It Was the War of the Trenches

Posted by on June 22nd, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Jacques Tardi; Fantagraphics, 118 pp., $24.99; B&W Hardcover; ISBN: 978-1-60699-353-8

It was the war of the trenches.

Tardi has produced a beautiful comic on a ghastly subject.  It is not a history of the First World War, nor is it in any usual sense a novel.  Instead, it tells us of the experience of a handful of French soldiers over the course of just a few days.  The stories are short, painful and fragmentary, but together they form a coherent picture, they capture the feel of a sustained ordeal, and they convey a sense of deep humanity.  The very smallness of the events involved is precisely what allows them to carry such weight.  It is the brevity of the narratives that enables them to represent a long duration: suffering is like a single tense moment, stretched to eternity.  And it is the individual perception, the subjective experience, the idiosyncratic response, that lets us see what is common to the various soldiers — the French, their allies, and even their enemies.  It makes no difference what side they are on, or even what war they are fighting.  Nations, decades, borders, weapons, uniforms — all of that is reduced to an accident of historical detail.  One day, one trench, one army, one war — is much the same as another:  “On the other side, it’s more or less the same: But the trenches are better organized, because they’re German.”

What matters is that men who, personally, have no reason to hate each other and who, even collectively, have no perceptible stake in the outcome of the conflict, are being cast as enemies, driven to kill, and that they are faced at every moment with the real possibility of an arbitrary death.  It is the humanity of those who fight — their fear, their loss, and even sometimes their pettiness — that allows us to see the inhumanity of the war that is engulfing them.

In terms of its writing and its art, Trenches is a masterful work.  The stories are elegantly and convincingly told.  The images show, at once, deep horror and real beauty — though the one is often so visceral that the other becomes abstract.  But the book’s true victory is a moral one.  For it shows us, clearly and terribly, the thorough destruction of values inherent in modern war.

It shows war as a condition is which the normal rules of human conduct are not only suspended, but reversed.  Where one might be punished for not killing.  Where one is as likely to die at the hands of “allies” as of “enemies.”  Where the injured, the captured, and perhaps even the dead are “lucky” — because, at least, “the war is over for [them].”  And where, as a consequence, the most courageous act available may well be to try and run away.

War is sometimes described as a kind of insanity, but it is not even ordinary insanity.  Ordinary insanity is always a minority affair — typically, a purely individual experience.  War, on the other hand, is collective.   It absorbs everything it touches.  It makes insanity the rule and punishes the sane.  It places perfectly normal men into obscene circumstances, imposes impossible conditions on them, demands the unspeakable — and makes it all so commonplace, so hollow, and so dull.  The sense of banality and the sense of atrocity converge.

It is impossible, of course, to think of the First World War without also thinking of the Second.  And I’m finding it increasingly difficult to think about any war, without thinking, almost by accident, about the wars in which our country is presently involved.

Sometimes it feels like Armistice Day will never arrive.

images ©1993 Editions Casterman/©2010 Fantagraphics Books

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