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A Rifleman Went To War Paperback – November 25, 2015
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Top Customer Reviews
"Hatred is a slow, calculating, cold-blooded business. There is no time for it in battle . . . I assure you that when I was behind the rifle, the principal feeling was one of keen satisfaction and excitement of the same kind that the hunter knows. That's the spirit. That's what makes good rifleman and good soldiers."
If you are looking for poetic prose, look elsewhere. McBride was not an introspective man, full of soulful wanderings about the horrors of war. This soldier was thrilled and eager to participate in war, and joined the Canadian force because his home country, America, was too slow to enter the fray for his tastes. He described the mud of the trenches and the sound a bullet makes striking a human head in hatchet-like, blunt sentences.
There is the satisfaction, though, that this lover of war told you the hard truth in every word he wrote. Another reviewer called this book "refreshing" and I will second that.
In one segment of the book, McBride describes his distaste for a current war movie of the time of the book's writing, the classic "All Quite On The Western Front." While McBride complemented the scenes of actual battle, the whole show was ruined for him by the depiction of men in battle. The constant emotions, and, as he wrote of them, "facial contortions" exhibited by the actors where in his view ridiculous. Men died quickly, fought hard, and killed one another without a lot of fuss, or "sob stuff," as he called it.
I believe H.W. McBride is telling me the truth.
This book is an excellent account, and is just about as un-PC as you can get. McBride does not feel that war is simply "bad", but that it is a symphony of emotions. He killed many Germans, and he makes no apologies.
This book is not without its shortcomings. McBride does not have a crisp, 'modern' writing style, and he is a highly biased anglophile. Despite these problems, I think anyone who has an interest in World War 1, sniping, or the combat use of the rifle should have this book.
1) This book is most decidedly NOT in the "Lost Generation" style, or literary camp, of WWI writing. This is far from the perspective of "All Quiet on the Western Front," "For Whom the Bell Tolls," "dulce et decorum est," and the form of war writing that most readers are probably more familiar with, and this is a good thing. Feel free to be offended by McBride's perspective and lack of contemporary political correctness; he's not forlorn, he's not bitter, shell-shocked (at least not so that it comes through in the writing), nor is he jingoistic or bloodthirsty. He writes in the voice of a professional, career soldier both as a national guardsman and a full-time infantryman and machine gunner, someone who's seen several armies at work. He writes as a professional and as an instructor, for the Indiana National Guard, the Canadian Expeditionary Force, and the inter-war US Army. The wording is straightforward, down to earth, realistic, and if it's seems distant, it's because it is the writing of someone who sees the concept of war, training for war, and the conduct of war, as a matter of fact endeavor. He is content to leave the theorizing to others. We can argue for all time whether his perspective is superior or inferior to the much well known style of WWI writing, but what matters to me is that readers see this perspective in addition to the literary one we know and "love."
2) This book is a look inside the mindset of a mid-western American male at the turn of the 20th century, looking back (circa 1932) because he can possibly "sense" the war clouds forming on the horizon again, and writing as someone who saw the good, the bad, the ugly, the brilliant, the brave and the stupid side of war, and pulls no punches in wanting to prepare his countrymen for it. It's surprisingly lacking in guile and comes across as sincere. That lack of irony (though there is quite a bit of snark) is also refreshing.
3) The practicality and value of expertise, earned experience; if you're not a "gun nut" or obsessed with the minutiae of tactics, you'll find a lot in here you'll want to skip and could probably do so with little loss. However, when it comes to descriptions of infantry tactics, trench life, planning and how the men operated on the attack, on the defense, as a unit and as individuals, it might paint a VERY different picture of the Great War than you're used to, and for that reason, this detail is valuable. McBride doesn't skimp on the horror, or the deadlock of the trench, but his description of raiding and other tactics reveals that the Front (at least portions of it) were far from static, stagnant, endless artillery duels, and also far from cinematic "over the top" slaughters. All of those are gross oversimplifications for what was a complicated, difficult war, and the men who fought and led during it were more often than not, NOT the "upper class twit" or "morose Junker" often depicted (though McBride shows enough of both to imply some justification for the stereotypes, especially as he dissects the good and bad of the British "Tommy" and the aristocratic officer class).
4) Most importantly, and alluding back to my first point, he demystifies the war, something that 100 years on we should be very intent on doing. This is not Tuchman's Guns of August, this is not poetry, nor is it film, nor is song. This is not the pop culture war, this is a memoir of someone who soldiered, and for whom soldiering was his business. No more, no less. The other books I mentioned are valuable for what they are, and my comments are not meant to disparage them, but simply to say that you need more than them to understand this conflict and the men that fought it.
From a personal perspective, it was a bit both relieving, and disappointing, to see many of the same criticisms of US forces looking back on 100-80 years ago, remain valid today. Relieving because it makes me think we're not all that different (speaking as a servicemember) and disappointing, because we truly don't have "lessons learned," merely "lessons identified."
One gets the feeling that the author sort of enjoyed the challenge. Not your ordinary WWI memoir. If you are expecting an anti-war diatribe, this ain't it.