Sunday, September 28, 2008

Sunday Warbooks: Quartered Safe Out Here, George MacDonald Fraser

A review of Quartered Safe Out Here: Reflections On the War In Burma, by George MacDonald Fraser.

You may talk o' gin an' beer
When you're quartered safe out 'ere,
An' you're sent to penny-fights an' Aldershot it;
But if it comes to slaughter
You will do your work on water,
An' you'll lick the bloomin' boots of 'im that's got it.
--- Rudyard Kipling, "Gunga Din"

I have loved the Flashman series --- a collection of baudy, outrageous, but historically accurate novels of Victorian military history, featuring the eponymous anti-hero Harry Flashman --- for over 15 years. Here, the author of that much-lauded series gives his personal and true account, from the ground level, of the WWII campaign in Burma with his beloved Nine Section.

This war memoir is fascinating for two reasons. First, reading this, it became clear to me that Fraser is, for all intents and purposes, Flashman himself: the broad racial delineations, the bald admiration for famous generals, the unabashed Imperialist fervor mixed with rational analysis of battle, even the fear of waiting before battle and the mad adrenaline rush afterwards. It strikes me that Flashy isn't so much a fictional construction as Fraser himself, made a bit more cowardly, and set in the Victorian era. For Fraser is, for better or worse, one of the last of the old unreconstructed crotchety men of the empire: the book is vehemently non-PC.

Fraser admits that he still feels hatred for the Japs (as he calls the enemy), even preferring not to sit by them in public places today. The ‘40s propaganda image of the Jap as “an evil, misshapen, buck-toothed barbarian who looked and behaved like something sub-Stone Age” is Fraser’s image of them to a T. (Which might say something about his abilities to assess things rationally, since by his own admission civilized lights mustn’t shine much in war, or you’ll lose; and his section committed what would be called war crimes today; obviously, both sides harbored the same kind of racist illusions, but Fraser can’t see that).

He bemoans many other facets of modern mores as well (condemning, for example, "counseling" and "war guilt," indicating those weaknesses, as he sees them, are creations of a non-military public and media). But the main thrust of the book, and why it will be fascinating to readers who are not familiar with Flashman, is the sometimes funny, sometimes appalling, obviously soul- changing experience that was war. It’s a superb war memoir, peppered with odd characters and vivid battle scenes, and a very important record of what the average foot-soldier must have felt at the time. It begins with him "smelling Jap" in the jungles of Burma and ends with one of the most honest yet brutal proclamations on the ethics of dropping the atomic bomb that I have ever read. Fraser writes with the flair of the seasoned novelist, even if his use of North British dialect in dialogue probably scares off American readers. It shouldn't.


Sunday Warbooks casualty count:

Greco-Persian wars: 1
WWI: 1
Vietnam: 1
Iraq wars: 2

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