Book 1: Men at Arms
This book starts off with a discussion of the localized history of a estate belonging to a wealthy English family, all of which sets the scene for the kind of historical and cultural and familial draw the role and life of the soldier has on the protagonist of this novel. Somewhere between the Sword of Damocles and Chekhov’s rifle, the titular Sword of Honour (the trilogy’s if not this novel’s name) hangs over the family providing fate, guidance, and doom.
We cut forward to Guy Crouchback…just too young for WWI and would-be too old for WWII…who decides to tempt death, if not fate, and join the soldier’s life. The opening book, then, finds Guy going through officer’s training school–being of an age and class to lead men–to joining the Royal Corps of Halbardiers, a made-up corps in the novel. As the war presses on, Crouchback finds that his age, his sense, and his intelligence make for a boring and absurd set of circumstances.
This book looks so serious, and is often in the vein of fake serious, but read absurd, writing that marks a lot of not the actual horrors of war, but the mythmaking that goes into making war palatable. In a lot of the same ways that WWI fully exposed the nonsense and nefarious mythos of war, the total and abject horror of WWII in confronting these evils, but also coming from a culture that has plenty of its own evils to account for (trust me, I know…I am American so), Crouchback finds himself more so trying to replace and hide portable toilets than proving his worth on the battlefield.
Book 2: Officers and Gentlemen
If the first book focused on the preview, staging, and early awkward, jerky movements in war, then this novel focuses on the full-on scope of battle. Guy Crouchback, aging ever more slowly, but exponentially in terms of the war is becoming more and more obsolete in battle, even if his body is hanging together, his reputation and what pressure this reputation puts on his commanders in the field keeps threatening to waylay him. In addition, he is now starting to become fatigued in the very mission itself. He still believes in his job as a soldier, but he’s less thrilled about the specific war effort. I am most reminded of a section in War and Peace where one of the most enthusiastic young commanders in one battle is improperly staged on the battlefield and is refused permission to move his troops while they’re cut to pieces by enemy cannons. While that novel focused on the collective, historical change that individual pieces contribute to, this novel almost takes the opposite. Individuals are fodder for the greater war effort, something not exactly novel to discuss, but something that becomes imminently frustrating, harrowing, and immoral as those sacrifices are not only not respected, but downright wasted. And so Guy becomes more and more disillusioned in the mission. This frustration comes in part because of his age. He is a few years older than several commanders who outrank him, and while the danger of soldiering does not seem to bother him, this specific position does. And so the wastefullness he observes becomes all the more insulting.
Book 3: Unconditional Surrender
It’s important to not that Waugh wrote at least one novel in between each of these three novels. In one of those novels, we have the paranoid rantings of something caught at see and seemingly the target of international conspiracy. And we have Waugh himself becoming older, more disillusioned in life. But also more importantly the distance from his experiences in the war and the cultural and social changes that the war brought to post-war England are becoming more and more established. These combinations of factors lead to this third “war” book that doesn’t even take place within the war theater. Now transferred back home, Guy Crouchback is in the weird position of having a desk, which he hates, but also being more approximate to his pre-war life, minus the strange location of his childhood. With his new cynical outlook on the war and with the crippling effects of the war on the landscape and population of England, Guy has a chance to look at 40, with a renewed sense of life (almost starting over) and a renewed connection to his Catholicism. It can never be discounted how truly important Catholicism is to both Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene, easily too of the most important British writers in the 20th century. And for Guy Crouchback, there’s a kind of constancy in his Catholicism absent from his Englishness. And so having already experienced the pre-staging of the war, the horrors and missteps in the early years, combat in Greece and North Africa, and having been rotated out to watch the remaining part of the war, this novel catalogs those last dangerous, if inevitable turns in the war. For the individual soldier, the proximity of victory became even more perilous at the end.