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War—what is it good for?

July 27, 2009

In a 1940 comparatist essay on James Joyce and Henry Miller, George Orwell considers literary depictions of the Spanish war (about which Orwell himself wrote an unforgettable book) and World War I:

‘During the past ten years literature has involved itself more and more deeply in politics, with the result that there is now less room in it for the ordinary man than at any time during the past two centuries. One can see the change in the prevailing literary attitude by comparing the books written about the Spanish civil war with those written about the war of 1914-18. The immediately striking thing about the Spanish war books, at any rate those written in English, is their shocking dullness and badness. But what is more significant is that almost all of them, right-wing or left-wing, are written from a political angle, by cocksure partisans telling you what to think, whereas the books about the Great War were written by common soldiers or junior officers who did not even pretend to understand what the whole thing was about. Books like All Quiet on the Western Front, Le Feu, A Farewell to Arms, Death of a Hero, Good-bye to All That, Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, and A Subaltern on the Somme were written not by propagandists but by victims. They are saying in effect, “What the hell is all this about? God knows. All we can do is to endure.”‘

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