Waugh We Fight
Though it was December, we ate Labor Day cake.
The ceremony was normal. We dressed in combat uniforms and dark sunglasses. Two soldiers held the flag in front of the battalion crest just between the Chigos and the plywood door into our command post. The captain and first sergeant stepped out of their offices. Members of Trudel’s platoon bore witness. I said a few words, and we raised our right hands. I reenlisted Private First Class Trudel.
Serving this cake was a minor act of rebellion. The many cakes in our freezer came with the special food packages for holiday meals, like Thanksgiving, the Army’s birthday, and (of course) Labor Day. Despite our cake surplus, our brigade had recently sent down a memo authorizing only one promotion or reenlistment cake a month, but the cakes seemed good for morale, and we had plenty. As a minor act of rebellion, I served cake at each and every promotion and reenlistment. There’s no moral in that story, and there’s no honor in war.
I have a hard time telling the truth about my military experiences. Sure, I share lessons with lieutenants and tell tight vignettes when tasked. These lessons and vignettes are true war stories, but not like Tim O’Brien means. They aren’t embarrassing enough. They moralize. They have a lesson. And beyond that, I’m distant from fighting now, last returning fire in 2014.
But on days like Veterans Day, when I seek to make sense of my service, I read Men at Arms by British author and humorist Evelyn Waugh.
I first read Waugh’s classic in 2000 or so. About 16 with inklings of interest in military service, I plucked the green-covered 1979 printing off our basement shelf. I then had the good fortune to attend West Point while the cadet bookstore shelved Waugh’s books in the proto-Amazon era. I’ve now read nearly his entire catalog, but Men at Arms (and the Officers and Gentlemen and siblings) hits different. Waugh helps me make sense of my military service, and, by writing this piece, I hope it will help others also.
Men at Arms is the first book of the Sword of Honour trilogy. These books follow the adventures of Guy Crouchback, an English aristocrat who joins the British Army during World War II. Though critics debate how autobiographical the books are, Waugh’s trilogy is a record of his service in World War II. Like Waugh, Crouchback nearly landed in Dakar, survived the terrible rearguard retreat from Crete, found himself seconded to special operations, and even engaged in unconventional warfare in Yugoslavia. Men at Arms focuses on this idealist’s struggle to serve as war looms and to navigate military training and military bureaucracy, and then recounts his early experience in North Africa. Officers and Gentlemen continues Guy’s quest for purpose as he joins a commando unit, witnesses the chaotic surrender of the British Army, and spends time in a psychiatric ward after his harrowing escape from Crete. Finally, Unconditional Surrender finds Guy supporting Yugoslavian partisans and ultimately being redeemed as the war ends. Despite this linear accounting of Sword of Honour, the broad weave includes themes of religion, love, morality, and a decline of traditional values. While Guy’s wartime experience as an upper-class late 30s Catholic divorcee is atypical of his time or ours, the breadth of his story covers a lot of ground.
Sword of Honour is not widely read anymore, but it is routinely ranked highly. Following its reprint in 2001, Penelope Lively pronounced in The Atlantic that Sword of Honour was “the finest work of fiction in English to emerge from World War II.” In 2009, the Wall Street Journal ranked Men at Arms alongside the Russian Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman and Catch-22 by Joseph Heller as the three best World War II books. Sword of Honour is certainly different from other semi-autobiographical works like Forgotten Soldier or Matterhorn in that it approaches the experience of the war with satire, rather than seriousness.
Waugh’s opus also frequently makes military-focused reading lists. Elizabeth Samet frequently recommends Sword of Honour to graduating West Point cadets. In a survey of books that helped shape the professional perspectives of Warlord Loop participants published by U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings, Sword of Honour appears three times. Finally, Mira Rapp-Hooper wrote in these pages that “for the WOTR reader, [Waugh’s] wartime trilogy is a must.”
I read Waugh as a soldier. While others read it for politics or religion, Sword of Honour helps me make sense of my service: noncommissioned officers, the way people unexpectedly wink in and out of military life, and tough times.
As a fresh lieutenant, West Point had told me to trust my noncommissioned officers. But I didn’t really know what that meant. Would they lead me? Did they need my help? Fortunately, Waugh clearly conveyed that noncommissioned officers would quietly and competently run things as junior officers (me) figured themselves out. Bringing experience to the training of conscripts in Men at Arms, Regimental Sergeant Major Rawkes set expectations early:
I am Company Sergeant Major Rawkes. Take a good look so you’ll know me again. I’m here to help you if you behave yourselves right. Or I’m here to make your life hell if you don’t. It’s for you to choose.
Later, as Waugh’s conscripts find themselves lost during incessant moves to and fro, the early discipline instilled by the noncommissioned officers keeps things under control. Asked which battalion they are in, the conscripts reply, “First it was one and then another, sir.” But when asked for the commander’s name, the conscripts know, “Oh yes, sir. C.S.M. Rawkes.” Rawkes might not have been the commander, but the enlisted soldiers knew the senior enlisted were their leaders in a world of incessantly moving officers.
The ability of sergeants to bring order in tough situations was on my mind when I did the wrong thing. Fresh from Fort Benning and flying into Afghanistan for the first time, I hesitated. Rather than take half my platoon to OP4, an isolated post along the Pakistani border, Sergeant First Class Wiley went. He was combat-tested. I was green. But really, despite my crisp Ranger tab, I was just scared. As Rawkes led, Wiley showed this lieutenant how to run an outpost.
