Since today is Memorial Day, and since thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have given their lives over the past four years so that an alcoholic, semi-literate rich prick can impress his father, it seems a good time to bring up the topic of war novels. It occurs to me that, in effect, most good war novels embrace the theme of the utter shittiness of war. Am I wrong about this? Some may glorify it a bit along the way, but even The Iliad ends with a horrifying desecration.
So The Iliad, that's sure one. And now the ones that leap immediately to mind: The Things They Carried, Regeneration, Slaughterhouse-Five, When We Were Orphans, War and Peace (duh), The Magic Mountain. Yes, I do consider that a war novel--the ending, when Hans Castorp goes tramping off to his inevitable death, is flawless, and casts its eerie light back over the rest, revealing its bloody secrets.
But my favorite war novelist has to be Virginia Woolf, who, though she didn't write much explicitly about war, wrote a hell of a lot that was implicitly about it. Jacob's Room, To The Lighthouse, Mrs. Dalloway, The Waves...that whole glorious run consisted entirely of World War I novels--and Woolf killed herself at least in part so that she wouldn't have to see her city destroyed by the next one.
Of course London survived, but there were more wars waiting to be fought, more lives to be idiotically wasted, more violent urges to be acted out, for no good reason. Indeed, the war that drove Woolf to her death, the only "sensible" America's fought since the Revolution, seems to have poisoned us; so glorious was our victory, and so correct our decision to fight, that we can't help believing only violence will get back that delicious sensation of moral authority.
Poor, stupid us. We've never been farther from moral authority. So today, after your burgers and beer, take an hour or so to kick back with a good book about the baddest desire. And remember that, if novelists ran the world, we'd never manage to get any decent killing done.