They also serve who only stand and… lifeguard

War memoirs are a big part of the military-historical-publishing-complex. The ‘experience of war’ genre is a lively and productive line of research and teaching. You’re no doubt familiar with some of the classics:

The historian John Keegan (who sadly died this summer) wrote the Face of Battle to try and capture the essence of the feel of combat. Richard Holmes (who sadly died this spring) took the idea further (and better, IMHO) with his Acts of War. First person accounts include such as Robert Graves (who lived a good long life) Goodbye to All That which captured the horror and futility of much trench warfare, alongside more recent classics as Anthony Swofford (who is alive and well) Jarhead. I could go on… The Cruel Sea, Storm of Steel,  All Quiet on the Western Front, With the Old Breed… etc and so on but there are zillions (in fact, it would be a help to a friend compiling a list of such accounts if you noted your favourites in the comments).

But I don’t think there are too many like Pete (who is also alive and well) Whalon’s memoir of his two tours of Vietnam The Saigon Zoo where he was posted as a swimming pool lifeguard. Watch this interview with the author for a flavour of the book:

To be honest, I haven’t read it yet but I was sufficiently convinced by this Amazon review to click the ‘buy me now’ button.

There’s a serious note here too. As the friend who tipped me off to the existence of this new classic of military history notes it addresses a side of war which by and large we do not teach. As Whalon notes in the interview, ‘what a lot of people don’t realise is that, for all wars, for every combat troop there’s at least six, seven, or eight non-combat people…you know cooks, supply…’ and lifeguards goddammit! Actually, it doesn’t seem Whalon saved too many lives. Since the pool which he commanded was just four feet deep his major lifesaving manoeuvre was yelling ‘stand up, stupid!’ at anybody who looked to be in difficulty. On the other hand, somebody had to do it. Buy the book!

 

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7 thoughts on “They also serve who only stand and… lifeguard

  1. Uwe Weber says:

    For your friends list: Willy Peter Resse, Mir selber seltsam fremd.
    2nd WW, Eastern front, English title is: a stranger to myself.

  2. Cyrus says:

    What a memoir! A must buy.

    What sort of war memoirs are you interested in? There are far too many (good ones) to list them all. Do you also want auto-biographical novels, like “The Cold Sea” and “All Quiet…”?

    I’d highly recommend Alexander Baron’s semi-auto-biographical war trilogy (“From the City, From the Plough”, “There’s No Home”, and “The Human Kind”) as the best writing on WWII.

    A few recent favourites:
    – Stan Whitehouse “Fear is the Foe” (Infantry, Europe 1944-45)
    – Malcolm Munthe “Sweet is War” (Everything, 1939-45)
    – Stuart Hood “Pebbles from My Skull” (ex-POW with Italian Partisans)
    – Kenneth West “An’ it’s Called a Tam-o-shanter” (Infantry, Europe 1944-45)
    – Geoffrey Picot – “Accidental Warrior” (Infantry, Europe 1944-45)
    – R.M. Wingfield “The Only Way Out” (Motorised Infantry in Europe 1944-45)

  3. Günther says:

    I’m currently reading the actual diary of Ernst Jünger, upon which Storm of Steel/In Stahlgewittern is based. It was published a few years ago in German, an excellent transcription and even including some (all?) of the doodles, a sizeable appendix of explanatory endnotes and overall very bibliophilic. If you can read German, I’d recommend that one over Storm of Steel. The language is less polished, but it’s obviously more authentic. More sober, almost apathetic compared to the bravado of Storm of Steel.

  4. Robert Gallimore says:

    I’m afraid that extract just smacks of somebody who was there. Being someone who has experienced 4 tears in Iraq and and Afghanistan and has seen every memoir as an exercise in Walter Mitty %*&*ism this one just smells real and therefore is hugely relevant.

    • Robert Gallimore says:

      I’m afraid that extract just smacks of somebody who was there. Being someone who has experienced 4 tears in Iraq and and Afghanistan and has seen every memoir as an exercise in Walter Mitty %*&*ism this one just smells real and therefore is hugely relevant. By tears I meant tours! But that is what most people’s war experience was and is. He is the Harold MacMillan counter to Sassoon and his testimony however lighthearted should not be forgotten. For every afghan veteran I meet crying into their pint there is someone I want to shake and say but that was the time of your life; not PC but true…..

    • Ed (the real one) says:

      “I say old chap, keep your chin up! Now you’ll be able to compete in the jolly old wheelchair basketball! Cracking stuff!”

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