgiven him. The Great War is a monumental, almost overwhelming topic, even for a historian of Keegan’s considerable strengths. The records of its mass slaughters, “the dreariest literature” in military annals, he writes, “scarcely bear contemplation.” Its seemingly bloodless commanders, like British Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, “in whose public manner and private diaries no concern for human suffering was or is discernible,” are difficult subjects. Yet The First World War is a triumph of popular history—a powerful and coherent narrative that is also graceful and elegiac, a literary war memorial.

The Western Front, where more than 60,000 Canadians and Newfoundlanders lost their lives between 1914 and 1918, was a literal hell—a defoliated strip of churned mud, artillery shells and corpses. The front stretched more than 700 km from the North Sea to Switzerland, but barely exceeded 10 km in width. Behind it, bizarrely, flourished a wartime boom economy, fuelled by soldiers on leave, picnicking among the flowers, relaxing in taverns, lining up for

brothels. But inexorably, in time they returned to the front and took their places in the vast offensives that killed millions and accomplished pathetically little.

In military terms, Keegan argues, the problem was tactical, primarily a matter of communications, compounded by the absence of mobile weaponry like tanks. Once an offensive began, he says, telephone lines were destroyed, runners blocked or killed and “the batdefield went deaf.” Commanders only a kilometre away knew nothing, and could not make informed decisions about the artillery barrages that alone enabled men to advance. Stop a bombardment too late, and “friendly fire” would rain down upon the attackers; stop it too soon and the overwhelming advantage provided by entrenched machineguns returned to the remaining enemy. At Neuve-Chapelle in 1915, two surviving German machine-guns killed 1,000 English soldiers in two hours. Later that year, at the so-called corpse field of Loos, high ground protected the German defence from bombardment. When the British advanced shoulder to shoulder, massed machine-gun fire struck down 8,000 of them in minutes. So nauseated were the victors that they held their fire when the British finally began to retreat.

It is the German reaction to such scenes that seems most understandable to modern minds. The British response, in contrast, goes to the heart of the enduring enigma of the war. Far from questioning such pointless carnage, the generals shrugged off their losses and took them as a stimulus to renewed aggression. At least until the Somme in 1916. That battle, where 20,000 died on the first day alone, saw the greatest loss of life in British military history. Some regiments such as the First Newfoundland, annihilated at the Beaumont

Hamel sector, simply ceased to exist. The “holocaust” of the Somme, Keegan writes, marked the “end of an age of vital optimism in British life that has never been recovered.”

But even as enthusiasm died, grim determination propelled armies onward. Keegan, whose lacerating portrait of the war piles dozens of instances of military futility upon one another until the reader is numb, says he is still “mystified” by the war. “I know a terrible logic developed. Both sides would say, ‘We’ve lost so much, we can’t stop now until we gain something that justifies all those deaths.’ But I don’t really know. You can describe the First World War, but you can’t explain it.”

The Great War, the saddest episode in Western history, became a transcendental mystery to Keegan as he studied it, an unparalleled example of humanity’s capacity for good and evil. In the end, he found its innumerable instances of heroism, self-sacrifice and comradeship as significant as its cruelties. “If we could understand its loves, as well as its hates,” The First World War concludes, “we would be nearer to understanding the mystery of human life.”

In brief:

British historian Joanna Bourke may have a piece of the answer to Keegan’s puzzle. Much current writing suggests that war is an evil business that soldiers grimly endure. But in An Intimate History of Killing (Granta, $50), Bourke argues that war also allows many people to joyfully release their aggressive impulses. This is an old point (Freud, among others, made it decades ago), but Bourke’s book brims with such vividly drawn examples that it seems fresh. She presents First

Canada would almost certainly not exist now had the day turned out otherwise

World War infantrymen who couldn’t wait to skewer Germans on their bayonets, and Vietnam veterans who experienced ecstasy at the destruction sown by their machine-guns. Bourke maintains that such soldiers (and some of her examples are female), are not psychopaths—they are ordinary people who, under normal circumstances, possess a healthy moral sense.

As Bourke points out, this throws a whole new light on the famous reluctance of many veterans to talk about their combat experiences with their families and friends. How can they tell anybody that they enjoyed mowing down Viet Cong, let alone experienced a thrill murdering unarmed civilians, as apparently many American troops did in the Vietnam War’s notorious My Lai massacre? Bourke’s book is disturbing, but her main thesis is undermined by a critical contradiction. The author cites one study that suggests only about 25 per cent of troops act aggressively in battle. The rest often do not even fire their guns. Bloody-mindedness, it would seem, is an attribute of the minority.

This fact has been the despair of military brass the world over. Some of the best parts of the book detail the various training concepts used to try to turn ordinary Joes into effi-

cient killers. There is a certain black humour in these passages: in one exercise, Australian army officials simulated batde conditions so well that some of the would-be soldiers succumbed to shell shock. Bourke is also fascinating on the way some soldiers go into battle with their heads full of John Wayne heroics (and sometimes get killed immediately as a result). And she writes perceptively of how virtually all veterans use psychological stratagems to preserve their moral integrity: killer or coward, every soldier wants to come home with his conscience clean.

In Blood on the Hills (University of Toronto Press, $35), Alberta-based historian David J. Bercuson argues that Canada’s participation in the Korean War was undermined by bad planning and bad leadership. More than 25,000 Canadians served in that conflict between 1950 and 1953, and more than 500 died as troops under the command of the United Nations fought to keep the Communist armies of North Korea out of the South. Bercuson implies that the casualty figures might have been lower if the Canadian army had taught its soldiers how to fight a defensive war among the

muddy hills of the Korean landscape. And it might have helped, too, if Canada had given them better guns. Unhappy with their issue of old Lee-Enfield rifles from the Second World War, many of the Canadians soldiers disobeyed orders and acquired superior American weapons from their cohorts in the U.S. army. Bercuson’s book offers an important object lesson about the dangers of having an underfunded military, but its lack of narrative excitement means it will appeal mainly to specialists and Korean War aficionados.

The scale may be infinitely smaller than the canvases painted by Keegan or even Bercuson, but for Canada the stakes could not have been higher in the War of 1812. With impeccable, detailed research, Donald Graves’s Field of Glory: The Battle of Crysler’s Farm, 1813 (Robin Brass Studio, $22.95) re-creates the crucial middle year of the conflict. For the young American republic, 1813 was its last, best chance to annex the remaining British colonies of North America. Britain itself was fully engaged in the climactic period of its 15-year struggle with Napoleon. And the United States had managed to assemble armies of a size it would not raise again until the Civil War, and had aimed them at Montreal.

Graves, Canada’s leading expert on the conflict, is a first-rate batdefield historian, and he weaves masterfully through the fog of war to explain events at the Quebec batde of Châteauguay on Oct. 26 and at the decisive struggle at the Crysler family’s muddy field on Nov. 11. There, along the north bank of the St. Lawrence River near Morrisburg, Ont., a tiny 1,200-strong army of British regulars, Englishand French-speaking Canadian militia and their Mohawk allies, routed an American force more than twice its size. Canada would almost certainly not exist now had the day turned out otherwise. Even the U.S. army recognizes the batde’s importance, albeit from an opposing perspective. As American army historian Col. John Elting put it in his preface to Field of Glory. “Crysler’s Farm has always been regarded as the absolute nadir of the history of the American regular army.” Graves’s fine book, the first full account of the campaign, is a fitting tribute to a key moment in the life of Canada.

John Bemrose