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Men at War: What Fiction Tells Us About Conflict, from The Iliad to Catch-22
By Christopher Coker
(Hurst 325pp £25)

My Life as a Foreign Country
By Brian Turner
(Jonathan Cape 240pp £16.99)

Seamus Heaney once remarked upon the heroes of antiquity that it is ‘not so much their procedures on the page which are influential as the composite image which has been projected of their conduct’. In Men at War, Christopher Coker (Professor of International Relations at the LSE) undertakes an unscrambling of this particular equation, picking over the last 3000 years of warfare in literature to see ‘what fiction tells us about war’s hold on the imagination of young men, and the way it makes – and breaks – them.’

At heart, Men at War does what surveys of this kind should always do: sends you hurrying to (re-)read the many dozens of books the author’s been referring to as, from The Iliad to World War III, via the Napoleonic era, Dresden and Vietnam, he investigates five designated ‘personalities’ – ‘warriors’, ‘heroes’, ‘villains’, ‘survivors’ and ‘victims’ – incorporating examples as diverse as Henry IV and Dr Strangelove, McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and the Flashman novels (I paused at the Master and Commander chapter to re-watch Russell Crowe’s ‘definitive’ performance). Coker is extremely widely read, both on and off the battlefield, and full of acute literary insights, wit, and a tremendous amount of human sympathy. He has an especially frank and generous affinity for the ‘survivor’, the individual against the heartless ‘machine’ – a category that thankfully shed most of its connotations of cowardice in the course of the last century, and during the Vietnam War in particular. The whole thing is delivered in a relaxed, conversational prose, marred only by some astonishingly incompetent proofreading (or lack thereof).

Coker’s belief that most soldiers are aware of their literary lineage, however (that they have read ‘what fiction tells us…’), is a bit of a sticking point. Achilles, for instance, is ‘a man so many soldiers wish to be but also dread they might become’. This is just wrong. Most ‘soldiers’ have never even heard of Achilles, and only a very few would see him as a cautionary character. It is clear, throughout, that Coker must mean ‘officers’ – a rather 19th-Century distinction that I suspect his audience (none of them ‘soldiers’, in any case) would nonetheless take for granted. All the same, since I still don’t buy that Alexander used his Homer for a pillow, the idea of some Para lieutenant in a Sangin platoon-house thumbing through the Catalogue of Ships seems extraordinarily optimistic. For what it’s worth, the only British officer I am sure has read The Iliad is a former student of Professor Coker.

Things appear to be slightly different in the American military, where a considerable number of soldiers – with or without the inverted commas – seem not only to be conversant with military (and other) literature, but frequently to set about producing it themselves. A prime example of this is the prize-winning poet Brian Turner.

On 3 December 2003, Sergeant Turner’s mechanised infantry unit crossed into Iraqi territory: ‘from Herodotus to Xenophon, from Cornelius Ryan to Lieutenant General Harold G Moore – I am aware of a variety of insertion narratives’. Now, in a fine and contemplative prose memoir, guided by the ghosts of his military ancestors, Turner follows the never-ending rumble of war from one brutal manifestation to the next. Through its drone-pilot conceit, surveying the landscapes of Iraq and Northern Ireland, Bosnia and Vietnam, My Life as a Foreign Country becomes a sort of trans-historical hallucination, this war and all the wars before and after exchanging hints of recognition through the cracks in his personal experience.

While Turner will not have been the only soldier who’d joined up because ‘at some point in the life of the hero the hero is supposed to say I swear’, he is surely one of the very few in living memory to have appointed a ‘literary executor’. My Life as a Foreign Country is chock full of allusions not only to the Graeco-Roman Classical tradition (at one point we watch Turner reading Gregory Hays translating Marcus Aurelius quoting The Iliad) but also to the Bhagavad-Gita, Japanese art, Norse mythology and more. During an aside on the history of weapons manufacture, Turner quietly tracks the etymology of ‘vanadium’ – from Vanadís: ‘goddess of love and fertility, battle and death’ – an element in the steel used to make the M4 rifle.

It’s not just the old-timey stuff, either. The Pequot War, Vietnamese funeral rites, the advent of ‘Waterloo Teeth’; and, in a long, updated riff on O’Brien’s ‘The Things They Carried’: ‘the soldiers enter the house with paperbacks in their cargo pockets, Starship Troopers and Black Hawk Down, We Were Soldiers Once and Young.’ Turner himself packs a copy of Iraqi Poetry Today.

For Literary Review (in a slightly different version)

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