Books of the year 2013: War
Friday 29 November 2013
Private Alex Stringer, of the Royal Logistic Corps, was 20 when he was blown up in Afghanistan: "The reason I lost my left leg so high up is because the burning paint cooked my left leg all the way down to the bone. But if I hadn't set myself on fire, I would have bled out and died – as a result of it, all the arteries became cauterised".
His smiling face appears in Bryan Adams's portraiture collection, Wounded, (Steidl, £48), and there are plenty more moving photographs and true stories in the equally weighty volume of images from the Imperial War Museum's latest collection, The Great War, (Jonathan Cape, £40). Sampling this later photographic narrative, published ahead of next year's First World War centenary, left this reader feeling like Tommy Atkins after one of the Great War's artillery barrages: shell-shocked.
Not that the heavier literary munitions aren't without novelty. Deserter by Charles Glass, (Harper, £25) asks us to see Second World War deserters as heroes – because some were indeed the same people. Lara Feigel's The Love-charm of Bombs (Bloomsbury, £25), shows the Blitz through the eyes, and other organs, of Graham Greene and various intellectuals liberated by the blackout.
100 Days to Victory by Saul David (Hodder & Stoughton, £20), is one of the few to mention the exploits of Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, whose 155 Germans and 1,100 Askaris held out in German East Africa (now modern Tanzania) all the way to 1918. More on them would have been welcome.
Following the previous examples of Antony Beevor are absorbing accounts of some more familiar episodes – absorbing because of, not despite, the harrowing detail.
Brian Moynihan's Leningrad Siege and Symphony (Quercus, £25), meanwhile, shows why so many admired the heroism of the Soviet Union, while Warsaw 1944 (Collins, £25) by Alexandra Richie, reminds us why so many despised it – in this case the censure revolved around Stalin's refusal to aid the Poles, an act of pure spite, if not evil.
The winner of the Orwell Prize, AT Williams, produced a chronicle of evil in today's British army. A Very British Killing (Vintage, £9.99) recounts the death of Baha Mousa, a blameless Iraqi widower who found himself behind the wrong Baghdad hotel reception desk at the wrong time. He died of multiple injuries after being beaten to death by the British.
Added to this are revelations about castration of Mau Mau prisoners and the "terror cell" in the Army in Northern Ireland; it seems as if evil has long co-existed alongside the civilised, even in our forces.
Which brings us to "The War to Save Civilisation". Max Hastings's magisterial Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War 1914 (Collins, £30) lays out the anti-German case with the force of a well-aimed Stokes mortar: their atrocities in Belgium were as real as their chlorine gas and their greed for imperial power, he suggests.
Hastings's effort seems to run a battle of attrition for sales with Field Marshal Jeremy Paxman's sardonic Great Britain's Great War (Penguin £25). Both help to redress the balance of words and glory between the two world wars. Thus, while we all know about the RAF in 1940, the remnants of the Worcestershire Regiment's miraculous resistance to the Germans at Ypres in 1914 probably saved Paris from occupation, and a German victory. Lest we forget…
A tail-end Charlie of the year was Great War Tommy (Haynes, £21.99) which draws on the irony-free official manuals of the time. Here, some advice on lice: "Underclothes may be scalded. Turn coats, trousers, etc, inside out, and expose these places to as much heat as can be borne before a fire. Petrol or paraffin will also kill lice. If no other means are available, turn the clothing inside out, beat it vigorously, remove and kill the vermin by hand – this will, at any rate, mitigate the evil."
At any rate too, the best of the year's crop of war narratives encourage us to reflect on how much our troops tried – if imperfectly – to mitigate all manner of evil.
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