Sword of Honour also expertly captures the incredible smallness of military service: People appear and disappear at random intervals to lend assistance or create surprising challenges. General Ritchie-Hook dominates Men at Arms (ending the book in Guy’s lap with a gunshot wound and clutching an African soldier’s head), hardly shows up in Officers and Gentlemen (he’s found “in western Abyssinia” leading a group of Italians at the end of that volume), and then, abandoned by Yugoslavian partisans, he dies attacking a German outpost near the end of Unconditional Surrender. This same winking in-and-out has been at work throughout my Army career, most notably on my return home from that first tour in Afghanistan. Waiting at a Bagram bus stop, dark clouds rolled in. My friend, a Texas A&M grad, was hassling me about being a West Pointer. As the clouds turned to raindrops, Josh, my stroke from the Men’s Varsity 8 at West Point, appeared. We hugged. He pulled us out of the rain, drove us across the base in his Super Duty pickup, and went on his way. For both Waugh and me, it’s always “see you later” and rarely “goodbye.”
One place I have said goodbye to is Afghanistan. Now that we are more than two years from the withdrawal, the retreat from Crete in Officers and Gentlemen helps me make sense of my feelings. In that scene, Guy and Hookforce huddle in caves overhanging the beaches of Sphakia on Crete as the Germans close in. It becomes clear that no more boats are coming to take troops off the island. Individuals, not armies, make decisions about the future.
Faced with defeat, Guy and his colleague Ivor debate the honorable choice. Is it to stay, fight, and surrender, or to leave their men behind so that they may train the next crop of conscripts? His colleague sees that “the path of honor lies up the hill,” facing, then surrendering to, the Germans. Guy, though, falls asleep, bathes in the sea, and escapes with some sappers on a jerry-rigged boat. Ivor ultimately chose the least honorable path — desertion — while Guy battled post-traumatic stress and returned to the war. To this reader, none of these paths clearly offer honor, just like the options of staying or going in Afghanistan. These three vignettes merely scratch the surface of how Waugh helps me think about war.
Despite the incredible strength of Sword of Honour, I struggle with the happy ending: Guy’s redemption. The final chapter ties up all the challenges facing Guy at the beginning. He sought redemption from his failed marriage, his wasting of an inheritance as a failed Kenyan farmer, and his failure to restore his family estate so ancient it was nearly unique in “having been held in uninterrupted male succession since Henry I.” Men at Arms starts with Guy’s rejoicing that the new war might rescue him from “eight years of shame and loneliness [as] … the enemy at last was plain in view … [and] there was a place for him in that battle.” Then, over 27 lines in the book’s last two pages, Waugh grants Guy redemption. He cashes in his Italian estate, acquires an heir and wife, turns a profit on his farm, and obtains an inheritance. Given Guy’s string of failures, his desire for redemption is understandable, but no writing on the truth of war should end on such a note.
Rather than redeeming, war destroys. While I’ve been lucky to return to a loving family and privileged education, many do not. The Taliban killed my friend Andy while I studied in graduate school. Three senior Special Forces noncommissioned officers killed themselves during my second stint at the 10th Special Forces Group. Blast trauma, adultery, depression, and separation wreak havoc on families. Both my narrative and Waugh’s largely ignore the civilians and bystanders whose lives were ruined by our wartime service.
But Waugh also knows that war destroys. Perhaps in honor of war’s enduring scars, he titles the second-to-last chapter of Unconditional Surrender “The Last Battle” and clarifies war’s terrible nature in two passages. First, when Guy parts ways for the final time with a Jewish displaced woman he had helped, she challenges him on the meaning of war and of the good men who “thought their private honor would be satisfied by war.” She forces Guy to admit, “God forgive me … I was one of them.” Second, just two pages before Guy’s 27-line redemption, Waugh acknowledges that soldiers at war’s end often returned “to problems more acute than any they had faced on active service.” Waugh himself may have felt redeemed by the war or compelled by a meddlesome editor to put a cheerful bow on the end of this novel, so I will not further belabor this point. Ignore the last four pages if you want the honest ending.
Despite my qualms with the conclusion, I turn to this trilogy in text each year. Sword of Honour is best consumed by reading Men at Arms, Officers and Gentlemen, and Unconditional Surrender separately. They each have their own narrative arcs and themes. Though both Sword of Honour and the novels are out of print, readers can borrow it at their local library (or on Libby) or easily purchase used copies online. Likewise, Audible carries the audio book version for those who prefer to listen. I have not yet watched the screen adaptations, but the BBC’s 2001 adaptation is easily watchable online and gets decent reviews. Finally, the Authoritative Edition, annotated and edited by Max Saunders of King’s College London, is under way.
No matter how you consume Sword of Honour, you are sure to get uncomfortable with the complexities of military service and its impact on veterans. Veterans are not broken. Veterans are not heroes. Veterans are Americans who just might be hunting redemption, like everyone else.
Sword of Honour is the best war fiction you haven’t read — and one the modern military practitioner must read. Brave generals will add this to their reading lists for junior officers if they want them to think about the truth of war. While war may be necessary, the work is hard and dirty, and there’s neither honor nor redemption waiting for you when it ends.
So Waugh do we fight? I still don’t know. But I invite you to read Sword of Honour with me. Each time, I get a little closer to the truth.
Zachary Griffiths is an Army officer. He tweets at @z_e_griffiths.
The view expressed here is the author’s alone and does not represent the U.S. military or Department of Defense.
Image: Courtesy of the author