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Generals Die Essay

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What do we tell the children? With the world events of last fall, everyone who lives or works with young people had to face that question. What do we tell them about war, justice, vengeance, the “enemy”? What do we tell them when we don’t even know what to think ourselves? I’ve always naively assumed that in the past this dilemma was easier. I’ve assumed that parents in 1914, for example, could talk to their children with some confidence about the neccessity of war for a just cause. But a recent Annick young adult novel has made me question that assumption.

Generals Die in Bed by Charles Yale Harrison, a novel of the Great War, was first published in 1930. It is a first-person narrative by an unnamed 18-year-old Canadian soldier about his war experiences from the time he leaves Montreal to the battle of Amiens, after which he is sent home. Harrison’s portrait of life in the trenches is unrelievedly horrible – rats, lice, blood, disease, decaying bodies. We have encountered some of this material in novels by other young adult writers, in Kevin Major’s No Man’s Land and in the memory/dream sequences in Michael Bedard’s Redwork.

What distinguishes Harrison’s novel, however, is its absolute disillusionment and cynicism. One by one he takes all notions of war’s nobility or even utility and systematically undermines them. Against the idea of vanquishing the enemy, he has soldiers saying, “We have learned who our enemies are – the lice, some of our officers, and Death.” Against the idea of war’s comradeship, he creates a scene in which soldiers fight each other over a crust of bread. Against the idea of military discipline, we see Canadian soldiers looting an unoccupied French village, breaking into churches, stealing food, vandalizing, destroying artworks, and finally setting fire to the houses. Far from making men out of boys, war in this narrative takes decent humans and brutalizes them. Even the science and strategy of warfare turns out to be a sham, when men...

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