Vikas Datta in his weekly column Bookends analyses the Humour in the Battlefield
War and humour – no two words can seem as divergent. But some incorrigibles, adept in uniting the most incongruous elements, have fashioned out quite a close relationship, manifested in some unforgettable depictions of armed conflict and combatants, bringing out the heroism, but also the futility, barbarity, and above all, the absurdity. Joseph Heller’s celebrated black comedy “Catch 22” (also a successful film), TV series “M*A*S*H”, film “Kelly’s Heroes”, and Mort Walker’s “Beetle Bailey” comic strip are some of the most famous examples.
All the works – across various media – cited above are American but the whole genre of humour in uniform can be traced back to a Czech humourist and satirist who was a Bohemian in all senses of the word.
Jaroslav Hasek (1883-1923) is best known for his outstandingly subversive “The Good Soldier Svejk” (pronounced ‘Schweik’), an unfinished collection of farcical interludes about a Czech soldier in World War I which mercilessly satirises the ineptitude of authority figures as well as the pointlessness and futility of conflict and military discipline. Through (possibly feigned) idiocy or incompetence, Svejk is quite successful in frustrating his superiors and exposing their stupidity, but the reader never comes to know whether he is genuinely so, or acting dumb deliberately. Translated into 60 languages, the book is mentioned by Heller as a profound influence while the character gets re-used by dramatist Bertolt Brecht.
But it is the British who have excelled in uniting the genres, with a host of most captivating autobiographies of larger-than-life characters who detail their exploits with a marvellous but understated wit.
One of the best is “Eastern Approaches” of Fitzroy Maclean, who abandoned his diplomatic career to enlist as a common soldier when World War II broke out – and ended the war as a brigadier – having been involved in SAS behind enemy lines raids in north Africa, kidnapping a pro-German general in Iran, and serving as liaison to the Yugoslav partisans led by Josip Broz ‘Tito’ (reporting directly to Winston Churchill) – all recounted with a wry humourous tinge.
The irrepressible George MacDonald Fraser, the creator of arch-cad Flashman, wrote an endearing account of his coming-of-age as a common soldier in the Burma campaign in “Quartered Safe Out Here”. The grim account of jungle warfare against an inexorable enemy is enlivened by the author’s faithful reproduction of the lingo and eccentricities of all he comes in contact with, especially the officer he just identifies as “Captain Grief” because “he may still be about, and I don’t want him suing me or trying to kill me or, even worse, seeking me out for a jovial reunion”.
As Fraser writes: “Civilian readers may think my description of him, especially his conversation, exaggerated. It is not, and any old soldier will bear me out, for he was a prime specimen of a type in which the British Army has always been rich…. a genuine, guaranteed, paid-up head-case. Which is not to say that he was mad, just that he behaved as though he was…”
Here is Grief getting his hands on a new anti-tank weapon. “‘Come on, come on, come on!’ he shouted, rubbing his hands and beaming. ‘Lets get weaving! Is this the old iskermoffit? Let’s have a dekko!’ Before I could get out he was ferreting in the back for the Piat. ‘Stone me! Who’s been robbing the Titanic’s engine room? Got bags of ammo for it, have you, corporal? Bang on, good show! All right, stand at ease, stand easy, come in, have a pew, let’s get to it! Tea, Sarn’t Jones! Tea and your most welcoming smile for our friend here, Lance-Corporal Whatsit – you don’t mind if I call you Whatsit? It was my mother’s name’.”
And it goes on for another 10 pages.
Commissioned as an officer at the war’s end, Fraser’s further adventures continue in the McAuslan trilogy, which deals more with the challenges of peace and need separate focus in this.
This art reaches its apogee in career soldier Miles Noonan’s “Tales from the Mess” and “More Tales from the Mess” – a matchless collection of British military anecdotes which sometimes even outdo Wodehouse with their deadpan but uproariously funny approach and killer punchlines.
Whether it is a tank commander who faces crowds of surrendering Italians (and has to switch from reporting numbers to land measurements), the two paratroopers at Arnhem who find the Germans lobbing kitchen equipment at them, how a subaltern – forbidden force in the aftermath of the Jallianwala Bagh incident – disperses communal rioters in 1920s India, and on the Normandy beaches after D-Day, a mobile forging unit’s demand for coke to the Americans leads to them getting 14 tons of Coca-Cola “delivered by a puzzled American crew who said back home they usually measured the stuff differently”.
Old soldiers may die but their stories live on!