The Soldiers’ Tale: Bearing Witness to Modern War by Samuel Hynes. Allen Lane/The Penguin Press, 318 pp., $24.95.
March 30, 1997        

What made Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary so intensely moving was -- even more than the wonderful old drawings and photographs-- the letters, dispatches, and memoirs of the participants. Discriminatingly chosen and arranged, skillfully and feelingly read aloud, they made up a collective “soldiers’ tale” of our national Iliad.

Samuel Hynes, a literary critic (The Auden Generation, among other books) and a World War II pilot and memoirist, has undertaken something at once more modest and more ambitious than “The Civil War.” With no visual or auditory dimension, his book obviously cannot match the sensory immediacy or popular reach of the television series. But his range is broader: the two world wars and the Vietnam war, remembered by their (mainly English-speaking) participants; and his interpretation penetrates far deeper, to the historical and emotional marrow of those memoirs and the terrible experiences they commemorate. He is a more sympathetic, less austere Virgil; and The Soldiers’ Tale is a twentieth-century Inferno, a guided passage through a realm of horrors.

World War I was the gateway to this infernal realm, above which might have been inscribed the refrain of a famous poem about the war by Philip Larkin: “Never such innocence again.” What was so new and disturbing about the First War? For one thing, the presence of the middle class. The European wars of the nineteenth century were fought by an aristocratic officer caste commanding what the Duke of Wellington scornfully referred to (describing his own troops at Waterloo) as “the mere scum of the earth” -- in other words, a conscript army of the working class. Few memoirs resulted: the officers were too reserved or too stupid and the soldiers were illiterate or downtrodden. In 1914 the sons of the upper classes went, as usual, gaily and gallantly off to war. (And for all his ironic distance, Hynes does justice to the perennial attractions of war for young males of all classes.) Unexpectedly, however, within a few months most of these golden youths were dead. At that point the educated middle classes had their first mass experience of war. And since this is the diary-writing, self-examining class, many memoirs resulted.

Unlike the old horse-riding aristocracy, the educated middle classes were used to thinking critically. Hence the need for government propaganda. This was another new feature of war. And so extensively and brazenly did all governments lie that bitter disillusionment is a recurrent strain in World War I memoirs.

Finally, and most important, war was now an industrial phenomenon, a species of mass production. Honor, glory, patriotism, the martial virtues -- all these were rendered largely irrelevant by artillery, gas, machine guns, and mines. A British historian of the First War noted with dismay “the whole tendency of modern scientific warfare to depress and make of no effect individual bravery, enterprise, and skill.” In the trenches, Hynes writes, death came “not man-to-man, but out of the air, from a distance, random and anonymous. Death in war was no longer a fate you chose, for your cause or your country, or because it was your job; it was something done to you, an accident, as impersonal as the plague.” There were so many corpses lying around, many of them in bits or already decomposed, and No Man’s Land (i.e., the territory between the front lines) was so dangerous, that recovery and proper burial were as often as not impossible. So the living soldiered on among the dead, until (in the words of the German novelist Ernst Junger) “if we came on a dead body anywhere ... we gave it no more than a passing thought and recognized it as we would a stone or a tree.”

All these major novelties and many lesser ones Hynes finds reflected in the writings of World War I veterans: in their stoicism, their frequent astonishment, their absence of partisan hostility or pride, their fierce or subdued but ever-present irony. World War II was different. It was more straightforward morally and less cramped physically, a war of movement rather than attrition. “Technology made it possible to fight at great distances, across immense empty spaces.” The resulting tales “would have giant narrative energy and direction; [their authors] would be spared the First War experience of living out a war in the same place, among the ruination of old battles and the corpses of old casualties.”

The air war was different, too. The dramatic single combat of fighter aces gradually gave way to mechanized, routinized bombing missions. The enormously complex, practically autonomous flying behemoths reduced still further the scope of “individual bravery, enterprise, and skill.” Here and throughout The Soldiers’ Tale Hynes is unfailingly perceptive about the differences among the infantryman’s war, the fighter pilot’s war, and the bomber crew’s war, both within and between the two global conflicts.

The Vietnam War is, of course, the one that contemporary Americans know best and feel most strongly about. Hynes’ account adds nothing, strictly speaking -- but also misses nothing. The “war-in-the-head” (usually featuring John Wayne) that the grunts arrived with; the nightmares that many of them left with; the “principle of ironic incoherence” that structures the best-known Vietnam memoirs; the Vietnam version of the “Battlefield Gothic” strain that appears in the literature of all modern wars: these and other familiar matters are limned searchingly and concisely.

Hynes’ final chapter, on the “literature of atrocity,” is wrenching. Cruelty is immemorial, of course; but mass-produced cruelty (like the humanitarian conventions outlawing it) is distinctively modern. Perhaps the first step down this slippery slope was the strategy of “destroying civilian morale”: i.e., bombing cities. As Hynes dryly observes, “you can’t separate morale from the people who have it”; hence the first legitimate large- scale slaughter of noncombatants. Hynes’ next example -- the mistreatment of prisoners -- offers some surprises. I had not known that the Japanese were such brutal captors and the Germans such lenient ones (to soldiers, that is). Apparently there are varieties of militarism, of which Prussian militarism was not the worst.

About Hiroshima and the Holocaust there is perhaps not much new to be said. But one can choose from the best that others have said and juxtapose, connect, compare. This Hynes does, with unerring tact and judgment.

In his Prologue, Hynes quotes the novelist and Holocaust survivor Aharon Appelfeld’s determination “to make the events speak through the individual and in his language, to rescue the suffering from the huge numbers, from dreadful anonymity.” This is a collective obligation; no one can discharge more than a small part of it. For his part, Samuel Hynes, drawing on a lifetime’s experience of literature and war, has done our historical memory stalwart service.