This morning, beyond the solid grey cloudy sky I heard F16 fighters flying by over and over again. They were celebrating 100 years of the Armistice de Versailles that ended the First World War back in 1918. Wikipedia says that over 9 million combatants and 7 million civilians perished in that conflict – numbers unheard of in the entire History of Mankind but soon to be toppled by the events of the 1940’s. Man seems to have a cunning ability to top his records for the best and the worst. War is a terrible thing and Mankind is now able to destroy and wound with a force unimaginable in the past. My country, Portugal, gladly, has been at peace for over 40 years and hasn’t been invaded since the devastating Napoleonic Wars 200 years ago. But it has suffered a brutal Colonial War in the 60s and early 70s and was present in the bloodthirsty trenches of the Great War. Memories of that are not good, as you might imagine.
As it turns out, just yesterday I finished reading one more of the excellent books by Alexander Kent (Douglas Reeman) about the life of Royal Navy Captain Richard Bolitho, who inspired me to create my hero Byllard Iddo of THE DARK SEA WAR CHRONICLES. The book I finished was WITH ALL DESPATCH and goes on in 1792, as France declares war on Britain. Even though this book has a plot that’s a little more confusing than most of Kent’s books, the last sea battle is absolutely thrilling and superbly written. It is brutal, nerve-wracking and bloody. As a battle should be.
Why does this fascinate us so? Why are we drawn to war stories, both real and made up? In all my Scifi/Fantasy novels – THE ALEX 9 SAGA, THE DARK SEA WAR CHRONICLES and the upcoming LAURA AND THE SHADOW KING, I write about war and describe cruel battles and agonizing deaths. Is it me? Do I have a morbid streak? Of course not. These and many other works are read by millions. Scifi/Fantasy, including all kinds of war fiction, seems to be, in fact, the most read genre of all.
Freud spoke of two Pulsions that move Human Beings: Eros, the Pulsion of Life; and Tanatos, the Pulsion of Death. Psychologists no longer accept the pure concepts of Pulsions, but the ideas are nevertheless interesting and explain much of the fascination we have for certain themes. In one way or another the whole Path of Life, the whole Human Drama is one about Life and Death. We’re always pining between the two. The Pulsion of Life also stands for Love, Sex, Creation and Creativity, Production, Music, Light, Joy, Heat, Future, and many other things we could imagine. The Pulsion of Death stands for Hate, Sterility, Destruction, Silence, Darkness, Cold, Past and many other things. So in one way or another, it’s as if we’re fighting between Life and Death every single day of our lives. Between Love and Hate, between Creation and Destruction, between Light and Darkness. Every single time we cross a street or argue with our spouses or bosses we are in this fight – standing against the inevitable Big Silence at the end. And war, in a way, is the summit of this struggle. It is the dreaded event that puts everything in the balance. And as I read the description of a Royal Navy lieutenant that stands by the helm of his ship inspiring his men as he is mortally wounded, there is something beautiful and fascinating in the gesture. Something deeply Human, noble and inspiring to me as well.
In 1998 I was in Sarajevo for a couple of weeks. It had passed three years since the Siege and the horrible civil war (and a few days later Bill Clinton would bomb Belgrade over Kosovo). The city had been torn apart by the war, as you may know. There is a river going through Sarajevo, the Miljacka river, crossed by several bridges. During the war, every single person who crossed those bridges would most likely be a target for snipers and the likes. And children could only play in the streets when there was a mist. By the time I got there, every single wall was still scarred by bullet holes, and some buildings still had UN plastic standing in for the broken windows. When I asked my fellow Bosnian writers about the war they advised me to read Paul Auster’s IN THE COUNTRY OF LAST THINGS. They said that was how it was like in Bosnia during the war. I read the book when I returned and it was a terrifying and devastating experience.
It seems that war, real war, has nothing noble about it. The glorification we see systematically in war stories and fiction all around is nothing but an ignorant flare trying to imagine the best in people, the heroism that we seek to bring back into our ordinary lives in the guise of petty decisions that worry us so much more than they actually should. Or maybe there’s something more. There is some kind of morality at the end of this rainbow. Some kind of nobility that might escape us at first sight.
Historian Donald Kagan studied war for years. In his book ON THE ORIGINS OF WAR AND THE PRESERVATION OF PEACE, he writes about Thucydides’ take on the origins of war: people go to war, it seems, for three reasons only – fear, honor and interest. One goes to war for fear of losing his life, his country, his way of life, etc. One goes to war for interest, to get land, or resources, or power, etc. And one goes to war to defend one’s honor. Honor? Why would people go to war for something so ethereal and so vague as honor? Actually, it turns out that honor is not such a vague concept. It stands for the ability of a person or a nation to be respected, to be believed and trusted. If one stands for honor, one is actually standing for some core principles – some of which may be important enough to risk everything, including your life and that of your loved ones. One example given by Kagan is the Cuban-Missile Crisis. In blockading Cuba and sending its Navy to stop the Soviet ships, the USA drew a line in the water. In theory, the US Navy could have let the Soviet ships pass if they tried to cross. Nothing immediate would have come of it. But if they had done that the US would have lost face, lost honor. And they would not be respected again. Abuse would have spawned for certain from foes all around the world. Honor means something. It means something because Respect means something and our Rights mean something.
My favorite scene in CASABLANCA is the Marseillaise scene. In this scene, some German officers are singing a triumphant song about their country at Rick’s Caffé. The whole room of refugees and French nationals seem submissive and oppressed by the strong German voices, reflecting the almost invincible Nazi armies that were marching through Europe. Looking at this, the Resistance leader Viktor Lazlo turned to the orchestra and, with Rick’s consent, asked them to play the «Marseillaise», the French national anthem. As he started singing with the orchestra, the whole room seemed to come alive – soon, every living soul in that room was singing the anthem as loud as they could, with tears in their eyes, crushing the sound of the German tune. This scene is the symbol of the Resistance. The symbol of honor and respect. And it inspired millions around the world in the 1940s as they faced the Nazis and the vicious dictatorships of Italy and Japan. Even in Portugal, a country ruled by a dictator that didn’t take part in the war, this scene in the movie inspired several rebellious events.
There is nobility and gallantry and honor in war – it stands for principles that are paramount to our core beliefs and the integrity of our souls. In war as in everyday life, it is our decisions in moments of truth that mark our existence – moments like the time to vote or the time to stand against injustice. The dramatic stories of war can teach us that. And that is why I read them. And that’s why I write them. Until next time, fellow warriors.