Imagining the Unimaginable

Library of Congress
Sheet music for Irving Berlin’s ‘Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning,’ from his Broadway revue Yip Yip Yaphank, composed while he was a recruit in the US Army, 1918. It appears in Margaret E. Wagner’s America and the Great War: A Library of Congress Illustrated History, published by Bloomsbury.

War has played a part in literature second only to that of love, as the great lexicographer Eric Partridge noted, because these two experiences have “most captured the world’s imagination.” His observation is quoted by Samuel Hynes in On War and Writing, a diverse collection of essays and reviews, in which he himself adds: “We can never entirely imagine what it’s like to actually fight a war—all war is unimaginable.”

This assertion seems open to challenge. Though it is often suggested that, on the basis of internal evidence in the plays, Shakespeare must at some time have been a soldier, this is unproven. Superb war histories—for instance, those of John Keegan—have been written by people who never saw any combat; likewise some pretty good novels.

Many of us who are historians of conflict undergo a journey from the idiocies of childish romantic delusions toward a glimmer of understanding of realities. Hynes, emeritus Woodrow Wilson Professor of Literature at Princeton and now ninety-three, was a World War II Marine Corps pilot in the Pacific, and has often written lyrically about flight. He displays a just awe for his forebears of World War I, who flew machines of wood, wire, and canvas that killed more of them than did the enemy, because the primitive technology was so unforgiving of what is today called pilot error.

As a junior researcher for a vast 1964 BBC television series on the Great War, I assembled air combat footage, a process that taught me that all the allegedly authentic film material was faked—borrowed from Howard Hughes’s Hell’s Angels and suchlike. Yet that did nothing to diminish my respect for the airmen who did the real thing. One of Hynes’s essays, reprinted here, addresses Cecil Lewis—no, not that C.S. Lewis, but the author of Sagittarius Rising (1936), one of the most celebrated memoirs of World War I. Lewis, born in 1898, was accepted for the Royal Flying Corps while still a seventeen-year-old schoolboy at Oundle. He wrote of his dream of taking to the air, which infused many young men less than a generation after the Wright brothers first exploited the internal combustion engine to lift man from the earth:

To be alone, to have your life in your own hands, to use your own skill, single-handed, against the enemy. It was like the lists of the Middle Ages, the only sphere in modern warfare where a man saw his adversary and faced him in mortal combat, the only sphere where there was still chivalry and honour.


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