Men at Arms (Waugh)

BayouHuguenot

Puritanboard Clerk
Waugh, Evelyn. Men at Arms. New York: Penguin Books, 1952.

“And every one that was in distress, and every one that was in debt, and every one that was discontented, gathered themselves unto him; and he became a captain over them: and there were with him about four hundred men.”
~1 Sam. 22:2

That is a noble verse. It expresses the true character of a military band. It is probably a verse our protagonist, Guy Crouchback, had in mind. It never applied to him, sadly. Our hero is your typical modern man, but with High Church and traditional sentiments. Having been divorced eight years earlier (a fact complicated by his, though not his wife’s, Roman Catholicism, he is wasting his days in Italy, looking for meaning in life.

Not surprisingly, he jumped at the chance to go to war in 1939. Although given the threat posed by Nazi Germany, Britain’s need for soldiers doesn’t immediately extend to Crouchback. He does find a place in a reserve unit, even having some minor command.

How to describe this book? The war isn’t the main element. Imagine Full Metal Jacket without R. Lee Ermy. The first book in this trilogy is a transition from civilian life to military life. There isn’t any one great, climactic scene to capture the book (aside from the theatrics at the very end). However, it does shed some light on British moral and cultural life in the mid-20th century. Some highlights:

On socialists: “The socialists have been crying blue murder against the Nazis for five years but they are all pacifists at heart. So far as they have any feeling of patriotism it’s for [the Soviet Union]” (Waugh 25)

Crouchback’s meeting with his ex-wife raises a thorny moral dilemma. Given that he is a Roman Catholic and that divorce isn’t permissible, he sees himself as still married, if estranged, from his wife. She, of course, sees no such thing. I won’t describe the moral dilemma but it is a good test case in ethics.

Conclusion

Evelyn Waugh was a master prose writer and the book deserves to be read if only for that. It doesn’t have any of the brutal hilarity of his other works, but it does have a graceful, elegant style.
 
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