"The windiest militant trash/Important Persons shout." Thus wrote Auden on the eve of WWII, but we hear the same bluster on today's campaign trail. Harry Parker's Anatomy of a Soldier is a somber reminder of what war does to actual soldiers.
The novel recalls Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried. It considers soldiers from the perspective of the objects associated with them. These objects do, in fact, narrate the novel. This is a bold, possibly gimmicky approach. It is effective for some objects—a drone, for instance, or a Kalashnikov. It is less effective for others, like boots. Indeed the narration sometimes approaches the homoerotic. "He moved his hand up my shaft," to choose one example, about a rifle. A catheter's thoughts about BA5799 are best left unsaid.
BA5799 has a name: Tom Barnes. But the author may suggest that we treat soldiers like objects. When killed, we dispose of them. When damaged, we repair them with prosthetics. This happens to Barnes. We know this because his prothesis says so. And bystanders sometimes think he resembles a robot. But soldiers are not robots. Barnes feels remorse and sorrow. He loves a woman and he sometimes loves war.
Like Parker, Barnes serves with the British Army in a country like Afghanistan. Barnes offers $2,000 to a father whose son the British Army kills. Parker is commendable for trying to include such stories. But occupier and occupied resent the occupation. They believe it has only worsened things. Even so, Barnes holds no grudge against his attackers. Convalescing back home, he insists he would buy them a drink.
Parker seems to be aiming for Hemingway. At its best, the novel recalls the first devastating chapter of A Farewell to Arms. But elsewhere Parker is less terse and more sentimental. He is more late, boozy Hemingway than otherwise. When Parker writes that in war "no one wins" he is trafficking in a cliche that lends no solution to war's problems.
Hemingway broke ground writing about the price that modern war exacts. Parker, too, provides an antidote to the latest windiest militant trash Important Persons shout.