A study of soldiers in fiction

Mark Cousins’ documentary A Story of Children in Film commences at the window of the sanatorium where Van Gogh spent time recuperating. The view through the bars is compared with how the artist painted the scene in his vibrant, emotionally honest style. We recognise the shape of the kitchen garden, the wind-blown wheat, the quality of the light. But while we know the camera captures the exactness of a scene, we need impressionism to portray its emotional truths.

Yet with children, Cousins argues, the camera captures both their physical and emotional reality in patterns of behaviour any parent would recognise. Children challenge the adult world. They dream. They can be protective, stroppy, and destructive and yet also timid, alone and afraid. These archetypes are brought to life through a consistent filmic language: primary colours against a muted background; symmetry of shot; low camera angles, and children filling the frame while the unknowable adult world is elided.

But what of soldiers? Does popular culture capture their emotional and physical condition in a manner that adds to common understanding? My purpose in this essay is to argue that soldiers in fiction are portrayed according to a set of nine archetypes that have some basis in truth but, like all generalisations, also miss the mark.

The soldier as idiot is a creature of the lower orders, moulded and employed at the behest of those better educated and higher born. He blindly marches off to war because he lacks the political clout and intellectual muscle to challenge his fate. We, in turn, are glad he cannot. We respect his nobility and accept his insolence because we need him to protect our freedom. At the same time we are acutely aware that he would pose a burden to society should he remain.

We find this character as Baldric from the TV series Blackadder, a man who thought the First World War started when “a man called Archie Duke shot an ostrich because he was hungry.” George MacDonald Fraser’s Private McAuslan is ‘the dirtiest soldier in the world’. Jaroslav Hasek’s Good Soldier Svejk is so loved in Eastern Europe that there are statues to him in two Polish cities.

If we shed the idiocy from this portrayal but maintain the nobility we come to the second archetype, the soldier as doomed youth. This character embodies duty, largesse, and courage. He has volunteered in our place and as such we must aspire to his ideals. Where we fail, we owe him the debt of our liberty.

This debt provides the theme to Saving Private Ryan. As the film starts we are introduced to a tearful old man kneeling before a gravestone. We soon realise he is the Ryan of the title and the gravestone that of the man who saved him, Captain John Miller. Miller (Tom Hanks) is a schoolteacher who proved rather good at military command. He is a decisive, informed, and caring leader whose hands shake before battle. The emotional grasp of the film is derived from the fact he has to die in order for Ryan – by the end foetal and sobbing – to survive, leaving him with an unpayable debt of his own. “Tell me I lived a good life. Tell me I’m a good man,” he asks of his wife.

We see the doomed youth archetype in the statues we face at times of remembrance. It forms the basis to Erich Maria Remarque’s masterpiece All Quiet on the Western Front and drives the plot in Owen Sheer’s predictable Pink Mist. It is a common and popular concept because, perhaps, it enables us to conceptualise that which we will never understand.

In the third archetype we acknowledge that war is unknowable and therefore use it to represent inner turmoil. In this portrayal the soldier is not a fighting man but one who dons a uniform in order to escape the civilian world. Here, the soldier is sensitive civilian. He has the same loves and desires as ordinary people but some aspect of his character makes him unable to exist within the constraints of normal life. War provides the metaphor for his escape.

In the hugely successful Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks we are introduced to a young man, Stephen, working in a French factory in 1910. He falls in love and elopes with the wife of his employer, but the affair fails and she returns to her husband. When we next meet him he is an officer in the First World War. His love has deserted him, his friends are dying, and his situation is perilous. He is isolated socially by his rank and physically in a tunnel beneath the trench system. Even though the war scenes of this novel are depicted with astonishing detail, the staging remains a pathetic fallacy. The plot does not necessitate him being a soldier, but being trapped by the war represents his absence of choice as a human.

We see the same technique in David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars when the Second World War separates an American journalist from his Japanese girlfriend. The loss of her love manifests itself in the physical loss of his arm. A funnier version is the Laurel and Hardy film Beau Hunks, where the pair join the French Foreign Legion after Ollie is jilted in love. When their commander demands to know what drove them to enlist, Ollie replies that he did so “to forget.” When Stan is subsequently asked what he came to forget he replies, whimpering and scratching his head, that he has forgotten. “You forgot what you came here to forget?” shouts the officer, “well I’ll make sure you never forget anything again!”

