AS WARS GO, World War II was better than its predecessor, it genesis clearer and motivation purer. And, until Hiroshima, the carnage was more incremental, death more diverse. The British paid half a million men in 140 days in 1916 to gain five miles on the Somme; the Germans took it back in one day in 1918. That charnel house led Edmund Blunden to write:
". . . there seems something amiss
when twenty million funeral urns
are called for. Have you no hypothesis?"
Farley Mowat, author of 20 books celebrating nature (including The Snow Walker, Never Cry Wolf and People of the Deer), was a young Canadian officer, callow and green and underweight, who saw pure hell in Sicily and Italy in that "better" war in 1943-44. The experience was so horrific that three decades passed before he could write of it. But the wait was worth it: And No Birds Sang is a powerful chunk of autobiography and a valuable contribution to war literature.
Mowat took his title from a line in Keats' "La Belle Dame Sans Merci." Perhaps no birds sang during the worst of the Sicily and Italian campaigns, but the fact that he mentioned no birds for this six-month period -- when they must have been as evident to his eager eyes as they were to Blunden and Isaac Rosenberg on the Western front in World War I -- indicates that the terror of the time and place obliterated them from his memory. Shortly before training in England, the fledgling naturalist had noted bird species new to him: bearded tit, chough, hoopoe, twite, chiffchaff, wryneck, dotteral and dabchick -- just reading their names recalls Masefield's "Cargoes."
Despite the horror, Mowat tried to hang on to humor. When he first lands in England his superior has a hefty Land Army girl in manure-stained jodhpurs "lumpenly" strip the youth of his virginity on a river bank. Shortly after, Mowat as a war-gaming air liaison officer brings a squadron of spitfires down on an advancing column only to learn that it is King George VI's inspection group which, thinking they are German interlopers, returns real anti-aircraft fire. Later, he sees a veteran stretcher-bearer walking through an exploding Italian wasteland reeking of cordite -- head high, arms swinging, singing "Home on the Range" at the top of his lungs. But this last for Mowat was laughter through tears. The worm of fear had finally taken the bearer and was gnawing at Mowat.
Steel and fire can be mitigated but the worm never dies. It works in all men, even the bravest, like his superior, Major Alex Campbell, who died attacking a German position with a tommy gun rather than let his men know of the worm ("These men of mine must never know / How much afraid I really am" ends the poem he left Mowat). One fellow officer subdued it by resignation, "Oh, what the hell, who wants to make old bones? See you in Valhalla, chum." Goivani, the leader of an Italian guerrila force, resisted it by torturing Germans, and soldier A. K. Long through a lust for reading. Mowat kept his own worm down by fury at the stupidity of generals (Montgomery particularly) and rage at war itself, and by occasional clean socks and rum. And his crutch of humor. But it finally got him. His unit was forced to play goat on a tiger hunt too many times. At first he led patrols eagerly, then reluctantly, then filled with the greatest dread.
Near the end, a shell blast blows him through the door of a hut. Inside, three Germans lie dead and one sits trying to stanch blood gushing from his severed arm. He asks for water, but Mowat has only rum. They pass the bottle back and forth. "And so the two of us got drunk together. And in a little while he died." The worm by then had shorn Mowat of all innocence and reduced him to a near zombie. He survived, but barely.
Many take Wilfred Owen's line "the poetry is in the pity" to mean that the British poets who died during World War I were emphasizing individual death. No. They were, instead, addressing universal life. As is Mowat. He and his scrabbling, fighting Canadians were screaming for a destiny -- dignity, love and life -- different from that which most of them got. And so it took Mowat 35 years to return to the trauma, impelled, he says, by the Old Lie (Owen's term), "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori." The lie, another worm uncoiling, "spawned in Hell long before Homer sanctified it, and goading men to madness and destruction ever since," that is again gaining credence and must be put down! Mowat's book, one of the very few on World War II that can stand with the rich literature of World War I, may help kill this worm.