Samuel Hynes has had two vocations: United States Marine pilot in the Second World War and post-war professor and literary critic. His subject in this collection of incisive essays is, as the poet Wilfred Owen put it, “War, and the pity of War” in the tormented 20th century.
The theme of war and of human violence against ourselves began with Homer’s Iliad. The need to record and remember, if not redeem, war is one of the primal subjects of the human imagination. Hynes’ book explains how this martial literature – by Thomas Hardy, W. B. Yeats, Rebecca West, Edward Thomas and e. e. cummings – has “shaped the ways in which we think and feel about war”.
The author persuasively observes that the portrayal of glorious war, propelled by jingoistic propaganda, lured men into battle and was finally repudiated by the meaningless slaughter on the Western front. Owen compared the odour of decomposing bodies to the “breath of cancer”. Hynes writes that “virtually all of the important, myth-making books” came from Great War battles, but the most myth-making of all, T. E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom, was inspired by the Arabian campaign in the Middle East.
He could have said more about the works he discusses by Yeats and Wyndham Lewis. In An Irish Airman Foresees His Death, Yeats imagines Major Robert Gregory reflecting on the possibilities of his past and future, balancing his life with death, seeking glory and submitting to his predestined fate: “A lonely impulse of delight/Drove to this tumult in the clouds.” In Lewis’ painting A Battery Shelled, three artillery officers contemplate with surprising tranquillity the smoke-plumed, ravaged landscape. Stick-like soldiers bent over below them frantically struggle to repair the furrowed craters as the merciless bombardment continues.
Hynes’ short book could have been strengthened if he had also analysed masterpieces about later wars. Olivia Manning’s The Levant Trilogy describes with astonishing accuracy a noncombatant’s view of British battles and civilian suffering in Egypt during the Second World War, when General Rommel came perilously close to capturing Cairo and the Suez Canal. The best book on the Korean conflict is the stylish memoir Burning the Days by the fighter pilot and novelist James Salter. This describes, for example, what happens when a fellow pilot is shot down and falls to his death: “Arms flapping, he would tumble endlessly, his parachute, long and useless, trailing behind.”
The most vivid and memorable accounts of the Vietnam War are visual rather than verbal: the photograph of the naked and screaming little girl, Phan Thi Kim Phuc, her flesh seared by napalm; another of the Vietcong victim Nguyen Van Lem, standing next to his executioner, having his brains blown out by a shot to his skull – and the brilliant shots of battle by Tim Page and Sean Flynn. Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter and Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now cinematically showed the release of primitive instincts, the last flicker of perverted idealism and hopeless self-sacrifice, fuelled by drugs.
Hynes, still going strong at the age of 93, has a clear, engaging style – and a mind that is intelligent, perceptive and humane.
Jeffrey Meyers’ Robert Lowell in Love and The Mystery of the Real: Letters of the Canadian Artist Alex Colville and Biographer Jeffrey Meyers were published in 2015 and 2016.
On War and Writing
By Samuel Hynes
University of Chicago Press, 224pp, £17.00
Published 27 February 2018