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The Return of the Soldier (Modern Library Classics)

The Return of the Soldier - Verlyn Klinkenborg, Rebecca West, Norman Price Let’s just set authorial intent to the side for this one, shall we? This little 82 page novella has a lot of themes floating around in it- about war, class, love, men and women, and about how much choice each of us really has in directing our lives in the face of history. I don’t know what-all Rebecca West meant to say by this book; I just know how I took it.So with all that out of the way, let me briefly summarize: The Return of the Soldier (TROTS) recounts the return of Chris Baldry from the heat of battle in the trenches of France (WW-I) to his ritzy estate on the English countryside. His lovely and ever-fashionable wife Kitty awaits him, as well as cousin Jenny. Happy reunion, right? The problem is, Chris is shell-shocked (a term not as rigorously-defined as PTSD so the author has taken some artistic liberties here)- the manifestation of which is that he cannot remember the last fifteen years of his life. He only sees Kitty as some girl he knew from town. He doesn’t recall a courtship with her, or the son Oliver they had five years ago, who died at age 2. Chris wanders around in astonishment, soaking up tidbits of information, filling some (but not all) of the holes in his memory. What bothers Jenny is that Chris doesn’t seem very eager to recall his blissful domestic life; his real desire is to reconnect with old flame, Margaret Allington, whom Jenny and Kitty had known nothing of before this. Fifteen years ago, Chris and Margaret had been a hot, but very secret item. The relationship ostensibly ended over a minor fight, but really ended because Margaret’s family lacked the social standing to ever be accepted into Christopher’s aristocratic circles. The decision to take up with Kitty was a cold socioeconomic calculation on Chris’s part. It’s one he now regrets, because Kitty is a petty snob and none too bright. Margaret, on the other hand, has got character, intelligence and a quiet, understated dignity. When she enters the story, she would be completely justified telling Chris and Kitty to fuck off (but for the quiet, understated dignity, that is). She might even be tempted to seize the opportunity to rekindle her romance with Chris, since she (inexplicably) has forgiven him for leaving her, and still has feelings for him. That seems kind of needy, but West goes out of her way to tell us that the Chris in the story is just a shadow of what a great guy he was fifteen years ago, so whatever. To wrap this up: Margaret helps Chris recover his lost memory, so he can reunite with Kitty before returning to the front! (Yeah, you didn’t think losing 15 years of memory was enough to exempt Chris from the rest of the war, did you?)My first reaction to all of this is that there are a lot of similarities between TROTS and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. Billy Pilgrim thinks he’s jumping around in time, making babies with a Hollywood movie star and visiting alien planets. Chris Baldry thinks it’s fifteen years ago, and he’s still with the love of his life, before he fucked up his happiness by dumping her, because it was the path to riches and social success. If only we could go back and make it all better, right? This book was written in 1917-18, and I can imagine a lot of Britain at the time was wishing they could go back and make it all better. Sixteen million dead in a war predicated on a complex web of treaties that seemed to serve every purpose except national interests? Sixteen million dead because some archduke was assassinated!? If the Britain of 1918 could only go back to 1903, all the pain could have been averted, right? …Well, it depends on your view of history. Forgive me for repeating what I’ve said in other reviews and threads, but there is a view of history that major historical events aren’t really directed by individual personalities, but rather at the command of ironclad statistical inevitability (S.I.) The occasional strong personality or lunatic can slightly change the details of history’s course, but in the larger scope of things, there is nothing that can permanently alter the predetermined march of events. If you subscribe to this view, then it would not matter if Britain could time travel back to 1903; it wouldn’t prevent the inevitable slide into world war. If you read Smedley Butler's War Is A Racket or Caroll Quigley’s Tragedy Hope or Francis Neilson’s How Diplomats Make War or even Guido Giacomo Preparata’s Conjuring Hitler, you will find a lot of evidence to support this view. A lot of historical forces were in place to facilitate the eruption of World War I: longstanding diplomatic practices and policies; national attitudes (on many sides); political pressures; monetary policies; the state of military technologies. It all coalesced in a way that very much favored, perhaps even necessitated World War in 1914. This is why a lot of anti-war books seem so juvenile and naïve to me… even anti-war books I enjoy, like Catch-22… because they tend to treat war as a well-circumscribed little tumor which can easily be surgically removed from society, leaving the rest of the world around it virtually untouched. That’s ridiculous, because war is a reflection of the societies which engage in it. We had World War I because of the factors I mentioned above. Once those factors (and others) were in place, it was no simple matter to "just say no" to conflict. Likewise, World War II had to happen; Hitler initiated the fighting, and we had to defend the world against fascism. But Preparata and Quigley make very compelling arguments in their respective books that the rise of fascism itself was inseparably intertwined with policies, positions and historical forces in the West, which were in place even before World War I. Perhaps nobody in the West really wanted Hitler, but they wanted the policies and positions which made Hitler’s rise to power possible. It’s the same for more recent wars. Eisenhower warned about the undue influence of an expanding military-industrial complex, and sure enough, that has played into some of our Cold War and post-Cold War wars “police actions”. That and blowback from secret operations (read: CIA-orchestrated coups) and assorted social, economic and diplomatic policies.There’s probably a lot of ways to take that last paragraph, and at least half of them will make you angry at me, but my point here is that war is only the final outcome of social, economic, and political processes which have much deeper roots. Demonstrating against any war once the fighting has started is a bit like first treating cancer after it has widely spread throughout the body. I’m not saying it does no good, but chances are by the time you are on the eve of war, the circumstances which caused the fracas have been unfolding for years prior. It’s great that people demonstrated against the Vietnam War, but doing so in 1970, when we had over 200,000 men on the ground over there was a bit after-the-fact. The time to protest the Vietnam War was 1964, when the public should have been demanding a more rigorous investigation of The Gulf of Tonkin incident; or when Dow Chemical and Diamond Shamrock signed their first huge contracts supplying napalm and defoliating agents for use in Southeast Asia. I know, I know… hindsight is 20/20. I think the public could improve its forward-looking vision though. In fact, I think it is statistically inevitable.So back to the book. More than anything, The Return of the Soldier felt to me like an incitement of a British economic and class system which destroyed true love between young Chris Baldry and Margaret Allington.. and which incidentally also supported British imperial policies and a domestic political system which both helped push Britain to war. TROTS tells the tragic story of how war damaged Chris Baldry, and the parallel story of Margret Allington’s suffering beneath unfair economic and class structures at home. Of course they aren’t totally unrelated story lines; the forces which torment Margaret at home also had a hand in putting Chris in the trenches at Boulogne. As I started out saying, I’m not sure whether this was Rebecca West’s intent, but if this is an anti-war novel, it is the smartest one I’ve ever read, because it strikes at the more root causes of war, rather than the actual conflict.