Sword of Honour Re-examined

The current issue of the literary magazine Raritan Quarterly (Winter 2020, v. 39, #3) includes an article by Andrew J Bacevich about Waugh’s war trilogy. This is entitled “My Guy”, giving some indication that Bacevich finds himself in agreement with Waugh’s (and Guy Crouchback’s) views of the conduct and results of WWII. Bacevich is a graduate of West Point, retired army officer and Professor Emeritus of International Relations and History at Boston University. He is noted for his outspoken criticism of the second Iraq War, which may explain to some extent his identification with Evelyn Waugh’s position on WWII as reflected in his trilogy.

In the absence of an abstract of the article, here is an excerpt from the opening paragraphs in which Bacevich explains what he sets out to do:

The first volume of Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy appeared in 1952 and the last in 1961. In the United States, this was the Eisenhower decade, a moment defined by three seemingly unimpeachable convictions: first, that the recently concluded Second World War had been a righteous struggle pitting good against evil; second, that the ongoing Cold War was a replay of the conflict that had ended in 1945 in decisive victory; and third, that God had remained throughout firmly on our side. Eisenhower endorsed all three of these propositions. So too did the great majority of his fellow citizens. Or at least they pretended to, aware that overt dissent could be perilous. […]

Today, several decades after they first appeared, Men at Arms (1952), Officers and. Gentlemen (1955), and The End of the Battle (1961) retain their place among the very best novels of World War II. They are vividly written, savagely funny, and teeming with the sublimely absurd characters that are a trademark of Waugh’s fiction. Yet underlying the comedy is serious purpose. The trilogy is above all a sober reflection on cultural and civilizational decline, which, in Waugh’s view, the conflict soon to be enshrined as the Good War had served to accelerate.

In an act of anticipatory demolition, Sword of Honour takes aim at the yet-to-be-fully-promulgated Good War/Greatest Generation myth and proceeds to dismantle it. For Waugh, the war that Europeans date from 1939 does not qualify as good, in considerable part because Great Britain chose to wage it by following a morally disreputable course. Nor does he deem those who fought or endured the war particularly great. They are merely human: flawed, frivolous, and mostly preoccupied with minimizing the annoyances and discomfort that number among war’s byproducts.

The article is available on academic subscription services EBSCOhost Web and ProQuest..

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