Mark Kleiman searches for a "pro-war" novel of "high literary merit" in the tradition of The Iliad. No real examples come to mind automatically, but the much-disparaged final section of Anna Karenina exhibits a great deal of enthusiasm for the Serbian cause in some sort of war with Turkey. It's not a novel, but No Man's Land is of high (cinematic) artistic merit and reasonably characterized as something of a brief for western military intervention in Bosnia. The obvious place to look for positive portrayals of war would, I think, be World War Two where you certainly have a substantial body of pro-war cinema of varying degrees of merit.
Philip Roth's recent The Plot Against America is sort of in this vein, but there's no actual portrayal of war in the book. It's a bit surprising how jaundiced a take on even the quintessential "good war" you get from, for example, Catch-22, Gravity's Rainbow, and The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Thoughts?
December 16, 2004 | Permalink
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» William Gibson Pops Up Twice And Gets Me Thinking from Saheli*: Musings and Observations
Yglesias enlarged upon it, and Holbo added more. All the really good war novels seem to be negative, as you'd expect, and the "pro" ones, in the "Good War" mode, tend to be for children or rather old. (Rilla of Ingleside, The Three Musketeers.) The i... [Read More]
Tracked on Dec 24, 2004 9:46:30 PM
I remember reading "Red Badge of Courage" and then seeing a Stephen Crane quote (which I now cannot find) saying something like "every good war novel is an anti-war novel."
Does Slaughterhouse Five count as a "war book" though? The Naked and the Dead definitely does, but definitely isn't for this competition.
I bet you could make the argument that good war writing is anti-thetical to being a good warrior, since good writing generally needs some sort of empathy where you get inside the heads of several different characters to know and care about what other people are thinking while it is hard to kill people if you are doing that.
Posted by: dstein | Dec 16, 2004 3:43:01 PM
"From Here to Eternity"
Posted by: Dan from Cos | Dec 16, 2004 3:45:31 PM
The Lord of the Rings? I don't know if you can consider it either pro-war or of high literary merit but it is close on both counts. It is certainly popular and glorifies the elves, men, hobbits and dwarves. And the enemy is irredeemably evil.
Posted by: Freder Frederson | Dec 16, 2004 3:48:56 PM
it's not a novel, but the recent Chinese movie "Hero" is quite pro-war in the sense that it implies that war is necessary for state centralization, which the movie wholeheartedly supports. Kind of on the "you have to break eggs to make an ommelate" line of thought. It's a conclusion that is so out of place in most artistic works today that it's really shocking when you see it.
Posted by: b | Dec 16, 2004 3:50:08 PM
It's been ages since I saw "No Man's Land," but I seem to remember it being more in the Catch-22 absurdity-of-war vein, with the UN smurfs as well-meaning but ineffectual and bumbling. Maybe not?
"War as I Knew It"
Posted by: Dan from Cos | Dec 16, 2004 3:52:54 PM
"The Longest Day"
Posted by: Dan from Cos | Dec 16, 2004 3:54:07 PM
it's not a novel, but the recent Chinese movie "Hero" is quite pro-war
It's a twisted world when a Communist propaganda film (worthy of Eisenstein although, not nearly as artistically accomplished) is so popular in the United States. I guess it is true that there is not much difference between a Communist and a Fascist.
Posted by: Freder Frederson | Dec 16, 2004 3:54:15 PM
"A Bridge too Far"
Posted by: Dan from Cos | Dec 16, 2004 3:54:33 PM
"From Here to Eternity" YES
Also "Thin Red Line" by the same author.
"Rumor of War" by Phil Caputo is one of the best books about the Vietnam War by one of the first marines on the ground there.
Posted by: ken | Dec 16, 2004 3:54:39 PM
As with "Lord of the Rings," "high literary merit" may still be somewhat debateable, but O'Brien's Aubrey-Maturin novels have the characters debate the relative merits of war and peace, and frenquently come down on the side of war . . .
Posted by: rea | Dec 16, 2004 4:00:12 PM
" I guess it is true that there is not much difference between a Communist and a Fascist. "
Well, especially with Hero. I don't think it's pro-communist so much as pro-authoritarian and militantly nationalistic, so it could work well as propaganda for either a Communist or Fascist Chinese government.
Posted by: MattT | Dec 16, 2004 4:01:12 PM
I think you'll be hard pressed to find a novel that fits your bill better than "For Whom The Bell Tolls". It has literary merit, and a pro-war sentiment not of the "war is fun" variety but of the "the cause is just" variety. And it doesn't hurt that the Left "owns" Hemingway.
