- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I just finished reading Robert Graves’ autobiography of World War I service for the fourth time. I read it first as a teenager in Kabul in 1970. (I have no idea how I happened to come across it there in Afghanistan, or why picked it up.) I think it was the first book of military history that ever really grabbed me, for which I remain grateful. I can’t think of any other book that I have read four times, except perhaps for some of Shakespeare’s tragedies.
I read Graves’ memoir again in my 20s, at Yale, and then in my 30s, in Washington, D.C.. It was different book each time for me. I realized recently I hadn’t looked at it in about 20 years, so picked it up to see how it felt now. I also wanted to see what had captured me so much in the previous readings.
I have to say I was less impressed this time. The first and second times I read it, it seemed kind of shocking. This time it felt a bit tame. That might be because I have read so many other memoirs, some stronger, and also seen some war myself in Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq and, Afghanistan.
Some passages that struck me this time:
–On how to pick platoon leaders: “Our final selection was made by watching the candidates play games, principally Rugger and soccer. Those who played rough but not dirty, and had quick reactions, were the sort needed.”
–At the front, “I kept myself awake and alive by drinking about a bottle of whiskey a day. I had never drunk it before, and have seldom drunk it since.”
–His friend Siegfried Sassoon on leave in London: “very ill, he wrote that often when he went for a walk he saw corpses lying about on the pavements.”
–After the war, “It has taken some ten years for my blood to recover.” Also, “strangers in daytime would assume the faces of friends who had been killed.”
It made me wonder the extent to which for Europe, World War I, with its industrialization of killing, was the event that set the tone for the entire 20th century. I think that maybe for the U.S., World War II was more significant, but maybe not for Europe, and especially for the British.