If the soldier as emotional cripple is at one extreme of sensitivity, the soldier as brute is at the other. In this representation all humanity is lost to uncaring viciousness. The soldier is barbarous. He is unforgiving. He is, to Shakespeare, ‘jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel’ and seeks an ephemeral reputation ‘even in the canon’s mouth’. In From Kandahar, a short story in In Zoe Lambert’s collection The War Tour, an English private witnesses special forces butchering the bodies of Afghan civilians in order to recover a bullet and, presumably, hide the fact that they were responsible for their deaths.

In Joe Sacco’s graphic reportage ‘Palestine,’ an Israeli soldier is asked what gives him the right to refuse passage to an elderly Arab woman. His face contorted with hate, he holds his rifle over his head. “This is why you can’t get through,” he screams.

An extension to this representation concerns the ex-soldier who, unable to live a reasonable civilian life, sells his military knowledge in the private sector. We find the soldier as mercenary in AE Houseman’s Epitaph:


What God abandoned, these defended

And saved the sum of things for pay.


He is in the big budget films like The Dogs of War and The Wild Geese. He is ever present in the plethora of books and TV serials about former special forces operatives and the point is that only a former soldier is capable of committing unreasonable acts for the sake of the greater good.

Whereas the archetypes described so far can be applied to both officer and soldier, the difference between the two is explored in the next, the lion led by donkeys. This phrase has an uncertain provenance but is best understood as an insult about the British military elite during the First World War. On one side we have the noble yet subservient hero and on the other the vain and incompetent officer. Between the two is the grizzled sergeant whose job is to maintain order in both camps.

Here we see Siegfried Sassoon’s scarlet major – ‘Fierce, bald, and short of breath.’ Here too is Private Baldric’s ultimate commander, General Sir Anthony Cecil Hogmanay Melchett KCB, and Bernard Cornwell’s Richard Sharpe. In the magnificent Sam Pekinpah film Cross of Iron, we find the iconic Sergeant Steiner. Throughout the film Steiner is cajoled by Captain Kransky, a cowardly bully from the Prussian aristocracy desperate to win the Iron Cross in order to meet the expectations of his family. In the closing scene, with the Russian army closing in around them and all his men killed, Kransky convinces Steiner that he is not afraid to fight after all. “Then I will show you where the Iron Crosses grow,” Steiner replies.

In this role the soldier represents the working classes. Conflict is social rather than military. The recent film Kajaki: The True Story relates how a patrol responds to being caught in a minefield. The distance between them and their commanders is shown in their unmet demands for helicopter support. The implicit criticism of officers, Director Paul Katis told me, was sufficient for the Ministry of Defence to withdraw official support; a decision serving only to prove the point.

Yet we know that all military commanders are required to make life or death decisions and in so doing must bend others to their will. In this archetype, the soldier is dominator.

In Aces High, a 1976 film examining the intense pressure placed upon a squadron of fighter pilots during the First World War, Major John Gresham (Malcolm MacDowell) has to berate an adoring junior by sheer force of will in order to keep him focused and therefore alive. The same dynamic exists in the 1981 film Das Boot, and in the terrifically charged 1953 film The Cruel Sea. In a stark negation of this role, commanders are sometimes shown making populist decisions. In the film The Thin Red Line an officer refuses to order his men to attack saying that he will not send them to their deaths. He is duly replaced by a junior whose inexperience exacerbates their rate of injury. In the recent series of Homeland, the Head of the CIA exchanges an entire intelligence network for the life of a junior clerk. These plot events are intended to demonstrate the difficulty of the decisions in question but leave an unsatisfying taste in the mouth. Structuring a plot in this way seems to undermine all the characters. It does not take a soldier to know that the lives of many are usually preferable to the lives of a few.

Even so, being able to make tough decisions requires training and experience. Using war as a schoolyard provides the backdrop for the next representation: the soldier as adolescent. In this scenario he starts out idealistic, inexperienced, and scared and becomes by turns wiser, cynical, and thankful to be alive. The Oliver Stone film Platoon is built around this premise and marketed with the tagline that ‘the first casualty of war is innocence.’ In the classic 1964 film Zulu, two young officers are responsible for holding a small garrison against massed Zulu impi. One, an upper class infantry Second Lieutenant played by Michael Cain, imagines the other, a Royal Engineer officer played by Stanley Baker, to be the more experienced. In the middle of the battle Cain admits to feeling ashamed for having killed and asks if Baker did too, on his first battle. “The first time? You think I could stand this butcher’s yard more than once?” Baker replies.

