Revealing collection of anecdotes on war. Well-edited volume rewards reader with pleasures of understanding

The Oxford Book of Military Anecdotes, edited by Max Hastings. New York: Oxford University Press. 514 pp. $17.95. The title of this magnificent book is misleading. The word ``anecdote'' has trivial connotations: A book of anecdotes is a compilation of little stories that otherwise would not be saved from all-devouring time.

Clifton Fadiman's new collection, ``The Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes,'' fits that description. Intended as a companion to Bartlett's ``Familiar Quotations,'' it's a book for browsers and researchers. But ``The Oxford Book of Military Anecdotes'' seems to me to be in a class by itself. It's a work of literature. One can't simply browse: The quality of the writing casts the spell of poetry. Although historical, the stories take on the universality of art.

Most collections of anecdotes are arranged alphabetically by person; this book is arranged chronologically. It proceeds from the Bible and the Greeks through the Middle Ages up to the modern period; the last entry is by Max Hastings, the editor. It tells the wry story of June 14, 1982, the last day of the Falklands war.

Many of the anecdotes come from the pens of great writers, many do not. The anecdotes reveal more than the personalities of the tellers. As a whole, they reveal something about mankind.

The unity of effect essential to literature is accomplished, perhaps unwittingly, by the degree and quality of the editing. Hastings took over the job from Lord Ballantrae after his death. Hastings says his first manuscript was twice as long as the one finally published by Oxford University Press. Editing with an eye for quality, Hastings has created an outstanding book.

In his introduction, Hastings says that literary merit was the main criterion. True to the tradition of anecdote, he sought passages that possess the appropriate quality of ``whimsy'' and ``drollery,'' but this too may mislead. What an Englishman finds droll, an American may find simply fascinating and curiously charming.

These are war stories, after all. They show man at his worst and at his best. Thanks to the quality of the editing, it's all cream: the best best and the worst worst.

Even the extremes are a matter of taste, and there is a lot in between. Chaim Herzog tells the story of Oct. 9, 1973, the day the Israelis almost lost the Golan Heights. The heroism of the exhausted Barak Brigade has nothing to do with one's political sympathies, really. Its magnitude is conveyed by a psychiatrist who was sent to the front and found ``the disheveled, unshaven, gaunt-eyed soldiers'' repairing the tanks and preparing themselves for battle again. ``If they are going into battle

again,'' the psychiatrist remarked, ``I had better forget everything I ever learnt.''

There are the World War II stories about Gen. George Patton. But for a glimpse of the worst we go to a story from Charles Yale Harrison about Americans in France during World War I. Predicting a German advance, the French townspeople of Arras had left everything behind and fled:

We rest on the kerb of the street, looking hungrily at the food and cigarettes behind the thin glass partitions. Little knots of soldiers gather and talk among themselves.

As I stand talking to Broadbent a man in the company ahead of us idly kicks a cobble-stone loose from its bed. He picks it up and crashes it through a wide, gleaming shop window.

Discipline, the account continues, ``has disappeared.'' The riot, which left nothing -- private houses, churches, nothing -- untouched, only stops at night when shells begin to ``scream into the city. . . . The explosions swell into the steady roar of bombardment.'' The French believe Germans have occupied the city and are taking their revenge.

The drollery of that anecdote is a special kind of drollery.

At this point I felt a kind of satisfaction, but it disappeared with the dawn, when the looting continues.

Then there is the story about an Irish officer from the South Irish Horse in World War I who tried to persuade Eric Linklater, a Scot, to join the Irish after the war and avenge the British action at Drogheda. (Drogheda, remembered in this book by a passage from Oliver Cromwell himself, was the seige on Sept. 12, 1649, when the Protector put 4,000 Irish defenders to the sword.)

It seems that, in the Irishman's eyes, World War I was just a prelude to what a battle-trained Irishry would do to the ``bloody English.''

War may not be inevitable. But we have a way of saying now, as we face the consequences of a nuclear war, that war must be avoided at all costs. Given the state of things, though, it's highly unlikely that, a hundred years hence, there won't be more military anecdotes to sift through.

Their literary quality, however, is not predictable. Literary quality, we are reminded by our reading of ``The Oxford Book of Military Anecdotes,'' is only another word for distinct humanity revealed in fit and memorable language. That one can derive pleasure from the experience of war, even the pleasure peculiar to literature, tells us something about ourselves. For me at least, the pleasures of understanding afforded by ``The Oxford Book of Military Anecdotes'' vie with that of the best fiction.

Tom D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.

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