BOOKS/J. Quinn Brisben

Distortion with Intent to Kill

To the Last Man: A Novel of the First World War

By Jeff Shaara

Ballantine Books, 2004

636 pages, $27.95.

This is a readable historical novel about a time and place whose eyewitnesses are almost all dead. It follows the rules of historical fiction: it contains very little that is contrary to known fact, and its interpretation of events is plausible if not indisputable.

It is also a serious distortion consciously being used by supporters of present US intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq to justify and increase our involvement in that area.

In the advance praise quoted on the book jacket, General Tommy R. Franks writes, "Jeff Shaara shows the dominance of the US military in the context of coalition warfare -- as relevant today as it was in 1918." John Mosher calls it "[t]he best novel about the Great War since Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front."

It is not that, but the principal characters, all of them actual persons, are believable, as are the descriptions of actual combat. However, the insistence on America's unique competence to lead an unwieldy coalition of powers to crush an enemy dangerous to all civilization is propaganda.

The notion that the US, which was involved in World War I only a fraction of the time and suffered only a small fraction of the casualties of the other Powers, was decisive in the defeat of Germany is an arguable position. The notion that US intervention was necessary after Russia had withdrawn from the war is more controversial, for Britain had reserves in India available at the cost of giving up empire. US involvement meant that it could not serve as an honest broker in the peacemaking process and that the unsolved problems left by the Treaty of Versailles would result in a far more devastating war a generation later.

Fictionalizing or dramatizing war is a trap for those who believe war has lost its power to decide anything meaningful and is simply senseless destruction. Fighting troops, of course, have not been told they are fighting to protect J.P. Morgan's loans or Halliburton's profits. In actual combat they do not believe that they are fighting for Old Glory or any reasons those far from the front lines would have them and us believe. They are shooting because they are being shot at.

They know their best chance of surviving is to risk their lives for their buddies with whom they have formed the strong bonds that are the basis of all competent military training. Even if they did not hate the enemy before, they do after he has killed their buddies. Many veterans cannot live with the thought that they have killed in vain and that their buddies died in vain. They are sure only that they are real men who did what men have to do.

This romanticizing of war has had an increasingly hard time because of the development of modern communications. Truthful reporting has killed many dreams of glory. One can imagine one's doghouse to be a Sopwith Camel but, after All Quiet on the Western Front, Dreams of Glory and A Farewell to Arms, one cannot do the same for "the poor blighters in the trenches." Defensive trench warfare was a mistake, Shaara thinks, corrected by aggressive and energetic Americans with planes and tanks. Vietnam brought war home to Americans watching television so effectively that George W. Bush dare not revive the draft even though he is desperately short of troops to sustain his aggressions.

Novels like To the Last Man are fortunately not likely to reverse that trend. They can even be enjoyed, for the pornography of violence differs from the pornography of sex in that it does not lead to a compulsion to perform the act. Indeed, many nonviolent activists who are students of military history believe they have found what William James called "the moral equivalent of war."

When we discuss Gettysburg, there are often references to the superb 1975 novel The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara, Jeff Shaara's father. Jeff Shaara has operated his late father's franchise with some success, producing six other military romances. I have read most of them with enjoyment. He is now writing a novel about the Korean War. I hope it is hijacked by warmongers as To the Last Man has been.

The historical novel allows authors to use good stories not supported by much evidence, as Herodotus did; to put words in the mouths of protagonists, as Thucydides did; and to get inside the minds of characters to show a greater understanding of historical forces than the actual participants could make public. Competent historical novels like Shaara's are good entertainment and even capable of adding to one's knowledge if a proper perspective is kept. War mongers are distorting the perspective in this one.

J. Quinn Brisben is a retired Chicago high school history teacher with a long record of progressive activism.

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