On War and Writing

"On War and Writing" by Samuel Hynes

ON WAR AND WRITING. By Samuel Hynes. University of Chicago Press. 224 pages. $22.50.

Samuel Hynes makes no claim to being a military historian, yet his grasp of the complexities and horrors of war offers values seldom available in conventional accounts of tactics, strategies and pivotal battles.

Hynes, Woodrow Wilson Professor of Literature emeritus at Princeton University, stands his post at ground level, less interested in relating the sagas of generals and campaigns than in the personal accounts of individual aviators and soldiers. “On War and Writing” is literary criticism, not a chronicle of heroics.

Although Hynes (“Flights of Passage,” 2003) was a decorated Marine combat pilot in World War II, in his latest collection of reviews, essays and introductions to other authors' books, he focuses more on the Great War of 1914-18. But in assaying what he believes to be the higher drama and moral ambiguities of World War I, he sometimes slips into uncharacteristic fits of romanticism.

Typical of the latter is his celebration of WWI pilots as knights of the air, a patrician class who saw themselves as a cut above the lowly trench warrior. Hynes is more tough minded in discussing the soldier as victim, rather than an agent, in a modern mechanized war, as well as on the shift from glorification to repudiation of war, and on how wars may unite societies while being fought, but eventually change and divide them.

He dissects the perils of nostalgia and sentimentality in remembrances of war. “Memory is a lively muse but an untrustworthy historian,” he writes, with particular skepticism about remembrance as opposed to reportage. For the former, the time separating events from writing about them can be an important element in shaping the recollections of writers. Heroes make for poor war memoirists, he says. “They are too close to the center of war's values ... they act out the mottoes on the flags and the slogans on the posters.”

But Hynes concludes that memories are the closest we shall come to the essence of the war experience. Rhetoric (glorious war) met reality after WWI, and the author explores how the experiences of post-war American expatriate artists and writers in Paris forever altered American writing and consciousness.

Hynes is fascinated with how the artist shapes the ways we feel about and interpret war, yet acknowledges that even the greatest literature bears little power as an instrument to prevent it.

From Hemingway and Thomas Hardy, W.B. Yeats to Rebecca West and beyond, Hynes gives us varied perspectives on this eternal drama of destruction, exploring the character of wars, good and bad. But the analysis largely is his own.

He defines our collective myth of a war not as a fanciful tale but as the sum of what we have come to accept as truth, often shaped by novels, poetry, film and art. The myth of World War II was defined as good vs. evil (and still has not fully incorporated the war against civilians into its narrative), The myth of World War I was one of profound disillusionment and bitterness, at least for Europeans.

“It is the great theme of that literature,” he writes, “which is the most brilliant and the most moving of any writing about war in our time,” reaching its most haunting expression in “All Quiet on the Western Front.” America would have to wait for Vietnam to experience its great disillusionment, which Hynes at times oversimplifies.

Hynes' subject is what our literature tells us, and fails to tell us, about war, and there is considerable wisdom in his critique. He believes we have come to the end of “Big Words and brave gestures and the tall stone monuments.” One wonders.

Reviewer Bill Thompson is a freelance writer and editor in Charleston.