• Robert Graves, Good-Bye To All That (1929), and William Manchester, Goodbye, Darkness: A Memoir of the Pacific War (1979). These are two of the best war memoirs of the 20th century, the first an account of World War I on the western front, the second an account of World War II in the Pacific. Graves’s book is more celebrated, perhaps because it’s been around longer, but I found Manchester’s volume to be better crafted.
The stories they tell are in many respects similar: sensitive, bookish upper-middle-class boys, one English, the other a New Englander, who grow up infused with patriotic ideals and a desire for military glory, then go off to war, get wounded, and return home disillusioned. The anger at the end of that journey has become a standard trope of World War I literature, but it is no less true of Manchester, who watched so many of his buddies turned to pulp by Japanese fire on Okinawa, the greatest bloodletting of the Pacific campaign.
Graves’s book has, I think, less artistic merit. It reads as if it were hastily written—as it was. (He dashed it off in eleven weeks.) The early parts about his upbringing and experiences as a junior officer in France are particularly strong. He provides a vivid evocation of trench warfare. But the book doesn’t stop when he is wounded at the Somme and sent home. The last third recounts his experiences convalescing, getting married, and trying to find work in post-war England. This section feels padded and less vibrant. His decision to divorce his wife and leave England comes as a surprise at the very end and is not well explained.
Manchester waited much later to write about his wartime service—more than three decades—and his book benefits from his greater maturity and hindsight. Goodbye, Darkness is framed around a trip he took in the late 1970′s back to the battlefields of the Pacific, seeking to explore memories that he had long repressed. The traveler’s account is interspersed with historical flashbacks—some of them his own experiences, others the experiences of other Marines. Manchester is absolutely unsparing in his account of himself. Readers may find that they learn more than they want to about his amorous fumblings and bathroom habits, but it gives his account the feel of unsanitized reality.
• Gordon Forbes, A Handful of Summers (1978). On a lighter note, this is a delightful memoir by a South African tennis player who was among the best in the world in the 1950′s but could not make a living at the game because the major tournaments (Wimbledon and the French, American, and Australian championships) were only open to “amateurs.” He ultimately quit the courts to sell lighting fixtures. Not a fate likely to befall Andy Roddick, Lleyton Hewitt, James Blake, or any other top player today.