"An eminently readable comedy of modern war" (New York Times), Men at Arms is the first novel in Evelyn Waugh's brilliant Sword of Honor trilogy. Guy Crouchback, determined to get into the war, takes a commission in the Royal Corps of Halberdiers. His spirits high, he sees all the trimmings but none of the action. And his first campaign, an abortive affair on the West African coastline, ends with an escapade that seriously blots his Halberdier copybook. Men at Arms is the first novel in Waugh's brilliant Sword of Honor trilogy recording the tumultuous wartime adventures of Guy Crouchback ("the finest work of fiction in English to emerge from World War II" --Atlantic Monthly), which also comprises Officers and Gentlemen and Unconditional Surrender.
As with Anthony Powell's World War II novels, the chief interest of this book for most readers is likely to be the account of military life in 1940 from the viewpoint of an outsider. There is only the most marginal contact with the enemy here, but a lot of fascinating observation of the oddities of the army. Even if we think Crouchback/Waugh's fogeyish disenchantment with the modern world is rather ridiculous, we can enjoy his discovery of, and growing admiration for, the traditions and values of the Halberdiers. But what we really remember from the book are the comic moments, which are superb as always with Waugh. If you mention "Apthorpe" or "thunder-box" to anyone who has read this book, you will see them breaking out in chuckles. And ultimately, the reason for re-reading Sword of honour more often than the military bit of A dance to the music of time is that Powell's books don't have a thunder-box.
I'll keep reading, though, although I suspect my motives. After all, what's a hater of war like me doing in this novel, about an intellectual and aesthete who discovers himself at his best in defending his great country and civilization? And, btw, did the great critiques of Enlightenment Rationality develop only in the countries that suffered the greatest defeats of the 20th century? Is it cheap to say that France and Germany themselves failed the Enlightenment project?
Yeah, it's cheap. And stupid. But one can't help but wonder.
Extra special bizarre moment: Crouchback, the Waugh standin, is in West Africa in WWII, and his mind brushes up against that great English Catholic novel of West Africa during WWII, The Heart of the Matter: "Later when he came to read The Heart of the Matter Guy reflected, fascinated, that at this very time 'Scobie' was close at hand, demolishing partitions in native houses, still conscientiously interfering with neutral shipping. If they had not the services of the new Catholic chaplain, Guy might have gone to 'Father Rank' to confess increasing sloth, one dismal occasion of drunkenness, and the lingering resentment he felt at the injustice he had suffered in the exploit to which he had given the private name of 'Operation Truslove'"* (322).
* His attempt, after 8 years of near sexlessness, to sleep with his ex-wife (herself married and divorced 3 times since her marriage to Guy ended) once he realizes that: a) since Catholicism doesn't recognize divorce; b) he wouldn't be committing adultery; c) and therefore it was sinless sex! Hilarious.
Or Truslove might be the silly reconnaissance mission into occupied Dakar (that is, occupied by the wrong set of Europeans so far as Guy Crouchback was concerned). Whatevers.
It follows Guy Crouchback, the nearly-forty-year-old son of an English aristocratic family who manages to get accepted to officers training in the early part of 1940, and is eventually posted to Dakar in Senegal West Africa. While there, he inadvertently poisons one of his fellow officers and is sent home in disgrace.
That’s about all the plot there is. But the book was interesting for its look at British officers’ instruction in WWII, in contrast with other reading I’ve done which focuses on the training of rank and file soldiers, and for the insight into the chaos that was the British Army in the early part of the war: “The brigade resumed its old duty of standing by for orders.”
Waugh’s wickedly dry sense of humour is brilliant.
Read this if: you’re a fan of Downton Abbey – different war, but same country and class; or you love the subtle humour of traditional British writers. 3½ stars
The dark humor of this novel, the first in Waugh's Sword of Honor trilogy, struck me as quite similar to that in M*A*S*H. The eccentricities of Guy's fellow officers, the stupidities of some aspects of military life, etc. In some ways, this is the first of Waugh's books that successfully combined his satire with his more serious thoughts about life as a Catholic Englishman.
Christian Rodska does an excellent job narrating the book. I especially liked his voice for Apthorpe.
But I found that once I did pick it up, the dry, easy tone and the accessibility of the characters propelled me through it fairly quickly and enjoyably.
I'm not quite inspired enough to read the two sequels right now, but I do recommend this book to anyone who enjoys war novels and quality writing.