Fiction as the Essence of War

War Poster

Christopher Coker, Men At War: What Fiction Tells us About Conflict, From The Iliad to Catch-22 (London/NYC: Hurst/OUP 2014).

In an exciting new book, Christopher Coker aims “to grasp the essence of war as a cultural phenomenon through its existential codes instantiated by 25 literary figures.”  As a former soldier, the first thing that occurred to me when reading this was: try telling that to your Platoon Sergeant.  Or even your Commanding Officer, for that matter.  Within the military fraternity, an idea like this might be considered a hard sell but the great strength of Men At War is frankly far greater than its stated aim.  It serves as a timely reminder of everything that is good about reading fiction.

As I endeavour to make sense of my own wartime experiences in Afghanistan, I have often rushed to buy books written about the tours I served on or written by the people I served with.  Recent examples include Max Benitz’s Six Months Without Sundays and Patrick Hennessey’s The Junior Officer’s Reading Club.  Without aiming a charge directly at the particular titles above, more often than not such books have failed to satisfy me; either they are poorly written (published in a hurry after a particular tour) or the things that that person saw were not the things I saw.  Men At War challenged me to look at fiction writing as a better medium for exploring the essence of war.

Coker presents his case over 25 chapters, each one of which is grouped into one of 5 categories – Warrior, Hero, Villain, Survivor or Victim.  Each chapter presents the reader with an archetypal figure from a war novel and then Coker guides us through a literary criticism of what that character (and the novel more widely) tells us about war and its appeal as subject matter.  The central argument is that literature (or rather “great literature” – for there is plenty of bad) allows the reader to see with his own eyes and take part in the story-telling.  Great authors, he says, will place their characters in dire situations and then force the reader to make his or her own decisions about what he or she would do in the same position.  Does one agree with the character’s behavior or does one oppose it?  Hence the importance of fiction is actually “to reveal us to ourselves”; that is, it encourages us to self-reflect and tease out our own existential code.  And, of course, war excels as a backdrop for this self-reflective practice because it is the ultimate test.  War finds everybody’s true self out.

I am slightly embarrassed to say that I have only read 7 of the 25 novels that Coker deals with (well, 6 books and 1 movie to be exact) and so I started my reading with those that I was familiar.  Conforming to Junior Officer stereo-types, I am guilty of reading the Flashman series throughout school.  Brought to life by GM Fraser, Sir Harry Paget Flashman VC KCB KCIE is a cowardly yet cunning misogynist who rises to the highest ranks of the British Army during a 40-year career that sees him playing a key part in most of the defining military campaigns of the 19th century.  Coker, however, has challenged me to think about these stories in a different way.  Instead of focussing on the detail of Flashman’s adventures, it has been a much more interesting pursuit to concentrate on the repeating themes within the novels: that is, his acts of self-profiteering from his surroundings, the undeservedly won reputations in war, disdain for the incompetency of Generals and a brazen and unsentimental attitude toward sex.  These are all behaviors that still endure in today’s protagonists of war – such as some private security firms, government agencies and even soldiers – and Coker offers a satisfying introspection on where I and my colleagues fitted in amongst it all.  I find it telling that it took Flashman, and not Hennessey, to do it.

Similarly, Coker has now given me an ideal framework for understanding the difficult to follow Slaughterhouse 5By focussing less on the time-shifting travels of Billy Pilgrim and instead interpreting the novel as a metaphor for Kurt Vonnegut’s struggle to tell his wartime stories, I feel much more affinity towards the book.  Coker reveals the struggle of many a veteran by asking: “how can someone who was there tell others what it was like?  Especially if they can’t find a moral?”  This is a thought that will resonate with anybody with a wartime experience.  As for me, my 6 years in the Army has now all but been reduced to a handful of dinner-party-friendly anecdotes as a consequence of this plight.

But even when I hadn’t read the novel being critiqued, Coker still kept my attention and continued to raise new insights and perspectives.  In particular, I found myself pausing longer than usual on the chapter concerning Don DeLillos’s “Human Moments in World War III.”  In this science fiction short story, a world war is fought from space by astronauts above. There are clear parallels with DeLillo’s world and today’s march towards automated warfare, and it leads the character Vollmer to ask if one can be happy in war.  Coker ultimately concludes that all of literature’s great war-time characters are generally unhappy.  Yet ironically many of them find some sort of redemption, clarity or even peace in war that they can’t find in the civilian world.  Whilst not a wholly original conclusion – Hurt Locker, anyone? – it is perhaps the idea that I still wrestle with the most.  It really is an odious thought but perhaps it’s truer than we would like to admit to.  And therein lies Coker’s central argument again come full circle: it has taken great fictional characters to bring such an existential idea to the fore rather than the two-a-penny biographies and memoirs that fill our bookshelves.  We should all make more time for fiction.


George Vlachonikolis is an Economics tutor at d’Overbroeck’s College, Oxford.  A retired British Army Officer, George served 2 front-line Operational Tours in Afghanistan during a 6 year career (2005 – 11).


Image: Jes Wilhelm Schlaikjer / U.S. War Department