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December 17, 2004


bob mcmanus

"Sweet Hereafter" about moral goods out of tragedy? Okay. Only seen the movie, multiple times, and like its cousins Exotica and Affliction, in my ecstatic despair category.

Despite the paltry amount of martial literature, we sure seem to do war a lot. And have a not complete repulsion at the Alexanders and Napoleons and TR's. I guess you don't find much pro-adultery literature either. Maybe there is a category of collective guilty pleasures.


Well, I don't mean that in the "Sweet Hereafter" the good outweighs the tragedy.


I have in mind 'the characters learn important moral truths about themselves'. That sort of thing. Which is pretty much on the same order as a harsh war novel about soldiers learning moral truths. The implication usually isn't that therefore the war was worth it.


Or maybe my memory is slipping and the ending is much harsher than I remember. In which case: bad example.


Does the Conan novels differ substantially from the movies? Because, I recall, an apology for Conan's warrior-ly ways is written very strongly into the movie (Barbarian) by way of emphasizing a background story of hardship. It's like Fistfull of Dollars, or something, where the implication is still very much that his apparently, superficially, brutal ethic is a result of his hard life, and that, anyway, ultimately, "deeply," we find out, he is after the good, as we would ordinarily recognize it. Also, I don't know much of anything about the novel outside of the west, but I wonder if there might be something there. There have got to be "pro-war" Chinese novels, from some period, it seems to me. But, anyway, I don't really get why Conan is yer paradine glorious wrecker of mead-benches, except for the neatness of that one quote.

Um, yeah. Also, so I also kinda wonder what the difference is between "pro-war" and "pro-warrior," and also, how the possibility of effective truly "pro-war" literature relates to that "imaginative resistance" you folk were talking about a while back. What is the answer, man?


Just the neatness of the quote, spacetoast. You're right about that. For the rest, I dunno the answer, man.


Just out of curiosity, John... have you ever read the Gulf War I memoir, Jarhead? (If you have read it, I'd be fascinated to hear what you thought of it).

Anyway, this is slightly different from the points you're driving at in your post... but in that book, the author describes how he and other marines psyched themselves up before combat began. They'd watch war movies... and to them, any movie was a "pro-war" movie, including stuff like Apocalypse Now and ... well, I forget his other examples.

But it seems like something to keep in mind, when thinking about the existence or efficacy of "pro-war" literature... to a certain group of people, anything that's concerned with war is Pro-war, no matter what the author(s) intended...

And of course, it's clear that Jarhead's author, Anthony Swofford, has this completely ambivalent view about the Marines. It's really interesting to read some of the interviews he gave in the run up to this war. Ultimately, I took his book to be roughly anti-war (though pro-soldier) -- but I think, I have a cousin at West Point who's also read the book, and I haven't talked to him about it, but I imagine he has a completely different take on it (as with many things) than I do.

So I'm back to the same point...

Russell Arben Fox

Surely "Starship Troopers" qualifies. Does it present war "as straightforwardly and uncomplicatedly, inherently desirable"? Not in so many words, no; war is, as Heinlein's characters present it, an evolutionary and historical necessity, not necessarily something to be actively cultivated and sought. Nonetheless, the whole tone and structure of the novel, pushing the rightness of conflict and the inherent civic and moral superiority of the warrior mindset--with its death-dealing, harsh punishments, etc.--makes it hard to avoid thinking that war is a good thing (assuming it's done right).

Lawrence White

Attack of the theory troll:

"Part of you loves war, part of you hates it."

Has any critical genre other than psychoanalysis made a direct study of ambivalence?

Even if we don't like the answers psychoanalysis provides, can it be given credit for asking good questions?

Doctor Memory

Gene Wolfe's "Soldier" novels come to mind as a possible (if supremely Wolfeianly slippery) example...

Matt Weiner

Kleiman specifically ruled out Starship Troopers; I think he's just got the wrong idea about what MLA members are embarrassed to be seen with. I suspect he'd want to rule out all SF short of Lessing, so Wolfe would go too. He really means some notion of "literary" that may be more or less clear even if we can't define it, and don't think it = quality. (But I bet Kipling is out, too.)

I think Watership Down may flunk the "literary" test, and if it doesn't, it definitely flunks the "war not involving talking rabbits" test. Also, Hazel et al. are relatively peaceful--there's an unambiguous depiction of the war as a product of Woundwort's unnecessary aggression (in the scene of the parley before the big battle).

(For my positive thoughts, check the trackback.)


I haven't read it, but I'd always heard that "Starship Troopers" was satirical.


Hm, well, dang. One more thing, and I will desist after this, here is a kinda interesting discussion on that radio program "Odyssey," about "War and Literature" (October 23, 2002). They slice the thing into before, during, and after, categories of war-literature, and there is some discussion of British women writers as polemicists for engaging the Nazis, what the significance of this is, and how these folks have been viewed critically. Not the same thing, I realize, as abstract encomium to war per se, per that Conan line, but maybe something in the ballpark of the "pro-war" novel.

Doctor Memory

Thom: "Starship Troopers" the book was in no way satirical Heinlein meant every last scary word, and was not shy about saying so in print.

Paul Verhoevan has at times claimed that his movie of Starship Troopers was meant as a deliberate satire and/or subversion of the book, which sounds like a plausible explanation for how crappy it was until you wake up and remember that he also made "Showgirls" and "Hollow Man".


Well Starship Troopers is explicitly structured as an extended infomercial, right? (You get these breaks in the movie, where this voice asks, "do you want to see more?", that are just like the commercials that the characters watch on their 'tvs'). I didn't notice this until I'd seen it two or three times... but given that fact, it seems a little more likely (to me) that Verhoeven was explictly goinng for the Satire-angle.

