Evelyn Waugh on War And Honor

Circumstances under which a war against the Taliban might be considered righteous, and perhaps even honorable, are conceivable, of course. But at present other circumstances prevail.

The United States is engaged in a cruel war of bombing in Afghanistan, destroying property and killing civilians. In order to make these bombings possible the support and approval of a colorful band of international rogues has been actively sought. American soldiers now fight alongside the dictator of Pakistan and the murderous tribal warriors of the Northern Alliance.

This would be a good time to turn to the writings of novelist Evelyn Waugh; The Sword of Honour Trilogy in particular. These books were inspired by the authors war-time experiences in North Africa and Yugoslavia. They deserve to be read time and again. In the words of William Boyd:

"The Sword of Honour trilogy contains the best of Waugh's comic genius but also something deeper and more profound. As a study of a nation and its people at their hour of greatest crisis, the novels are unsparingly honest and clear-eyed. Portraying the utter stupidity, absurdity and blind chance of war and conflict, they are without doubt the finest British novels to have come out of World War II."

The books revolve around the experiences of Guy Crouchback, a Catholic gentleman who regards the Second World War as an opportunity to fulfil childhood dreams of honor and chivalry. Reading about the Russian-German alliance – the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact – he sees an opportunity to fight the good fight:

"The enemy was at last in plain view, huge and hateful, all disguise cast of. It was the Modern Age in arms. Whatever the outcome there was a place for him in that battle."

Things change, however. Crouchback soon finds himself allied to Josef Stalin's Red Army. The sword in the trilogy's title is the Sword of Stalingrad, made by order of King George VI as a gift to "the steel-hearted people of Stalingrad." As Waugh was to put it in one of his short stories, the war "cast off its heroic and chivalrous disguise and became a sweaty tug-of-war between teams of indistinguishable louts."

Waugh returned to this theme in his essays:

"In war, it is notorious, opponents soon forget the cause of their quarrel, continue the fight for the sake of fighting and in the process assume a resemblance to what they abhorred."

In the last volume of the Sword of Honour Trilogy Guy Crouchback volunteers for service in Italy with the military government and eventually goes to Yugoslavia as a liaison officer with the partisans. Titos communist fighters turn out to be crooks and murderers, of course.

During his stay with the partisans Guy Crouchback manages to make a difference on a very small scale: he rescues a group of Jewish refugees. The words of one woman among them bring him, finally, to a devastating realization about the nature of war and honor:

"It is too simple to say that only the Nazis wanted war. These Communists wanted it too. It was the only way in which they could come to power. Many of my people wanted it, to be revenged on the Germans, to hasten the creation of the national state… Even good men thought their private honour would be satisfied by war. They could assert their manhood by killing and being killed. They would accept hardships in recompense for having been selfish and lazy. Danger justified privilege. I knew Italians – not very many perhaps – who felt this. Were there none in England?"

And Guy Crouchback answers: "God forgive me, I was one of them."

October 31, 2001

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