Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Quartered Safe Out Here by George Macdonald Fraser

From The Week of October 31, 2011

War is so costly a weapon, in lives and coin, that it must only be used when all else has failed. For war is an insidious crime that runs longer and cuts deeper than its instigators ever imagine, scarring the world with its pain and ugliness. But even though we all, to some extent, understand these truths, war persists because acuteness of its cruelty fades with time, allowing populations to forget its harsh lessons. This is why we read war memoirs, to remind us of what has come and gone and of those who suffered in the embrace of that most destructive of human inventions. Unfortunately, in every way, Quartered Safe Out Here is incapable of teaching us anything.

Mr. Fraser, a British author and screenwriter, here, reflects upon his time in the British infantry during the second world war. Stationed in Burma, he vividly details the unromantic side of war: the suffocating conditions, the endless marches, the chaotic battles and the blessings of fortune which distinguish the living from the dead. Contesting the British forces in this inhospitable land are the soldiers of the Japanese Imperial Army who, in their dogged determination and their suicidal bravery, earn both Fraser's grudging respect and his burning enmity. For many of their deadly traps and their bullets have found the flesh of his friends, striking them down far away from home, in a theatre of battle halfway forgotten by a world seemingly exclusively focused on the dramatic collapse of the third Reich. Even while Germany is surrendering and Paris is being liberated, the war grinds on in the east until, with some relish, Fraser observes the capitulation of the Japanese after their homeland becomes the first in the history of humanity to be devastated by nuclear weapons.

Though Quartered Safe Out Here harbors some wisdom regarding the everyday deprivations confronted by soldiers fighting far from home, it is, in every other respect, a contemptible memoir. Published some 50 years after the events it describes, it is full of long and detailed conversations between the author and his fellow infantrymen. Everything from politics to the age-old complaints of soldiering are covered in discussions which the author appears to remember with exquisite clarity even though he had no way of recording them for posterity. His unwillingness to so much as caution the reader on the authenticity of these conversations drains his account of credibility.

Worse, though, is Mr. Fraser's unwillingness to bestow even a gram of validity upon any viewpoint but his own. Not only is he dismissive of those who were critical of the United States' use of nuclear weapons -- would they have rather hundreds of thousands of western soldiers die taking Japan? --, he exposes himself as a hopeless fossil by decrying the extent to which the modern culture is in touch with its feelings. Soldiers of Mr. Fraser's day complained, sure, but they didn't need to see psychiatrists. They did not suffer from PTSD. They did their jobs because these were the tasks before them, the routines assigned to them. They did not blubber like babies; they accomplished their goals. They were real men, living in a better time. Such boastful blather not only ignores the heavier, psychological burden placed upon the modern soldier who, more often than not, is fighting an unconventional war, it assumes that 50 years of advancements in the understanding of the human mind is nothing more than an attempt to weaken man's indomitable spirit. This is backward-thinking nonsense from someone clearly incapable of adapting with changing times.

Some engaging moments centering on the poignancy of war, but has very little else to recommend it. A thorough disappointment from a narrow mind... (1/5 Stars)

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