Monday, November 5, 2012

An old man remembers the war

I don't know why George MacDonald Fraser waited until 2007 to publish his memoir of his experiences as a young British soldier in Burma toward the end of World War II, Quartered Safe Out Here. He was probably much too busy writing his Flashman novels and other books. But if the passage of more than half a century made his memory a bit foggy about some of the details, it did give him the advantage of perspective, and many of the best passages in the book were made possible by the perspective of an old man in the 21st century looking back at what it was like being a soldier in the 1940s.

There is, for example, his commentary on what British soldiers were fighting for and what they weren't fighting for: "They did not fight for a Britain that would be dishonestly railroaded into Europe against the people's will; they did not fight for a Britain where successive governments, by their weakness and folly, would encourage crime and violence on an unprecedented scale ...

"No, that is not what they fought for - but being realists they accept what they cannot alter, and reserve their protests for the noise pollution of modern music in their pubs."

Later he writes about the morality of dropping A-bombs on two Japanese cities to end the war, a question, he says, that never occurred to soldiers in the field. He considers the possibility that he could have been one of the many Allied soldiers who would certainly have been killed if those bombs hadn't been dropped and the fact that, in that case, his children and grandchildren would never have been born. "And that," he writes, "I'm afraid, is where all discussion of pros and cons evaporates and becomes meaningless, because for those nine lives I would pull the plug on the whole Japanese nation and never even blink. And so, I dare suggest, would you. And if you wouldn't you may be nearer to the divine than I am but you sure as hell aren't fit to be parents or grandparents."

In truth, Fraser really didn't see that much action in the war. The major battles happened elsewhere. Yet his memoir, due to his writing skill and a lifetime of thinking about those events, make it excellent reading.

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