As a kid, I was like most little boys. I loved playing war…I mean, I really loved it. All my playground games were based around it (usually featuring the goodies [Brits] versus the baddies [Jerries] motif)…I loved looking at my Grandad’s memorabilia from his service in India during the second world war…I had a huge collection of toy soldiers (still have some lead soldiers somewhere!)…and devoured the Commando comic books. This matured into a fascination for military history which has stayed with me up to this day and served me well through GCSE, A Levels and my Degree.
This was a fascination with heroism, with stiff upper-lippedness, with men going beyond human limits…but also some kind of strange disappointment that I would never have a chance to fight in such warfare as that which I read about. It even drove me at the age of 16 to starting at a military college, looking at a future of service with the armed forces…but dropping out after just a couple of weeks as I realised I wasn’t cut out for the whole taking orders business!
The moment, however, when my understanding of the reality of warfare transformed is linked with reading ‘The Thin Red Line‘ by james Jones. Some of you will be familiar with the awesome Terrence Malick film of 1998 – I think this is what made me want to read the book. I hadn’t seen the film, but had heard it was spectacular. The same year saw ‘Saving Private Ryan’ released another blockbuster with a grim realism that began to help us to see just what our forefathers may have experienced decades earlier.
So, anyway, I decided to read the book…and found myself engulfed by a world that utterly transformed my understanding of warfare. The grim, brutal existence of American soldiers on a small Pacific island faced with fanatical, even suicidal opposition…the reality that good and evil are simple things in war. The beauty of this paradise (captured so remarkably by Malick) destroyed by man’s depravity (echoing the historical narrative of the fall?). Even at the age of 20 this was like a light being switched on…I realised that heroism wasn’t about pointless charges against superior foes…but about surviving to get home to your family. I realised that despite being fascinated by this history stuff, I was edging towards a pacifist stance that has hardened as I’ve matured.
The beauty of Jones’ writing is in capturing the every day existence whilst at war. The normality of survival, of killing or be killed. The notion that some 60 years ago I would have been one of those young men who found themselves in impossible situations, having to negotiate daily with my conscience. The jacket photo to the right gives us a glimpse into what it must feel like…just like the countless images of warfare where we look deep into the eyes of men (and women) at war and see…emptiness…
So, simple as it may sound to us today, with our early 21st century understanding of the ‘greyness’ of warfare (is there such a thing as a just war?)…a childish notion was cracked by a novel about a tiny corner of a global conflict. This book started a process of questioning which hasn’t yet ended. One that makes me think long and hard about what I think about our current situation in Afghanistan. How does a follower of the Prince of Peace work out how to bring about that peace in his every day existence…?
This is the power of words…and why I love reading…