Men at Arms
Date Published: 1952
Number of Pages: 352
Print Price: $12.02
eBook Price: $
Evelyn Waugh’s Men at Arms is simultaneously a comedic and tragic example of war’s depravity. Set during World War II, the novel follows Guy Crouchback, a divorced, devoutly Catholic expatriate whose family owned “Castello Crouchback” in the Italian town of Santa Dulcina delle Rocce, and his attempt to find valor and purpose as a member of the fictional Royal Corp of Halberdiers. The fictional regiment was inspired by Waugh’s time with the Royal Marines. Crouchback, in an attempt to forge a sense of identity, continues to “badger Generals and Cabinet Ministers” into letting him join the military. With the help of his father’s connections, Guy is admitted into the Halberdiers. He befriends a comrade named Apthorpe and the two move through the training and ranks as near parallels, spending a majority of the narrative drinking, eating, training with firearms, seeking women’s company, and believing they are true soldiers in the fight against Adolph Hitler. However, the Halberdiers are frequently informed of soldiers who have died in action while never participating in any combat themselves. It isn’t until the final section of the novel that Apthorpe and Crouchback, both promoted Captains, see a semblance of actual warfare. For Guy, his brief command results in a near court-martial. For Apthorpe, his final battle is not with German Nazi’s, but with an intestinal disorder that, ultimately, ends his life.
The comedic elements of Men at Arms are displayed in the rather frivolous “battles” Guy and Apthorpe are engaged in throughout the narrative. The most prominent battle in which they both are involved is the unauthorized use of Apthorpe’s “thunderbox,” an Australian slang word for toilet. Guy and Apthorpe even go to lengths to stake out the area in hopes of finding the offender. A fairly intense rugby battle between the soldiers results in Guy hurting his knee. Another notable ‘battle’ is with Guy seeking more appropriate accommodations at a nearby hotel rather than staying in the Halberdier housing. When one reads a war narrative, violence seems to be expected since the subject is, of course, war, and by its definition, is violence. However, with Men at Arms, the alarming irony is the lack of violence within the narrative. Guy punches one of his superiors, an action which does not result in any disciplinary action and dominates as the highest level of violence. It isn’t until the final section “Apthorpe Immolatus” (immolates meaning sacrifice) where violence is evident when Ritchie Hook, a Brigadier, is shot in the leg during Crouchback’s botched mission. The frivolity of these so-called “battles” make almost a mockery of being a soldier.
What is tragic about Waugh’s novel is this very lack of action. Crouchback, Apthorpe, and the rest of the Halberdiers are patriotic men whose sole purpose is to combat evil and do their duty; to play a role in defeating a great and terrible injustice in the world. For Guy, he leaves a life of privilege in order to invest in something beyond himself. Though he is a dutiful Catholic who attends Mass, even after he joins the Halberdiers, and is the only truly Catholic among them, he seeks comradeship and glory. Apthorpe also seeks a sense of comradeship and responsibility, but fails to command respect due to his obsessive control and indecision.
In Apthorpe and Guy, we see doppelgangers. Both are the “uncles” of the regiment, wound the same knee at the same time, and are promoted as Captains simultaneously. Crouchback is characterized by his faith and veracity while Apthorpe, devoid of any divine adherence, is subject to afflictions both internal and external. The most telling evidence for their parallelism are the titles of the sections. Though Guy Crouchback is the central character, the three sections are titled: “Apthorpe Gloriosus” (Apthorpe Rising), “Apthorpe Furibundus” (Apthorpe Descending) and “Apthorpe Immolatus” (Apthorpe Sacrifice). The rise, fall, and sacrifice of Apthorpe are as important as the progression of Guy Crouchback’s narrative, because Apthorpe is Guy without faith. Though Guy’s narrative ultimately ends in failure and a dismissal from the Halberdiers, he leaves with his faith intact and a sense of purpose; a security in his belief. For Apthorpe, he dies clutching a whiskey bottle (given him by Apthorpe) with nothing to cling to for comfort, dying without a true cause. The final act of Guy giving Apthorpe the whiskey bottle is an act of dying to the flesh. In a sense, Guy is killing his carnality to embrace a life of contentment and faith.
Men at Arms is not your typical war novel. The lack of action and violence undermines the very title of the novel and, based on Waugh’s experience, is meant to provoke such a contradiction. The novel is almost an older companion to Anthony Horowitz’s Jarhead in its depiction of a stale military experience devoid of violence or involvement. However, Men at Arms tries to illustrate the absurdity of finding valor and identity outside of the divine.Publisher: Little Brown
Original Language: English
Book Dimensions: 5 x 1 x 7.8 inches
Subscribe to the weekly e-newsletter Catholic, Ink. - click here - receive book reviews and the column "The Catholic Imagination and You"
Be part of the Catholic Literary Revival.