When Waugh wrote this trilogy, between 1951 and 1964, people loved the acerbity of his writing. But they found Crouchback and his
views perverse. In those days, the thought that the Second World War might have been an error which left the world worse than it found it was almost
There had been frightful blunders such as Singapore, admitted the reader in the National Health spectacles. But to see it all as a mistake, you would
have to be...well, either a fascist or a believer in something perfectly weird. For instance, a devout member of the old English Roman Catholic
aristocracy. Down the narrow perspective of that particular telescope, through which the welfare of the Vatican mattered more than cutting Axis
communications in the Balkans, things might well look different.
Like many of Evelyn Waugh's books, this one--the first in the Sword of Honour trilogy--is at least semi-autobiographical. But, whereas other
life experiences gave him the fodder to savagely satirize such things as adultery/divorce, journalism, Africa, and Hollywood, his treatment of his checkered military
career, probably tempered by a natural patriotism, comes in more for gentle ribbing. So there are plenty of amusing characters and absurd situations,
beginning with the nature of the enlistee, Guy Crouchback, himself:
'We don't want cannon-fodder this time'--from the Services--'we learned our lesson in 1914 when we threw away the pick of the nation.
That's what we've suffered from ever since.
'But I'm not the pick of the nation,' said Guy. 'I'm natural fodder. I've no dependants. I've no special skill in anything. What's more I'm getting old.
I'm ready for immediate consumption. You should take the 35s now and give the young men time to get sons.'
'I'm afraid that's not the official view. I'll put you on our list and see you're notified as soon as anything turns up.'
But Mr. Waugh's heart, understandably, doesn't seem to be invested in really letting loose on the British armed services. This combines with the
subject of the story--the painfully slow build-up to war--to render a novel that's somewhat less spirited than many of his others.
However, it does have one feature that more than redeems it and makes it not only one of his most invaluable works, but one of the most important
novels of WWII: its ferocious criticism of the British decision to accept the Soviet Union as an ally, rather than treat her as an enemy just as
dangerous as Nazi Germany. Guy's initial fervor for war comes as a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact:
Just seven days earlier he had opened his morning newspaper on the headlines announcing the Russian-German alliance. News that
shook the politicians and young poets of a dozen capital cities brought deep peace to one English heart. [...] He lived too close to Fascism in Italy to
share the opposing enthusiasms of his countrymen. He saw it neither as a calamity nor as a rebirth; as a rough improvisation merely. He disliked the
men who were edging themselves into power around him, but English denunciations sounded fatuous and dishonest and for the past three years he had
given up his English newspapers. The German Nazis he knew to be mad and bad. Their participation dishonoured the cause of Spain, but the troubles
of Bohemia, the year before, left him quite indifferent. When Prague fell, he knew that war was inevitable. He expected his country to go to war in a
panic, for the wrong reasons or for no reason at all, with the wrong allies, in pitiful weakness. But now, splendidly, everything had become clear. The
enemy at last was plain in view, huge and hateful, all disguise cast off. It was the Modern Age in arms. Whatever the outcome there was a place for
him in that battle.
But he despairs when, Hitler having betrayed Stalin, the Soviets are thereupon blithely accepted as comrades:
Russia invaded Poland. Guy found no sympathy among these old soldiers for his own hot indignation.
'My dear fellow, we've quite enough on our hands as it is. We can't go to war with the whole world.'
'Then why go to war at all? If all we want is prosperity, the hardest bargain Hitler made would be preferable to victory. If we are concerned with
justice the Russians are as guilty as the Germans.'
'Justice?' said the old soldiers. 'Justice?'
'Besides,' said Box-Bender when Guy spoke to him of the matter which seemed in no one's mind but his, 'the country would never stand for it. The
socialists have been crying blue murder against the Nazis for five years but they are still pacifists at heart. So far as they have any feeling of
patriotism it's for Russia. You'd have a general strike and the whole country in collapse if you set up to be just.'
'Then what are we fighting for?'
'Oh we had to do that, you know. The socialists always thought we were pro-Hitler. God knows why. It was quite a job keeping neutral over Spain.
[...] It was quite ticklish, I assure you. If we sat tight now there'd be chaos. What we have to do now is to limit and localize the war, not extend
And so the comic misadventures that Guy undergoes in preparing for war are no longer even in furtherance of an ideal one can be proud of, but are instead the minmum required of a patriot. Rare indeed is the book--fiction or non--that's this brutally honest about the ultimate futility of WWII and that frankness makes it special.