What, if any, are the similarities between the great novels of past wars, such as Somerset Maugham’s The Hero (the Boer War), Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End (WWI), and Evelyn Waugh’s The Sword of Honor Trilogy (WWII)? And is there a connection between these wartime experiences and our current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan?
As a veteran of the recent Iraq War, I found myself haunted by these novels not because of how our response to war has changed, but because the experiences of troops returning from battlefields in the Cape and Verdun when compared to those of Baghdad and Helmand matches with a startling sameness.
It would be a mistake to dismiss the novels by Waugh, Ford and Maugham as interchangeable. Each approaches war differently. Waugh uses his trademark irony and wry humour. Ford’s lengthy examination applies a kind of intimate sensitivity. Maugham is surprisingly blunt and philosophical. But the essence of what these writers are handling is the same.
All of their protagonists fight willingly. This is the theme I find most surprising. It’s what I’m constantly told is a mythical or juvenile sentiment yet it is found in each novel. Maugham’s main character, Captain James Parsons, is most easily convinced, arguing that 'war is the most splendid thing in the world… life seemed worth living then!' Waugh’s hero, Guy Crouchback, joins the army because, 'splendidly, everything had become clear. The enemy at last was plain in view… Whatever the outcome there was a place for him in that battle.' And Ford’s protagonist, Christopher Tietjens, states his part in the war plainly, 'I support it because I have to.'
These soldiers then find the battlefield to be a specific place, another world with its own environment and cast of characters. In England, Parsons remembers the 'vast distances of South Africa, bush and prairie stretching illimitably, and above, the blue sky, vaster still. There, at least, one could breathe freely, and stretch one’s limbs.' It is while stationed abroad in India that he first falls in love. Tietjens continuously thinks about O9 Morgan, a soldier in his command who died from a German artillery attack. War is a place of vivid detail and complexity; these soldiers are able to create a new identity for themselves, one that is as richly described as their civilian self.
Parsons, Tietjens, and Crouchback are also faced with the challenge of returning to civilian life. This is always connected to a question of romantic fidelity. Waugh and Ford cleverly manipulate this theme by establishing the woman’s infidelity before the outbreak of war — implying that their hero’s chances of returning to civilian life are flawed from the start. In Maugham’s novel, it is the soldier who is unfaithful, though his stalwart fiancée becomes an obstacle he must negotiate. So in all three novels, the love interest of the soldier is also one of his most powerful antagonists. And each represents his chance to consummate fully his civilian identity.
There is something timeless about these components. Even The Odyssey contains them. What I find intriguing is that the shape of these stories is not one where the greatest trauma occurs in battle. What Homer understood, and indeed what Waugh, Ford, and Maugham explain, is that, for the soldier, the return is often more destructive than the war itself. Odysseus slays 108 men in his living room. Crouchback discovers his wife was killed in the Blitz. Tietjens helplessly watches his family estate fall into ruin. Parsons shoots himself. These characters aren’t scarred by war, as we might imagine, rather they find themselves dismayed to varying degrees at the way society has behaved in their absence.
Not only can I recognise the same pattern of choice, character development, return and dismay through literature, but I also see it now in my own experience. When I first came back from Iraq I thought I had seen something unique, something historic. Perhaps it’s because many people I know have not been to war. Or that Iraq is a place unlike anywhere I have ever been. Or it is simply because of my own selfish pride. But the more I consider the experience, the more war stories I read, the more I think that the Iraq War is a war we have fought many times before.