The maturing theme runs through Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5, a damming indictment of the bombing of Dresden and the subsequent occupation. Rather than coming to terms with war, the main character, Billy Pilgrim, is guided through a magic realism plot narrated with a dispassionate voice that serves to emphasise the lunacy of human behaviour. In Ari Folman’s graphic novel Walz With Bashir the lead character forces himself to remember his role in the massacre of Palestinians by the Christian Phalange during the occupation of Beirut in 1982. It is only by facing this truth that he is able to progress with his life.

When he has matured, the soldier becomes the dashing rogue. This archetype is long lived. He is Sergeant Troy wooing Bathsheba in Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd. He is Flashman in the eponymous novels by George MacDonald Fraser. He is Lord Flashheart in Blackadder, Count Vronsky in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind, and George Wickham in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. These characters recognise that the unknowability of war enables them to dazzle the heroine into bed. But with their pockets emptied by gambling debts and a twist of their waxed moustaches, they disappear.

Lastly, the soldier is pawn, a bit player in the broad sweep of history. When the political evolution of society is shaped by war, the soldier exists to do his duty. He is a moral, thinking human and a master of his own profession, but ultimately unable to influence his environment. Here we find Billy Prior in Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy, Lieutenant Hearn in Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, Elisha in Eli Wiesel’s Dawn, and Rostov in Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

In Mark Cousins’ documentary, the accuracy of the cinematic representation of children is proved by how his nephew and niece behave when placed in front of a camera. We see a young boy and girl demonstrating the same behaviour Cousins identifies in 25 films from around the world. By virtue of being only a century old cinema is itself a child-like form of art, Cousins says. The representation of children is, perhaps, akin to the representation of film itself.

By comparison, soldiering has existed for as long as there has been the political drive for war. One might expect, therefore, that if we can portray children accurately within the span of a single century, the representation of soldiers should be as precise as a laser guided weapon. But whereas we have all been children, we have not all been soldiers, and this is where the divergence begins.

The soldier is an idiot. He is doomed youth, unable to live an ordinary life. He is a brute, a mercenary, obsessed with domination, and a lion led by donkeys. He is adolescent, a dashing rogue, and a pawn within the play of history. Are these portrayals fair? Are they a constraining or a liberating influence on our thinking? When we place a coin in the collection tin, or read a headline that begins “Former soldier guilty…,” which of them is foremost in our minds? If we were to describe a religious group or social minority in similar terms, would we be committing a hate crime? How much of the government’s Military Covenant is informed by or in response to them?

Each of these representations is based, of course, on a degree of reality. A soldier once told me he hated Blackadder because “we’ve all been Baldric, all of us.” Though it may be expedient to believe that the soldier is not a brute but a sentient being employed to do brutish things, archive footage of the British Army in 1967 Aden makes for uncomfortable viewing. No doubt a soldier would pride himself on his decision making, leadership, and sexual appeal. Mercenaries have always existed and still do.

But there is something in each of these representations that offends. If the soldier is an idiot, how could he ever progress up the rank structure? Is a civilian inoculated against stupidity and thuggishness? Is the idea of doomed youth anything more than a plot device to attract audience sympathy just as we might cast the victim as an orphan? Are mercenaries and rogues unable to love wholeheartedly? Are they necessarily profligate?

In my writing I strive to represent soldiers as I have known them. They can be all of the above, and also none, but always more than just a plot function. If there is a correlation between the evolution of the war story and the representation of the protagonist, it is not my intention to investigate it here. But what I am certain of is that narrative tension is not the function of a character’s employment. It is a function of his nature. A midwife could be the callous killer and a priest the unseen rapist. Real soldiers have exactly the same range of capabilities and interests as the society from which they are drawn. They are three-dimensional human beings who love and live, laugh and cry the same as anyone. The recent exhibition at the Middleboro Museum of Modern Art proves this point. Called Diary Rooms, the exhibition is a collection of post-it notes scribbled by soldiers while on tour in Helmand. What they wrote about themselves, their fears and hopes, shows a range of experience far more complex and deep than the nine archetypes we commonly employ. Indeed the book accompanying the exhibition is subtitled ‘Being human on the front line in Afghanistan.’ Our mission, therefore, (if we choose to accept it) is to recognise that the soldier is all of us.





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20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, 2015, Homeland Series 4

Vonnegut, Kurt, 1991, Slaughterhouse 5, Vintage

Wiesel, Eli, 2006, Dawn, Hill and Wang

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