|Oct/Nov 2006 Book Reviews|
Generals Die in Bed
Charles Yale Harrison
Annick Press (2002)
Most people are familiar with two of the major literary works to come out of World War I: All Quiet on the Western Front and Goodbye To All That. They have rightfully been lauded as books that share the war experience, and particularly that specific war experience, in a most intimate and direct manner. Generals Die in Bed by Charles Yale Harrison is a lesser known work today, but when it was published in 1930, John Dos Passos wrote that it "has a sort of flat-footed straightness about it that gets down the torture of the front line about as accurately as one can ever get it." And the New York Evening Post called it "the best of the war books." Harrison's novel, based on his own service as a member of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, is graphic, intense, and most amazing of all, very powerfully anti-war while not being overtly political. In a world where party affiliation alone can brand you as a patriot or traitor, it is both refreshing and remarkable to read about a time when war was plainly hell, and the men who recklessly waged it, for whatever side or country, were the enemy. Harrison did something remarkable sixty years ago with Generals, and Annick Press has brought back a true classic by republishing it now, when it is so desperately needed.
The book begins with raw recruits in Montreal, a collection of all ages and backgrounds who are bonded together by nothing more than sleeping in the same barracks. Quickly enough, Harrison sends his unnamed narrator and his fellow soldiers over to France, where the true horrors of war immediately become apparent. It's not all blazing bullets however, as the author makes clear early on: "We are supposed to be resting," writes Harrison, "but rest is impossible; we are being eaten alive by lice. We cannot sleep for them. We sit and talk, and dig feverishly in our chests, under our arms, between our legs. Our rambling conversation is interrupted by sharp little cracks as we crush the vermin between our thumbnails. A tiny drop of blood spurts in one's face as they are crushed."
So much for tales of honor and bravery.
It is the nightmare of filth and discomfort interrupted by periods of mad fear when the men attempt an attack "over-the-top" that permeates Harrison's book. "It is months since we have been out of clothes. We talk of the last time we slept between sheets. A flood of reminiscences begins. Brown forgets his hatred for Clark for the moment and rhapsodizes over his last night in a real bed." This cynicism is not uncommon in war books, but WWI is so distant for modern readers that to be reminded again how the smallest difficulties made life unbearable for the soldiers is a small revelation. It is also no small surprise to see that heroes do not live with awesome regularity on the frontlines--that men do not rise to the occasion just because it makes a good soundbite.
Camaraderie--esprit de corps--good fellowship--these are words for journalists to use, not for us. Here in the line they do not exist.
We fight among ourselves.
The morning rations come up. The food is spread out on the rubber sheet and we start to divide it among ourselves. Bread, the most coveted of all the food, is the bone of contention today. Cleary is sharing it out.
Broadbent suspects that his piece is smaller than the rest.
An oath is spat out.
In a moment they are at each other's throats like hungry, snarling animals.
It is this resolute determination to show how war degrades the humanity of all those caught up in its path that sets Generals Die in Bed apart from other war fiction. There are battle scenes within it--scenes of bombardment and destruction both within and beyond the trenches--but Harrison's voice is most overwhelming when he writes not of the attacks and scrambling defenses, but of the quiet aftermaths. "What is so terrible about the death of one of these boys," wonders the narrator, "about the death of one of us? I guess it is because we do not want to die--because we hang on so pitifully to life as it slips away. Our lives are stolen--taken from us unawares."
There are also sections of the book that could only occur during WWI--passages that show how soldiers were casually sent backwards and forwards from the trenches in France, spending weeks trying to survive and then miraculously finding themselves on leave in a quiet village or even London itself, where the war seems much more of a distant affair then it really is. At one point the narrator finds himself with a friendly woman, someone with whom he enters into a brief and meaningless relationship that both of them know exists only because of the war, although neither wastes time talking about it. He does manage to shock her once though:
"…Did I ever tell you that I committed murder?" [he asks]
She looks up with a jerk. Her eyes look at me with suspicion.
"It was some time ago. I came into a place where an enemy of mine was and I stabbed him and ran off," I explain.
Her eyes are wide open. She is horrified. She does not speak.
I laugh and relate that the murder took place in a trench and that my enemy wore a pot-shaped helmet.
Her face glows with a smile.
"You silly boy. I thought you had really murdered someone."
Harrison ends the conversation between them there because he clearly made his point. How can a killing be so different if it occurs on a street corner as opposed to a battlefield, the author is asking. And do we really live with ourselves more easily if the deaths are sanctioned by presidents and governments? Do we really believe that killing for country is worthier than killing for fear or revenge?
Do any of us ask such questions anymore?
Ultimately for Harrison's narrator, the war comes down to one attack in Amiens, one frenzy of killing that is fueled by a poignant pre-attack story from a general who tells his men that while the war may be about conquering the enemy, this battle is about fellow soldiers who were killed in a most cowardly and devastating manner. The men respond as they will, with vengeance on their minds and in their actions. There are no courtly rules of war in what they do as they face an enemy they are now convinced cannot be human; could not ever be human.
They are the only ones left who care about humanity.
Harrison lets his characters act as they will in this situation; he lets them be men in the most extreme of rage-fueled circumstance. And then, in the final pages, he shows what their actions cost them personally, how impossible it will be for them to ever be the men they were in Montreal, or even the men they were London. The final truth the narrator learns is heartbreaking and beyond all reason, but in our world, in the 21st century, it does not carry the heavy layer of shock that it most certainly did more than 70 years ago. We expect to be disappointed; we know that is the only guarantee that war brings us. When Charles Yale Harrison went to France, clearly he still felt the stirrings of a higher purpose. He came from a time when you had to see the lies up close to really know them; you had to become part of the lie before you could begin to believe that it ever existed.
There are several classic books that came out of WWI, and high school students everywhere have learned to either love or hate them. Generals Die in Bed somehow became overlooked in the decades after it was published, and I am delighted that Annick Press has decided to rectify this oversight. It's easy to write a heroic book about war, that's the book most readers want, but it's never easy to write an honest one. Charles Yale Harrison knew war on the most intimate of levels, and he cared enough about truth to write down what he saw and felt and knew. I'm sure he had no idea how valuable his words could become to readers a century later or how much all of us would still need to learn from what he saw in France in the war we have all long forgotten.