Yesterday: The Wealth of Nations Tomorrow: Essay on the Principle of Population
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Today’s post, Manly Men (and sometimes Girly Girls), is a ranking of the ten greatest war stories. For all of us who are MEN, and who are tired of reading the crap they are teaching in schools about how war is always bad and aggression is the worst possible trait, this is how we retain our penis at a healthy size. I’m serious.
With all due respect to any book that appears near the bottom of this list, these works are all classics and of supreme merit. This is my own opinion, obviously, but some of these stories are much more striking than others. Some of these I have already written posts on, and others I will write about in the coming weeks.
I must answer one question that presents itself before I start my list, namely, what is war? To me the most relevant and accurate answer to this question is the one created by 17th Century political philosophers, who called the state of war a state where every man is out for his own good, bringing him into conflict with others. What is most clear from many of these stories is how even in what purports to be a coherent army, most of the men are in dire straits and are, rather than conforming to a model of group behavior, behaving of their own accord, for better or worse. This is in fact corroborated by what I have heard first-hand in discussions with veterans, and with what is fairly routinely reported through the broadcast media.
Now, here goes:
10) War and Peace (Leo Tolstoy)
This novel, first published in 1869, is Tolstoy’s grand work detailing Russia during the Napoleonic Wars. The memorable characters, from Count Bezukhof to Andrew Bolkonski (and Nicholas Bolkonski), Denizhof and Rostov, Natasha and Princess Mary, Helena and Anatole, and Dolokhov, represent such a range of human experience as few others have sufficiently recognized in works of literary fiction. Everything is represented here from the promising, courageous hero to the pathological rake, the credulous rural fellow of modest means to the sophisticated urban prince of exorbitant wealth, the slutty home-wrecker to the naive and innocent virgin and the nunnish would-be wife who borders on old maid territory. A marvelous achievement, it lacks in brevity and to some degree in originality; even a few of its names are derived straight from The Iliad and the Trojan War.
9) Troilus and Criseyde (Geoffrey Chaucer)
This medieval legend details the fall of a young Trojan prince and hero who scoffs at the idea of love, enraging a vindictive Eros. Falling in love with the noble Criseyde, his heart is broken when she is involved in an exchange between the Achaeans and Trojans, as her father is an Achaean prisoner and has requested to have her with him. Troilus’ heartbreak, though covered with mutual vows to be forever faithful a la medieval Christian ideals, is complete when he finds his token on the Greek hero Diomedes. Challenging Achilles, he falls and is lost forever. What is war without some love?
8) The battle between Arthur and Modred in Le Morte D’Arthur (Sir Thomas Malory)
The treacherous Modred ruins Camelot in an act of betrayal that is at once both shocking and deserved. Using Queen Guinevere’s affair with Launcelot as a pretext for claiming that if Arthur can’t control his wife, he can’t control a kingdom, either, Modred himself seduces many nobles. Climaxing in a mano-y-mano match, both figures die, and the high chivalrous age and full civilization of Camelot is lost forevermore.
7) The Parting of the Red Sea (Exodus)
The Israelites have been released from servitude by the Pharaoh after Moses has worked miracles through the Judaic God, but Pharaoh is now wishing he had them back. He gives chase, attempting to recapture these unarmed fugitives. Moses calls upon God for another miracle. As the Israelites approach the Red Sea, suddenly the water parts. The Israelites cross as if on dry ground. When they reach the other side Pharaoh’s army is still in the middle, and the water collapses. Whoops.
6) The Red Badge of Courage (Stephen Crane)
Young Henry Fleming enlists in the Union army despite his family’s unease at the prospect. As the army marches towards battle, he wonders about his own courage; when the battle arrives, it falters. He wanders around in desertion for a while, realizes he is less well-off out of the army, starves, and then is guided by an unknown, unseen person to his army’s unit as they lie in camp at night. Regaining his courage, when battle resumes the next day and the standard-bearers fall, he picks up the standard and marches at the front of the column, and survives the battle.
5) The Quagmire in France in “King Henry V” (Shakespeare)
Henry V’s small army is surrounded by a much larger French force in France. A sleepless night passes as they worry about their fate and the outcome of the Hundred Years’ War. But the battle proves the superiority of the yeoman archer over the mail-clad knight, and Henry returns to England a national hero.
4) Coriolanus (Livy, Plutarch, Shakespeare)
3) The Song of Roland
2) For Whom the Bell Tolls (Ernest Hemingway)
Robert Jordan volunteers for the Communist party to render his military expertise in the Spanish Civil War. He is sent by the General Golz (sitting in his plush office) to a hillside tribe. Here he encounters the treacherous underside of revolutionary guerrilla warfare.and the peculiar idiosyncrasies of the leaders of this group. He also falls in love with a young woman who is hanging around. (Jordan becomes Hemingway’s ideal, the manly man who gets some ass when he’s expected to be in the most self-denying state possible.) Strong religious undertones (such as the names of major characters) provide this masterpiece with a philosophical bent: what is a society without a God? What happens when the State usurps that place in people’s lives? Are the Communists better people than the Fascists, or do they simply use better propaganda? When the big battle between the Communists and Fascists breaks out, maybe we will get a better picture.
1c) David and Goliath (Samuel I)
The Philistine giant Goliath is slaughtering scores of Israelites. As the next battle approaches, the Israelites are scared and do not want to take the field. The unknown shepherd David volunteers, taking with him just a few rocks and a slingshot. His victory provides the proverbial story of the shot of an underdog to shock the world.
1b) The Iliad (Homer)
1a) The Persian Expedition (Xenophon)
Okay, maybe this is REALLY a Top TWELVE list! 🙂