For British literature, at least, chivalry died on the Somme. Watch the fine new film that Gillies MacKinnon has made of Pat Barker's Regeneration, and you will be reminded that 80 years or more have passed since gifted writers could treat war as a joust or a crusade. Despite the justice of their cause, the soldier-authors of World War II preferred downbeat ironies and most showed a deep disdain for gung-ho and derring- do.

Thanks to Vietnam, most critics would presume that the US, too, lost the last tatters of its martial innocence long ago. Even earlier, the likes of Heller, Vonnegut and Mailer had cleared the ground of uniformed illusions. All this makes the unblushingly heroic tone of James Salter's memoir, Burning the Days (Harvill, pounds 17), sound less like a simple oddity than a freak of nature, a time-bend somehow folded into the end of our disenchanted century. Much of this beautifully crafted book seems to hail from a place more distant - and more mythical - than the court of King Arthur.

Born in 1925 and educated (very unusually, for a Jewish New Yorker) in the "great orphanage" of West Point, Salter joined the army in the war's final act. He then served as an Air Force pilot for a dozen years, flying combat missions in Korea, where "days and days of boredom" would climax in "moments of pure ecstasy". Later, he romanced and rubbernecked around Europe and North Africa like some pasha in a forage cap ("such was the allure of our pay and wrinkled khaki") before quitting the service to chase a mirage of the expat writer's life. Harvill has also re-issued his legendary 1967 novel, A Sport and a Pastime (pounds 6.99) - an erotic-existential drama in a wintry Burgundy backwater that reads as if Last Tango in Paris had been re-scripted by Sebastian Faulks.

As with most military dreamers, geopolitics left Salter unmoved. There is no hatred in his valour, and precious little ideology. He might as well have been strafing Californians up in the skies above the 38th Parallel. Rather, you think of Yeats's Irish Airman: "A lonely impulse of delight/ Drove to this tumult in the clouds." Salter puts it even more pithily: "It was not duty, it was desire."

Among the back-cover panegyrics is a glowing tribute from Michael Ondaatje. That makes sense. The English Patient is a deeply Salteresque novel - in its romantic delirium, its feats of endurance in the teeth of wind and fire, its lyrical abstraction from big-power battles. As a fighter ace, Salter yearned for "a self that is based on the risking of everything". Only that risk can justify the solemn pose he strikes. Yet, for an hour or two, this mess-mate of future Apollo astronauts makes you believe in what they called "the right stuff". Better an Old Knight than a New Lad, even at this late date.