Posted by: Mike J. | Dec 16, 2004 4:03:46 PM
A Bridge too Far
Only if you believe tales of poorly planned, poorly executed military operations where intelligence that contradicts pre-conceived notions that might upset the plan, conducted to satisfy one man's overblown ego, that result in unnecessary death and defeat are somehow pro-war. But if you voted for Bush such operations are considered heroic.
Posted by: Freder Frederson | Dec 16, 2004 4:06:00 PM
Wouk's "Winds of War" is arguably of high literary merit, and has no doubt about fighting on the right side.
I'm fairly certain you are completely misrepresenting Anna Karenina. As I recall Tolstoy portrays Vronsky, who is going off to fight for the Serbs as a pathetic lost soul who has messed up his life so badly he is eager to die for a cause -- not as a hero going to defend his fellow Slavs against the infidels. Tolstoy was by this time moving towards the pacifism of his later years, and had no sympathy for the Pan-slavists. I believe I read that Tolsoy's cynical portrayal of Vronsky going to fight for the Serbs infuriated Dostoyevsky who was a rabid supporter of the Pan-Slavist movement.
As for a pro-war novel of high literary merit -- For Whom the Bells Toll is the one that comes to mind.
Posted by: Morris | Dec 16, 2004 4:07:49 PM
And it doesn't hurt that the Left "owns" Hemingway.
We do? I thought we hated Hemingway. He was a repressed homosexual and a fascist.
Posted by: Freder Frederson | Dec 16, 2004 4:08:56 PM
Outnumbered and outgunned, proud freedom-loving insurgents defend against an imperial power.
With a bit of courage and a lot of luck (and The Force), they successfully exploit a discovered weakness in the planet killing Death Star.
And find love. And discover the meaning of friendship and sacrifice.
A picaresque romp around a galaxy far, far away.
Posted by: homeward bound | Dec 16, 2004 4:18:45 PM
"Band of Brothers". If the episode where the patrol stumbles onto a concentration camp doesn't move you, then nothing will.
Posted by: zippy | Dec 16, 2004 4:19:48 PM
jaundiced, Matt? I dunno, depends on how you look at it. Saving Private Ryan was "pro war" I think, but human. Not romanticized.
I'm with you on LOR Freder. Even though the enemy was irredeemably evil, you see the effect that fighting that evil has on good people (IE when the hobbits return to the Shire, the realization that "you can't go home again"). Sad really.
My Father fought in that last "good war" (Europe) and would never talk about it. Always changed the subject. An Uncle (Pacific) would speak of it sometimes, with an almost clinical detachment, but every once in a while you could see the pain. Good men who fought the good fight, but the effect on them was not good.
Posted by: lil' abner | Dec 16, 2004 4:23:40 PM
a pro-war sentiment not of the "war is fun" variety but of the "the cause is just" variety
"War is fun" variety? Care to explain what that is?
Posted by: Al | Dec 16, 2004 4:29:12 PM
Whoops. I forgot about the "high literary merit." Even I am not geeky enough to claim that.
"it's not a novel, but the recent Chinese movie "Hero" is quite pro-war"
Sigh. That interpretation has become conventional wisdom, and I think quite wrong. Umm, the Emperor is not the "Hero" of the movie.
"Orlando Furioso", Dumas, some stuff during and about the Crusades, chivalric romances. And this is telling.
I really believe Homer and Thucydides are in the top five books in history. and I think because they had practical impact. The Ancient World after Greece, and after Hannibal, looked at war thru the lens of Homer/Thucydides and the Tragedy of Greece, and saw that war was not good. After the rediscovery of the classics, the modern world saw the same.
We can't imitate Homer because we have read Homer.
Posted by: bob mcmanus | Dec 16, 2004 4:42:22 PM
Wow, is everyone actually reading the books they cite?
Wouk states that the theme of Winds of War and its sequel is that "Either war is finished, or we are."
Tolkien is scarcely pro-war. To the extent he has a mouthpiece, it's Gandalf, and Gandalf sees war as a necessity, not something to be "pro." Indeed, Gandalf/Olorin is something like a demigod of pity. The enemy may be "irredeemably evil," but that doesn't stop Gandalf: "As for me, I pity even his [Sauron's] slaves," which would seem to include orcs.
And as I recall, Morris is right on Anna Karenina. The war in question was just the sort of newspaper-fomented farce that Tolstoy loathed. Recall his satire of Stephen at the beginning of the book, getting his thoughts from the papers.
I concur with dstein, and would add that "great warriors" themselves tend to be "anti-war," not in the pacifist sense but in believing that war is an evil to be avoided where possible.
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