- 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.
After reading the World War I memoir by Robert Graves for the fourth (and, I expect, final) time, I began to wonder why I had never looked at the autobiographical novel about the war by his friend Siegfried Sassoon. So I did.
I am glad I did — sort of. I had feared he would be a whiner, but he wasn’t. He is a terrific writer, with an unusual feel for turning a great phrase. Almost at random, there is this: "for an infantry subaltern, the huge unhappy mechanism of the Western Front always narrowed down to the company he was in."
Three pages later: "The sky seemed to sag heavily over Flanders; it was an oppressive, soul-clogging country." (I thought the same of Iraq in the late spring, when rain storms mixed with dust storms resulting in pelting mud.)
And then night just behind the front: "the whole region became a dusk of looming slopes with lights of village and bivouac picked out here and there, little sparks in the loneliness of time." On the next page: "the rockets soared beyond the ridge and the machine-guns rattled out their mirthless laughter." There is not just precision of observation here, but also of expression.
"One wet days the trees a mile away were like ash-grey smoke rising from the naked ridges, and it felt very much as if we were at the end of the world." I’ve had that feeling, both in northern Bosnia and northwestern Ira, but have never been able to capture in it words.
Watching soldiers in the trenches: "It was queer how the men seemed to take their victimization for granted." And, "What in earlier days had been drafts of volunteers were now droves of victims."
And finally: "Last summer the First Battalion had been part of my life; by the middle of September it had been almost obliterated."
I suspect at this point he is descending into a kind of madness, but he keeps a British attitude, deciding that, "getting killed on purpose [would be] an irrelevant gesture for a platoon commander." In its last section the book peters out into diary entries, and then, because he lost part of his diary, into remembered moments. But he still throws out some good aphoristic observations. "The better the soldier, the more limited in his outlook." That’s not just for the enlisted ranks: "One cannot be a useful officer and a reader of imaginative literature at the same time." (He is being cute there-a few pages later he actually cites his company executive officer as a terrific help and also a big reader. In fact they are both reading poetry during a bombardment when their dugout suffers a direct hit from a shell that turns out to be a dud-the nose of the shell protrudes into their shelter."
What he liked about patrolling in no-man’s-land: "We were beyond all interference by Brigadiers."
One of his final lines is about his sense that he died, or part of him did, during the war: "I seem to write these words of someone who never returned from France."
It is an interesting book. But at the end, it was less than the sum of it parts. I guess that the best way to say it is that it doesn’t add up to much. He is a better observer and writer than thinker. Despite the fine turns of phrase, at the end I didn’t take away much. As much I as admire his eye, and his hand at turning phrases, I don’t feel I took away anything larger. I doubt I will read it again, or even recall it much. The odd thing about his pose as a lightweight is that, ultimately, he really is.