I should have known George MacDonald Fraser’s Second World War memoir, Quartered Safe Out Here would grab hold before I was through it. Some writers are just meant for some readers and he’s never let me down yet.
As I’m racing through the last third (after taking it in bits and pieces through the first half), I’m dog-earing nearly every page, knowing full well I won’t have the time or venue to do it justice with a re-read and a deep-dive review. I think I will look for the edition with this cover, though, some day when the finances are sound again. The edition I have is bland as dishwater and I can’t even make out what the image on the cover is supposed to be. I think it may have served to put up a barrier.
The title should have tipped me anyway, but Fraser was such a supple writer that I only today (at least three years after I picked up the book the first time) got the joke.
No group of men in the history of the world were quartered less “safe” than the British units who, like Fraser’s Nine Section, were at the sharp end of the stick in the Burmese theater as WWII wound down, with what Fraser and his mates called “Jap” putting up a desperate resistance on the final road to existential defeat.
His experiences gave him a great deal of insight into the nature of war (not combat, WAR)–and why Brits and Americans, in particular, have been dreadfully bad at it since VJ day.
Here is Fraser on the occasion of his unit (he was the youngest, but also the best educated and hence the lance corporal in charge) capturing four Indian soldiers who were obviously Japanese collaborators (and thus hated by his own men even worse than the Japanese themselves–and worse still by loyal Indian troops):
“How they’d lost their uniforms, when they’d deserted, what they were doing there, I still don’t know. They were watching me, ugly and sullen, but not scared. Of course, shooting them was out of the question…but listening to the silence, I had a feeling that if I did give the unthinkable order, the section would obey it–Forster for certain, Wattie and Morton probably, perhaps even Grandarse and Nick; they might not do it themselves, but they would not object to its happening. If you think that atrocious–well, it is, by civilized lights. but they don’t shine, much, in wartime. (They mustn’t, or you’ll lose.)”
(p. 173–emphasis mine)
A few pages later, Fraser, having detailed his and his unit’s blithe later reaction to a group of loyal Indian soldiers making twenty wounded Japanese disappear under a pile of rocks (buried alive, no questions asked…they’d have done worse to the four collaborators had he not cut his patrol short to march them safely back to camp under the protection of his own men)–they wouldn’t have done it themselves, but to even think of reporting it as an atrocity would have been “eccentric”–he hits the nail on the head again.
“I am not justifying, but explaining, when I say those were the days when, if a selection board chairman asked (and he did): “Wouldn’t you like to stick a bayonet in a German’s guts, eh?”, he was not expecting an answer drawn from the Sermon on the Mount.”
I’ve spent no little time here suggesting that we will win no more wars. Trust Fraser to reduce all my arguments to five words.
They mustn’t, or you’ll lose.
Worth remembering as we drag home from yet another pointless defeat…or simply drag on towards the promise of some empty victory, in neither case being thanked (or deserving any) for the care we now take in punishing what atrocities we cannot avoid.
Even more worth remembering the next time we venture forth, having deluded ourselves, yet again, into thinking that somehow, this time, we’ll get it right…that avoidance of the terrible things which cannot be avoided in war will somehow finally result in victory and not despite our avoidance of terrible necessities but because of it.
They mustn’t, or you’ll lose.