The Great Literature of War
by Greg Rawlings
Tales of war in Central Asia.
By Greg Rawlings
War is the Hell that sells books. The literature of war is the basic literature of mankind. From the Iliad and the Old Testament to the trenchant Vietnam novels of Tim O’Brien, the most memorable literature has often been war-related. My favorite novel, Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon, is a WWII tale. Hemingway’s finest work arises from his experiences in and after WWI. And what greater American work erupted from the bloody mid-19th-century than Crane’s Red Badge of Courage? The current war in Afghanistan concerns a region that has engendered its share of extraordinary works, with two short works by Leo Tolstoy and Rudyard Kipling especially germane.
Tolstoy’s novella Hadji Murad is a true story set during the Russian invasion of the Caucasus in 1851-52. It is a tale of Christian versus Muslim versus Muslim. As such, it is undeniably timely. The title character is a dazzling warrior—second only to Shamil, the great warlord of the region—who joins with the Russians against Shamil, in an act that endangers his family and eventually costs him his life. Tolstoy relates the story in a simple style, rife with foreshadowing, and brimming with accurate description. In fact, he served in the war against Shamil as an artillery officer, although he didn’t complete the story until just after the turn of the century.
For those who are intimidated by Tolstoy’s vast tomes, War and Peace and Anna Karenina, this is the story to read. Its compaction gives it great power. Harold Bloom calls it Tolstoy’s "most Shakespearean story," and with good reason. This tale juxtaposes scenes of tenderness with those of great savagery, those of great beauty with those of brutal ugliness. Hadji Murad is the work of a master at his most masterful; this being so, it is that rarest of rare birds, a masterpiece. Along with The Dead by Joyce, it is the supreme example of the novella or short novel form from the 20th century.
Kipling is often falsely treated as a bigot, a lover of Empire and a bad writer. He was, in truth, none of these things. Few imaginations have ever roamed as widely and brought so much joy to so many readers, while also sending gut-wrenching reality checks to the folks back home.
Kipling’s poem The Young British Soldier is hard to get a grasp on—it seems to be one thing but is probably another. The sort of old-fashioned lyric that can be sung as well as recited, it has the sing-song country British feel that makes poetry snobs sick in the stomach: My God, average people might like it, it can’t be any good. But, like the poetry of Robert Burns, some of Kipling’s finest work is, on the surface at least, some of his simplest.
Told, ostensibly, as some good-natured advice by an older soldier to a young recruit, off to the East, it gradually grows darker and more morbid, macabre even, only to end with a stanza containing the immortal words:
When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier.
Chilling lines at any time, but certainly chilling now. I hadn’t read them since childhood until I heard a Russian ex-soldier, a veteran of his former empire’s embarrassing catastrophe in Afghanistan, recite them on the news. The more I read the poem, the more I read it as a warning to the West. Stay out of the East! For as Kipling maintained in another more famous work, "Oh, East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat." This refrain is chilling, too, in its own manner—but entirely in line with every other accurate account of Westerners fighting in Central Asia.
I always say, in times of crisis, stick to the masters. You could do worse than to begin with the brief works noted above. Tolstoy’s brief, urgent tale will be a brilliant surprise. Like the best of Shakespeare’s protagonists, Hadji Murad exists on a heightened plain of reality and sensitivity. He lives, and comprehends that which lives around him, with great intensity. His thoughts and acts have meaning. He is a hero in the classic sense. As for that new recruit who is the recipient of the wise words of his elder in The Young British Soldier . . . he’d best remember:
When first under fire an’ you’re wishin’ to duck,
Don’t look nor take ’eed at the man that is struck,
Be thankful you’re livin’, and trust to your luck
And march to your front like a soldier.