Young men who marched proudly off to war
The decades change, but the trenches remain the same
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
"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."