Drifting into evil. Behind the lines, in soldiers' minds

To the Victors the Spoils, by Colin MacInnes. New York: Allison & Busby. 350 pp. $14.95. $7.95 paper. TRANSLATED into a movie, Colin MacInnes's brilliant novel would be a box office flop. (That's a compliment, of course.) All battles, woundings, sex, take place ``off screen.'' What we are left with is a lively, thought-provoking look at an almost forgotten aspect of World War II: the goings-on just behind the British front lines in liberated and conquered Europe. Into the chaos that war inevitably leaves behind, contingents of soldiers (Field Security Police, or FSP), too few and too inexperienced for such an impossible task, were sent to sniff out spies and collaborators lurking among the floods of refugees and the ``indigenous peoples'' themselves (a favorite phrase in military handbooks).

Soldiers from both sides had plundered the towns; food and all kinds of supplies (particularly trust) were cruelly limited.

Amid all this muddle, how could you detect a spy? Who among the local people could be trusted to identify them? Local government heads? But who appointed them, Allies or Germans? How could you tell the real underground patriots from the impostors?

Such questions didn't bother every soldier. Civilians might suffer shortages, but for a smart operator, loot was there for the lifting. Goods could be ``confiscated'' or diverted from the quartermaster. (``It's just a question of getting hold of the right form.'')

``Even for those who are not thieves by nature, the attraction of what seems at first a delightful game is overwhelming. As time goes on, the playful looters either see the game isn't one, and stop, or else go on until it becomes a habit, and their characters change.''

It was MacInnes's treatment of looting that bothered critics when the book first appeared in London in 1950. It's had a long, slow journey across the Atlantic.

The book follows one FSP unit as it moves from liberated Holland on to Germany, presumably along the route taken in real life by MacInnes himself when he was attached to the FSP in northern Europe. So the author could have let us know about this phase of the war in nonfiction terms. (The sergeant in charge of the fictional unit is known as ``Mac,'' by the way.) But presumably he wanted to involve us in a way that only fiction can. He is, as readers of his London novels know, a dab-hand with dialogue and a master at re-creating character and time. Here, for instance, is a superb description that combines a man, a mood, and an insight:

When I turned back a moment, I saw him [a British officer] on the bank of the chilly canal, gazing across the water at the thin, misty trees on the futher side. He looked almost exotic, standing in his military mackintosh beside the broken-down truck in the middle of the lonely Flemish landscape. But holding a cigarette in one gloved hand, and swinging his map case slowly by the straps with the other, he seemed unaware of this. Generations of captains had come this way before him, and in whatever place an English soldier finds himself, he is clothed with the confident assurance that where he is he should be, and that it is the alien land, not he, which is strange and foreign.

The role of onlooker suits Sergeant Mac. It gives him a chance to philosophize. Perhaps he does it too often, going beyond what is considered appropriate in a contemporary novel. But I found his ruminations and specks of wisdom fascinating.

In his discourse on interrogation techniques, for instance, he notes: ``With patience it's always possible to discover whether the suspected person is telling the truth or not. Truth is so powerful a force, it needs such effort and ingenuity to try to suppress it, that it is impossible to tell a long story of supposed events without contradictions....

``What the interrogator will aim at is to undermine the suspect's inner confidence in his own belief....''

``Few men have beliefs that are entirely their own, reached by personal endeavour and held not blindly but with free conviction. And where a man has clung to his ideas fanatically, it may be this very fact that leads to his collapse....''

Remember, Colin MacInnes was an interrogator in real life.

Mac keeps an eye open for other quirks of human behavior. Man's longing for home, for instance. Refugees mark out little territories for themselves on the floor of the camps so that to enter you feel you must knock at an imaginary door.

And soldiers moving into a new village ``would find a fireside to which they could transfer their longing for their own. It was best if there were girls there, but other important elements were the presence of an alien version of Mum, the dispenser of cups of tea and uncritical kindness, and the measured, soothing, and fuggy rhythm of a friendly family inside its home.''

``To the Victors the Spoils'' is not a very tidy book. There is a thread that links the author's vivid impressions together, but it is a theme rather than a traditional plot: the addictive game of looting, and what convinces the victors they are entitled to the spoils.

There's only one totally innocent character in the book, a member of the underground, and he hardly appears in the story at all. But at the end, when he has been liberated from a German prison, he and Mac discuss how Nazism gained such a hold on the Germans. Mac suggests a parallel with his own role: ``We've drifted along,'' he says, ``into good and evil....'' We divided ``the good from the bad like judges, releasing the one and punishing the other. But when you've behaved as we've often done, the only thing that entitles you to blame the enemy is your pistol.... You soon discover,'' he says, ``that there's no such thing as a small evil....''

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