Even the Winners are Losers: "Generals Die in Bed" by Charles Yale Harrison

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“We are being eaten alive by lice. We cannot sleep…” (p. 28), “I begin to sob” (125), “I’m dying-God-and I’m glad” (264). Does this sound like a soldier who “won” the war? Even though their side may have won, the narrator and all his friends were definitely victims of the war in Generals Die in Bed, by Charles Yale Harrison. The reader learns that the soldiers were not fighting solely, or even mainly, against the Germans. You also learn that during the war, soldiers can be turned into “insane” and “reckless” killing machines who lose their humanity, and lastly you find out that these men may fall victim to the painful memories that they have to carry with them for the rest of their life.

The soldiers in this book, and in any war, have many more things to worry about than the actual human enemy they are fighting.

“We have learned who our enemies are-the lice, some of our officers and Death”(43). The men are continually trying to fight off the lice that eat at them night and day. Fry even tries to “iron the lice out of (their) clothes” (45), using a hot iron, but when the question of, “what about the straw?...its alive”(45) is brought up, they realize that although they seemed to have won, they have indeed lost the battle to the lice. In terms of the officers and generals, the common soldiers basically have no chance. They can say all they want, like Brown who says, “I’ll kill the bastard…I’ll plug the son of a bitch between the shoulder blades” (38), when speaking of his officer Clark, but in the end the officers always end up on top. In this particular situation, all Brown gets out of it is two hours of pack-drill; (this is where the soldiers are put in full uniform and equipment and made to jog in line, in this case for two hours straight.) Finally, in terms of their fight against death, many soldiers lose this battle as well. Although the narrator keeps his life, all of his friends, Cleary, Fry, Brown, Broadbent, Anderson, and Renaud, lose the battle to death, and many of them lose this battle in a very painful way. Some people may say that they wanted to die for their country, but I disagree. The truth is, nearly all the men wish they hadn’t been there at all. One man even says, while arguing with Broadbent, “If we had any bloody brains we wouldn’t be here in the first place”(236). Aside from these three main things, the soldiers also had to fight against starvation due to lack of rations, crowded trenches, and of course, they had to fight from losing their humanity.

Losing your humanity is a factor that can victimize many soldiers. This is especially prevalent when it comes to “shock troops”, troops who are to lead the attacks and penetrate the enemy’s initial walls. With these troops it is very difficult to maintain one’s humanity because if you hesitate for a second you can be killed, so it turns into an ‘I kill you before you kill me’ attitude. Nearly all the soldiers are victimized by this, including the narrator who says that he has become “care-free and reckless” (107). One man speaks, before the final raid, when asked about using his bayonet on a German, and says, “It’d give me plenty of satisfaction, believe me” (250). Gaining pleasure out of conflicting extreme pain on another man. If that isn’t a loss of humanity, then what is? These men had been completely relegated to killing-machines when told by their Colonel before the final raid to take no prisoners. They didn’t even know why they were fighting, or what they were fighting for, but when told to go fight, that’s exactly what they did. When they found a sniper on one certain raid and he pleaded for mercy by folding his hands and kneeling before them, they did not even hesitate before, “Broadbent runs his bayonet into the kneeling one’s throat” (187). These men had been victimized by the need to kill, and yet again, although their side won the war, they had become casualties to something else.

Lastly, every soldier who was lucky enough to come out of the war alive will forever be a victim to his/her own memory. The chilling memories of the events they either saw happening, or committed themselves, are not the type of things you can easily forget. After learning that he was lied to in regards of Llandovery Castle the narrator thinks to himself, “I see the clasped hands lifted over the lip of the shell-hole as we fired into it-clasped hands silently asking for pity…” (269) and obviously this terrible memory of how they slaughtered Germans would be terribly hard to rid oneself of. He also witnesses Broadbent’s terrible death; “one of his legs hangs by a mere strip of skin and flesh to his thigh” (262). He watches as, “Fry’s legs from the knees down are torn from under him” (200). Brown is sniped down right in front of him, and the narrator looks on as, “his head snaps back viciously from the impact of the bullet” (62). Finally, the narrator himself stabs a German with his bayonet only to see that, “I have caught him between his ribs. The bones grip my blade. I cannot withdraw” (111), and later to find out he cannot even untie his bayonet because, “ the wound which I have been clumsily mauling is now a gaping hole” (114). All of these examples, along with countless other ones unmentioned, are events that would stick with you for your entire life, and once more, even though their side came out on top in terms of the war, these men fell victim to a different force.

All soldiers, regardless of winning or losing the war, become victims in one way or another. These three reasons mentioned above - they lose the battles against their real enemies, they are turned into killing machines with a lost sense of humanity, and they have to keep their memories forever, are just the beginning of the many ways that ‘even the winners are losers in war’. Whether it be a reason spoken of above, or something unmentioned, all soldiers are victims when it comes to war.