I discovered somehow or other that there have been a number of French graphic novels in recent years dealing with World War One, and I was immediately curious to get a look at some, because I'm curious about how the Great War is views by those in the countries that fought in it a hundred years on. (Despite the heavy bloodletting of 1917-1918, the US almost doesn't count as there's virtually no cultural memory of the first world war here, our stories are all about the second.)
The only ones I found which were available in the US was Jacques Tardi's It Was the War of the Trenches and its sequel of sorts (it's about the same subject matter, though not the same characters) Goddamn This War!.
Interlibrary loan was my friend, and I got hold of copies of both, of which I've now finished It Was the War of the Trenches. I'm not usually a reader of graphic novels, and usually I find myself flipping pages fast. I found myself probably reading this one more slowly than if it had been the same vignettes told in text, because Tardi has definitely done a huge amount of research and so for someone interested in the period there's a huge amount of detail to look for in each panel.
Unfortunately, the writing is, by intention I think, very much one note, and the story suffers as a result. Tardi writes in his introduction, "There are no 'heroes,' there is no 'protagonist' in this awful collective 'adventure' that is war. Nothing but a gigantic anonymous scream of agony."
You can write an engaging story in which there is no "hero" in the sense of a good and admirable character, but it's very hard to write a story in which there are no protagonists, no characters about whom we care. And this is the problem here. Tardi provides one gigantic scream of agony, but the result is a portrayal so fragmented, so partial that we no longer see the participants as people, only as sufferers. They are suffering because stupid and unseen commanders send them into hopeless attacks, they are suffering because those around them are stupid, they are suffering because the anonymous Germans on the other side relentlessly kill characters in order to express the futility of it all.
Tardi says in his introduction that he is only writing about French characters because he knows France, he has not intention to seem nationalist. And yet, there is a sense in which the narrative he puts forward begins to seem nationalist because his characters only suffer, they seldom act in any way that would hurt the opposing side. So while we see many French characters killed by German snipers and machine gunners who are either unseen or seen only as helmeted silhouettes, we only once in the book seek a French soldier kill a German soldier (or even shoot at one) "on screen". By contrast, we see five French soldiers shot by firing squad, one French soldier shot by his comrades while he's wounded on the barbed wire (because they're tired of hearing his moans), two French gendarmes killed by a French soldier, and one French soldier kill himself.
We get a very good sense of how 1.4 million Frenchmen died in combat during the war, but it's utterly mystifying how more than a million Germans died on the Western Front. The reason is not some sort of anti-German feeling, nor any pro-French sentiment (the characters are equal opportunity misanthropes), but rather that Tardi is so busy seeing his characters as victims -- of the officers, of the mud, of the enemy, of 'this goddamned war' -- that he fails to account for the fact that France's soldiers in the Great War (like those on all sides) were actors as well as victims. They were not just killed, they killed in their turn.
The sources of suffering here are always other: the artillery pounding in from above, the stupid officers who execute men for imaginary crimes, the faceless enemy who shoot soldiers as they try to slink to the listening post that the heartless officers have assigned them to. But by othering all the causes of suffering, the story in a sense takes an easy turn. There is perhaps no clearer example of this in the book than the prevalence of executions. We see five soldiers shot by firing squad -- which is a high number given that out of the 1.4 million French soldiers who died violently in the great war only 600 were executed (including both men killed perhaps unjustly for cowardice and those punished for normal crimes such as murder or rape committed while in uniform.) Thus, this short book with its score of characters chronicles almost 1% of the number of total executions carried out during four and a half years in an army of 8,317,000 men.
The French executed more of their own men than any other nation in the Great War (the British were second with 300, while the Germans were comparatively sparing in and shot only 18), and it is not hard to see that many of these cases must have been unjust. Tardi, however, wants to make sure we don't miss the point, so in the first vignette we see a soldier from Corsica who doesn't speak any French being executed because he hadn't obeyed an order he didn't understand. I suppose something like that could have happened, though I kind of wonder how a soldier who didn't speak the language of his offices even got that far, but by picking such an extreme example the story in a sense takes an easy way out.
Third Republic France had its problems, but it was arguably the most democratic and the most egalitarian nation involved in the Great War. It was also fighting against invaders on its own soil, with parts of France occupied throughout the war. To my mind, the hard question here, the question which would produce real drama instead of easy pathos in a story, is: What is it that drove this democratic society to believe that its citizens army could only defend its own homeland under the threat of the firing squad? What is the desperation which leads people to execute their own for cowardice? Don't tell the easy story about how stupid and heartless officers execute a completely innocent man, tell the hard story about how officers who would normally be horrified by this kind of cold violence feel that they need to go through with a execution for cowardice because the very existence of their country is at the breaking point. The easy story makes you think "of course, any reasonable person is with the victims", the hard story makes you think, "perhaps I would have been with the ones who did this."
One of the reasons for the wide cast of characters and the gradual introduction of all of them in The Great War, a novel is that I want to avoid that trap of writing only about victims facing impersonal sources of suffering -- I want to show how real people came to do the things that happened on all sides of the war.
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