Young men who marched proudly off to war

The decades change, but the trenches remain the same

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The war in Iraq has already inspired a catalog of books, but so far the best are nonfiction. (Seymour Hersh's detractors may disagree.) Fictional treatments of the battles in Baghdad and Fallujah will eventually inform attitudes about the Iraq war even more powerfully than today's news reports and histories, but those tales may not appear soon. In the meantime, we're already seeing a season of stirring novels about life as a soldier.

Two new offerings demonstrate just how much depth can be found here: The first is from an experienced author writing about a young man in the trenches of World War I, and the other is from a debut novelist writing about a young man in the trenches of World War II. If there were any lingering doubts, war is hell, and these novels use that furnace to burn away the pretenses of personality and stare straight at the raw elements of human nature.

Sebastian Barry's work is so wrenching that I'm drawn to it almost reluctantly. For most of the last two decades, he's been known primarily as a playwright. "The Steward of Christendom," a draining play about his great-grandfather which takes place in an insane asylum, has appeared to critical acclaim all over the world. But if Barry's smaller body of novels continues to grow, its reputation may someday eclipse that of his theatrical works.

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"The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty" (1998), about a hapless Irishman caught in a thicket of IRA violence, is the kind of book from which you never recover.

His new novel, A Long Long Way, tells the sad story of Willie Dunne. Too short to join his dad on the Dublin police force, Willie decides to enlist in the English battle against Germany. He's motivated, in part, by vague promises about the chance for Irish boys to win Home Rule for Dublin in exchange for their sacrifice, but Willie thinks "they would be lucky if the war was still there when they got to France." The year is 1914. He's 18 years old.

Traveling to the trenches, "he felt so proud of himself he thought his toes might burst out of his boots.... Yes, yes, he felt, though merely five-foot six, that he had grown, it was surely an absolute fact, something in him had leaped forth."

But once he's stuck in the mud pits of Flanders and sees "the ghastly tally of wrenching deaths," the glory and the purpose of this grand enterprise are difficult to fathom.

The trenches are unutterably boring, except when they're unimaginably deadly. The leaders on both sides throw men into pointless, shattering attacks. Planted just a few hundred yards away from the Germans, Willie and his fellow soldiers in the Irish Fusiliers are starved and frozen, sometimes knee-deep in water, while bombs fall on them with "an industrial generosity" and the air is clogged with bullets ready to "do some evil damage to their too-soft bodies." Willie, so sensitive, kind, and compliant, eventually grows wary of making new friends, knowing as he does "how easily men were dismembered; how quickly their parts were unstitched."

Among the most horrible episodes is his description of the lovely yellow fog that drifts their way one day and burns the life out of hundreds of terrified solders.

In attacks and counterattacks, Willie tastes the "cold, unfriendly terror that floods instantly into his brain," but he endures, on and on, year after year, struggling to grasp some meaning in all this carnage. "It was like a giant quilt of grey and khaki," Barry writes, "like the acres had been ploughed vigorously but then sown with the giant seeds of corpses."

The meager supports that sustained Willie gradually disappear: His friends are blown to pieces, his girlfriend never writes back, and Dublin turns against the war, rendering the trenches his only real home. Once again, Barry has managed to articulate unspeakable grief, and only the beauty of his prose could make this tragedy bearable.

It's a recurring miracle, Willie thinks, "how human nature fell ever short, but could be summoned to illumine the dark tracts of a life nonetheless." Here in mingled lines of terror and tenderness is "all the matter and difficulty of being alive in a place of peace and a place of war."

The commonalities between Barry's novel and Nick Arvin's Articles of War, about a young solder in World War II, are a reminder of the redundancy of 20th-century carnage. Arvin's protagonist, an 18-year-old farm boy from Iowa, "could not wait to be sent forward and he dreaded being sent forward." He's awkwardly aware of his own naiveté and inexperience in the world, but determined to be practical about this duty.

In Normandy, waiting and waiting to be deployed, he wanders into the woods one day and finds a little boy playing in a mine field. Prodded by the boy's frantic older sister, Heck runs to him and carries him out. It's a heroic, selfless act, to be sure, but it's the last brave thing Heck can get himself to do through years of service in the Army.

On the way to the front, he passes earlier battles. "The destruction was vast," Arvin writes, "the things and homes of many lives reduced to a great acreage of rubble, none of it reaching higher than eye level. And soon the same firepower that had done this would be aimed at himself."

He discovers that his whole body trembles uncontrollably. His thoughts are jumpy, constantly drawn to paths of flight. "It began to seem to him that he might be without bravery in any category."

Arvin follows this young man through surreal scenes of carnage and pasture, moments of mayhem followed by passages of peacefulness. His style is restrained and minimalist, but one eerily striking scene follows another.

Through the destruction wreaked by both Germans and Americans, Heck wants only somehow to stay alive, but "he was often overwhelmed by a sense of shame at his cowardice." In battle, he looks for ways to escape rather than fight. "He did not want to be dead or crazy or maimed. Yet these seemed his only options." He repeatedly uses the Army's administrative distraction to drift away from the front or prolong needless sick leaves. He's desperate to shoot someone - anything - to prove to himself that he's not a coward, but he's terrified of combat. Considering the sacrifices of his fellow soldiers, his behavior is shameful, of course, but there's something so endearing and earnest about him.

Ultimately, Heck's path crosses the real-life story of Private Eddie Slovik, who was executed for desertion in 1945. Their meeting provokes a haunting, unsettling examination of fear in the face of destruction that would terrify any sane person.

Both these authors march bravely into the darkest, most dangerous terrain of human nature to discover what resides beneath the shiny armor of patriotism and duty. Especially in a time of war, their novels remind us how profoundly complex the soldier's life is.

• Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. E-mail Ron Charles.

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