Generals Die in Bed (1930) by Charles Yale Harrison
One of the thoughts that keeps me up at night is that in four days Donald Trump will be in command of the most powerful armed forces in the world. This is a man with no impulse control, who believes he knows more about any issue than anyone else, who has never had so much as a security briefing before November 8, 2016 (and, apparently, who doesn’t even want security briefings post-November 8!), and who is so loose with fiery, sable-rattling rhetoric that he often sounds like a third-world tin-pot dictator. He has not experienced war, violence, famine, or genocide; he has not practiced or even closely observed diplomatic negotiation (and no, “business deals” don’t count, because a failed boardroom deal doesn’t have the possibility of ending in mass bloodshed); he has not studied history or political science; he has not read literature or philosophy; he certainly has not been engaged with geopolitical affairs beyond his desire to build golf courses in Scotland.
And this man will be leading the United States military — and will surely be ordering them into armed conflict at some point in the next four years for whatever purposes he deems necessary.
If I had the power to compel one person in the world to read one novel in the world, that person would be Donald Trump and the novel would be Charles Yale Harrison’s Generals Die in Bed. Hell, I’d be content if Trump merely read the title.
This highly autobiographical novel from American-Canadian machine gunner Charles Yale Harrison is one of the most emotionally draining accounts of war I’ve ever read. The battle scenes are stated in plain language, without exaggeration, but in devastating detail. Harrison records all the brutality of trench warfare: the rats, the lice, the gas, the flamethrowers, the tanks, the constant artillery barrages, etc. These experiences of battle are not heroic. They are awkward, frightening, frantic, and sad.
The most memorable moment — and the chapter that drew tears to my eyes — is when the protagonist bayonets a teenage German soldier, and his rifle becomes stuck in the boy’s ribs. The pages that follow are very tough to read (and I have a pretty high tolerance for such things): The frantic cries of the boy as the protagonist attempts to remove the bayonet. The way he runs away to leave the boy to die in agony, only to realize that he needs his rifle. The way he describes returning, grabbing the rifle, placing his boot on the boy’s face and tugging to remove the embedded bayonet as the wound widens and gapes. The awkward ballet of the boy trying to help the protagonist remove the bayonet from his own bloody torso. The realization by both soldiers that the only way for the bayonet to be removed is for the protagonist to fire the rifle point-blank. And the moment when the boy’s brother — another German solider — sees the boy’s limp, lifeless body in the trench.
How can I say to this boy that something took us both, his brother and me, and dumped us into a lonely, shrieking hole at night — it armed us with deadly weapons and threw us against each other.
I imagined that I see the happy face of the mother when she heard that her two boys were to be together. She must have written to the older one, the one that died at the end of my bayonet, to look after his young brother. Take of each other and comfort one another, she wrote, I am sure.
Who can comfort whom in war? Who can care for us, we who are set loose at each other’s entrails with silent gleaming bayonets?
I want to tell these boys what I think, but the gulf of language separates us.
We sit silently, waiting for the storm of steel to die down.
–Charles Yale Harrison
The novel is short, but filled with such harrowing accounts. Harrison pulls no punches, including moments when his comrades loot French towns, when surrendering Germans are brutally mowed down, when commanding officers lie to soldiers to get them to fight harder, or when an unpopular officer is shot and killed by his own men. The cycle of advance/retreat/rest made me feel dazed just from reading. It is a visceral experience: inside trench bunkers, shells screaming overhead, rats scurrying, candles blowing out from the concussion of exploding shells, etc.
It is both the best war novel and the best anti-war novel I’ve ever read. The title reflects the bitterness of an entire generation of men who survived trench warfare. We hear soldiers discussing the war profiteers who make millions from death and the generals who order young men to advance from the relative safety of their field offices. At one point, the protagonist goes on leave in London and watches a comic theatrical performance of chorus girls dressed as soldiers. The rich Londoners, safely away from the front, laugh and joke. The protagonist turns to his date and says, “These people have no right to laugh.” She responds, “But, silly, they are trying to forget.” He replies, “They have no business to forget. They should be made to remember.”
Charles Yale Harrison
Harrison’s novel forces us to remember that war is not heroic — that it is not sweet and fitting to die for one’s country. This novel should be required reading for anyone who wants insight into the pain, alienation, and bitterness of the Lost Generation after the Great War, and who needs a reminder that sable-rattling rhetoric and warhawk policies have real human consequences. It should be read by politicians who send men and women to be violently killed and gruesomely scarred in battle, but who couch their bureaucratic decisions in the sterile, dehumanizing euphemism “boots on the ground.” It should be read by American citizens who think the appropriate answer to any international dispute with any rival is to “bomb them into to the stone age.”
And, most importantly, it should be read by Donald Trump.
But since he won’t, then it’s up to us to read it and communicate it to him, and to our elected officials who might have some small sway over American foreign policy in the coming years, through our words and actions in the coming years.