19 January, 2015Issue 27.1HistoryLiteratureNon-fiction

Email This Article Print This Article

The Meaning Of War

Emily Anderson

Christopher Coker
Men at War: What Fiction Tells Us From The Iliad To Catch-22
Hurst & Company, 2014
£25 (hardback)
325 pages
ISBN: 9781849042895

Any attempt to represent war raises “big questions.” Is it possible to portray war realistically? Do depictions of war offer catharsis, impose order, or give meaning to the suffering they evoke? Individual experiences of a given war may differ so greatly from one another that they might be said to belong to separate conflicts entirely. Feelings about war, and the historiography of war, change over time, influencing how conflicts are remembered, how their memory is taken up by subsequent generations. And if single wars give rise to such issues, then a project that confronts the representation of war from ancient civilization to the modern day presents an almost unthinkable challenge.

Not only does Christopher Coker attempt such a project, he also offers answers to the question of what literature about war achieves. It is refreshing to find a writer who is willing to take up a firm position in the moral No Man’s Land surrounding the depiction of war. For Coker, literature about any given conflict should convey what it is like to participate in that conflict. He suggests that if literature achieves such an experiential effect then it can allow readers to “grasp the essence of war.” To illustrate his belief, Coker calls upon twenty-five different characters from a large variety of literary texts (and one film, Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove). He discusses the texts in relation to warriors, heroes, villains, survivors, and victims, figures whom he believes reveal war’s “existential truth.”

His chosen warriors range from Homer’s Achilles to Tolstoy’s Hadji Murat; his heroes from Arthur Conan-Doyle’s Brigadier Gerard to Ernest Hemingway’s Robert Jordan; his villains from Joseph Conrad’s Colonel Feraud to Cormac McCarthy’s Judge Holden; and his survivors from Shakespeare’s Falstaff to Joseph Heller’s Yossarian. Coker’s victims, who are all male despite (debatable) arguments in both introductory and concluding sections that the hardest-hit victims of war are women, include Sophocles’ Philoctetes and Kurt Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim.

The way in which Coker groups his selected characters gives rise to some intriguing and profound analyses of the experience of war. To give just one example, he develops a concept of heroism defined by stoicism. By appealing to Bourne, the protagonist of Frederic Manning’s First World War narrative Her Privates We (1929), he suggests that heroism becomes the ability to endure. Bourne’s authenticity as a character, Coker suggests, lies not in any specific acts of bravery, in fighting the hardest or in risking oneself to save others, but in fulfilling duty.

Yet the huge scope of Coker’s project at times prompts him to make statements that do not match the complexity of his topic. “The novelist,” he tells us, “is not interested in the higher realities of war,” by which he means the management of war, the strategies and ideologies behind it, the experience of those “off the battlefield.” Such remarks require examination and justification—in this case, readers would benefit from more of an explanation of why Coker sees the management of war as being “above” involvement on the battlefield.

Part of the problem is that while Coker explicitly does not intend his work to be an exercise in literary criticism, his project clearly requires the kinds of analyses in which literary critics engage. To establish what war writing reveals about its subject matter, one has to consider the ways in which authors construct their texts, rather than approaching literature purely as a window onto reality. To determine the “existential criteria” of war through literary portrayals, moreover, one should consider carefully the sample of texts from which one draws, acknowledging that no sample could ever be representative of all conflicts. Coker is instead preoccupied with dividing war literature into “good” and “bad” writing. Novels about conflicts, he argues, should be judged on their characters. He suggests that works containing “larger than life” characters are best able to convey the phenomenon of war.

Because of this focus on judging the quality of war literature, Coker’s work lacks the kind of epistemological arguments that might be expected from a comparative study of the scope he attempts. The book reads like a highly personal account of his favourite texts. Given that he is a renowned professor of international relations, this kind of literary autobiography should be engaging and entertaining in itself. But it seems wrong to present individual beliefs about successful war writing as being arguments for which works of literature convey the essence of war (and which don’t).

Coker assumes that what he describes as “popular novels” do not “add any extra insight into reality” because they do not have the kinds of characters that he believes make great literature. It is undeniably true that some novelists are better able than others to create unique, memorable characters with whom it is possible to sympathize. Also important is the idea that portraying war presents challenges that only the most talented authors can meet. “Popular novels”, nevertheless, can reveal much about the nature of war. They can tell us how wars are reimagined, how repeated portrayals of the same war can create ingrained ideas about particular conflicts, and how wars can become glamorized. These novels should not be dismissed quite as completely as Coker suggests they should be.

One senses that the characters and texts Coker does see as “great” have been chosen because they facilitate his argument that war, in words he borrows from Stephen Crane, “is kind.” Coker opens his work with the notion that “human beings have been at their most inventive and ingenious when warring with each other.” He closes with the conviction that we must acknowledge war’s “enduring appeal”. Some soldiers, he writes, find peace in the midst of battle, moments of serenity that he likens to those described by Romantic poets. War is kind, he goes on, because it creates instances that sum up entire lives, because it can turn dying into a gift, and because it creates friendships of an intensity alien to civilian life. For many veterans, he points out, the non-combat world seems “frivolous”. Much of this rings true, but to focus on war’s “positive” elements risks suggesting, firstly, that they are more fundamental to war than are suffering and hardship and, secondly, that suffering and hardship can be cancelled out by the good that also comes from war.

Coker seems to resent the fact that, as he sees it, the “glory” of war was “blown to pieces in the trenches” of 1914-18. And it is the poets of the First World War to whom Coker gives responsibility for this decline in the idea that war is glorious. He suggests that famous writers such as Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon helped to create the image of “uncaring generals” sending men to their deaths, but that the experience of many soldiers was “far from being entirely negative.” He is of course right to highlight that we should look beyond the influential war poets to understand a greater range of perspectives on the conflict. He is also right to question the now controversial view of the Great War according to which it consisted of old-fashioned generals, unprepared for modern conflict, sending brave soldiers to needless death for tiny gains (though a more detailed account of the recent deconstruction of the myth of “lions led by donkeys” would have been useful).

But Coker’s analysis encourages a problematically stark discussion about the way in which the Great War should be remembered. His is an “either/or” take on the conflict: on the one hand there are narratives that emphasise the suffering it caused (narratives which he equates with the suggestion that those involved were not heroic), and on the other hand there are narratives that emphasise the valour of those who died. Constructing the debate over the First World War in this manner suggests that praising heroism and condemning the suffering the war provoked are mutually exclusive. Yet even authors who imply that the hardships of the Great War were avoidable do not necessarily diminish the sacrifices of those whose distress they represent. To highlight the destruction that war causes is not always to suggest that war is pointless. It seems wrong, furthermore, to question the poets’ views as selective and inauthentic simply because these writers often chose to depict the horrific elements of the fighting. However the history of the war is constructed, it must come to terms with some appalling facts. It is almost callous to write, as Coker does, that the soldier-poets “lack an objective sense of restraint, certainly of self-proportion.”

For Coker, these writers “refused to give meaning to the suffering they described.” He suggests, in other words, that they refused to confirm that those who experienced death, injury, and loss did so in aid of a good cause. Even if this broad judgment were proven to be true for all the works of authors who condemn war, is it not a rather narrow definition of “meaning”? Might not the condemnation of the extreme suffering humanity can inflict upon itself be a valid “meaning” in itself? And is not the view that war should be avoided in the future, if possible, and without sacrificing freedom, the most valuable “meaning” of all to take from the history of human conflict?

Emily Anderson has just completed an MSc at the University of Edinburgh and plans to begin doctoral work in Autumn 2015. Her research is on humorous literature of the First World War.