You're still right though: he is a crappy director.


I think Kenneth Roberts' Revolutionary War novels---Arundel, Rabble in Arms---count as pro-war novels, if pro-war means only pro that particular war, and only pro in the sense of meaning the war was worth the fight.

James Fenimore Cooper took it as a given that the Revolution as he depicted it in The Spy and Red Rover was worth fighting.

Michael Shaara's The Killer Angels takes the same view of the Civil War, although he is more explicit about the horror of war. But I have the sense that his son's follow ups are much more celebratory of war, but I've only read Gods and Generals. That book does seem to forgive the Confederate generals for being on the wrong side because they are such brave warriors.

I think Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe novels and Patrick O'Brien's Aubrey/Maturin stories are pro-war. Sharpe is saved as man and a human being by war and Cornwell seems to take it for granted that we'll take it for granted that one of the qualities that makes Sharpe admirable is his skill as a killer.

Stephen Maturin broods about the costs of war and Jack Aubrey mourns the loss of the men under his command and even the enemy's deaths, but both men are thrilled by the fight and most alive while in battle. In fact, Aubrey is presented as a buffoon and a screw up and even something of a knave when he is on land and out of the fight.

I think one of the effects of reading both sets of books is the feeling that a man is at his best when he's in the middle of a fight for his life.

I have to admit that, while the literary character I'd most like to be is Nero Wolfe's right hand man Archie Goodwin, Jack Aubrey runs a close second...that is on days when I don't wish I was Sherlock Holmes.

Dave Reilly

Somehow my blogging alias got onto that last post. Lance Mannion is the name of my webpage. My name is Dave.

Just to make this comment more of a follow up than a correction:

Neither Cornwell nor O'Brien ever raises any questions about the rightness of their heroes' wars. Nor do they make any case for them. They are just backgrounds. So war itself is the issue, and as I said above, being warriors and killers is what makes those characters admirable.

But maybe to British readers the righteousness of the wars against Napoleon is as much a given as is the righteousness of the Revolution is for us.


"Time only strengthens my conviction that it was a good and strenuous life, and that the war, for all its destructiveness, was an incomparable schooling of the heart. The front-line soldier whose foot came down on the earth so grimly and harshly may claim this at least, that it came down cleanly." -- Ernst Jünger, from the preface to the English edition of The Storm of Steel.

Ah, Jünger. For when Jerry Pournelle just isn't enough.

Robert McDougall

Part of the ethos of the time O'Brian evokes is no one needs any damned righteousness in a war to fight it for King and Country. Likewise in Walter Scott's novels, genuine in-period artifacts (though he's equally willing to let his characters fight for race or religion).

Though neither novels nor probably MLA-approved, "Hearts of Oak", Macaulay's "Horatius", and the Battle Hymn of the Republic are all post-1700. Grant's Memoirs are allowed some literary merit and show no discomfort with the military profession; I guess there are many more such known to specialists.

Re "good quality pro-war matter pre-1700": I recently finished reading with my son James Knowles for-children version of le Morte d'Arthur. Rich in passages like "They therefore setting fiercely on the enemy slew them on the right hand and the left till it was wonderful to see the slaughter."

Full scale warfare is relatively rare in the Norse sagas but there are plently of enthusiastic descriptions of fighting. In Njal's Saga for example (which some claim is subtly anti-violence or at least anti-vendetta), the description of the killing of Thrain Sigfusson by the Njalssons is particularly admired.

Lawrence White

Gertrude Stein allowed Grant's memoirs plenty of literary merit. I would, too, though I found his lack of remorse, or even an acknowledgement of the carnage he had ordered, remarkable. He refers disapprovingly to several small encounters as "desultory." It took me a while to catch on to the problem: some days his men just didn't feel like killing & dying, and would not engage.


Man, that Conan quote keeps coming back after almost 20 years... I think it's one of your fundamental texts!


Absolute, my loafy friend. But, in my defense, it's become a common point of cultural reference in the meantime. I just did a quick google for "lamentations of their women" and came up with 3530 hits.


As a common point of cultural reference, it predates Stone and Milius and has been attributed both to the Mongol Horde and to the Good Book:
"Quick Quiz (R. Conan?)", http://lair.xent.com/pipermail/fork/2003-May/020627.html


And here I'd always thought the most important Conan quote had to do w/ filling people w/ a foot of cold steel. Maybe that was only in the comics, though. But give me a good book drawn by Barry Windsor-smith any day.

Marcus Stanley

Verhoeven's "Starship Troopers" movie was clearly and obviously a satire, and quite a good one too. An excellent movie -- I've always had a hard time understanding why sci-fi fans dumped on it. I think the explanation is that it did not permit them to enjoy the full-on quasi-facist idiocy of the book in peace.

Marcus Stanley

Sorry -- should have turned down the snark meter on that one.

Doctor Memory

Marcus: I'll allow that the movie was clearly unconcerned with the book's intent, but irreverance and some flashy hypertext-y graphics do not, in my mind, add up to a successful satire.

Which is a pity, because if ever there were a book in need of some needlepoint deflating, Starship Troopers would be it.


Doc -- the satire was in the plot and characterizations as well. The cheerful young uber-mensch quality of the main characters as they gradually got more and more of their limbs blown off, etc. But above all the gradual morphing of the human military to become more and more like the insectile society they were fighting.


I've had the debate about whether Starship Troopers (the movie) is deliberately satirical with my friends. It makes me wonder: does the question of whether a work of art is pro-war also depend on how its audience receives it?

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